Mainstream Media Ignores Blockbuster Expose of Massive Bribery in Iraq by Unaoil

The only rationale that made sense for why the US launched the Iraq War was fun and profit, specifically, to develop Iraq’s oil reserves, the second biggest in the world. Under Saddam Hussein, development and even maintenance had languished. The oil for food program, which was meant to assure that oil revenues were spent on food, pharmaceutical, and other essentials for the population, was rife with bribery. If you look at the Wikipedia entry, you’ll be impressed by how many were on the take, including even some reporters who received oil “coupons” that entitled holders to receive at least nine million barrels of oil.

As Talleyrand said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Even though George Bush declared that Iraq’s oil belonged to the Iraqi people (which meant the West would still “help” and take its cut), a blockbuster report from a joint investigation by Fairfax Media and Huffington Post reveals the depth and reach of a massive looting scheme, with an obscure Monaco family oil company, Unaoil, as the fixer in chief. The story implicates a large number of multinational companies as well as two Iraqi oil ministers. At least one of the concerns called out in the story, Rolls Royce, is already under investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office..

The overview and first story from this three part series have been releases. From the overview:

A massive leak of confidential documents has for the first time exposed the true extent of corruption within the oil industry, implicating dozens of leading companies, bureaucrats and politicians in a sophisticated global web of bribery and graft.

After a six-month investigation across two continents, Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post can reveal that billions of dollars of government contracts were awarded as the direct result of bribes paid on behalf of firms including British icon Rolls-Royce, US giant Halliburton, Australia’s Leighton Holdings and Korean heavyweights Samsung and Hyundai….

Western firms involved in Unaoil’s Middle East operation include some of the world’s wealthiest and most respected companies: Rolls-Royce and Petrofac from Britain; US companies FMC Technologies, Cameron and Weatherford; Italian giants Eni and Saipem; German companies MAN Turbo (now know as MAN Diesal & Turbo) and Siemens; Dutch firm SBM Offshore; and Indian giant Larsen & Toubro. They also show the offshore arm of Australian company Leighton Holdings was involved in serious, calculated corruption.

Under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, this sort of thing is criminal. Moreover, even though the massive amounts of money involved and the fact that this took place all under the US’ nose make this all the more salacious, the FCPA is designed to bar even small bribes; the test is intent, not amount.

Normally, when a a story of this magnitude breaks, it’s picked up by other major outlets, with a headline credit back to the originating venue. They recap the main points and attempt to do some value added of their own by discussing who might be most discomfited by the report and why, or presenting reactions from experts.

I was sure this would be the lead story in the Financial Times. But not only was it not the lead story, it was nowhere to be found on the Web page. The separately-edited FT Alphaville blog did feature it at the top of its “Further Reading” feature. Indeed, Google News shows that no major news organization has seen fit to pick this up and it’s been relegated to the blogosphere netherworld (note that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are both Fairfax publications):

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So what accounts for the media blackout? Will no Serious Publication touch a ginormous scandal involving not just a long list of major oil firms and international firms in linked businesses, but officials in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Kuwait, just for starters? The account is based on a trove of documents, primarily e-mails, that the reporters worked through to decode the references meant to hide what was really going on. For instance, a “holiday” of a day was a $1 million payment, although some of the smaller bribes are described in surprising detail. Do the other media outlets suspect that Fairfax and HuffPo had to pay to get the documents, and that makes them suspect? Fairfax reporter Nick McKenzie explains in detail how source contacted him and why:

My colleague Richard Baker and I had written a few lines about Unaoil in 2013 as part of a painstakingly researched story that revealed how a leading Australian company had allegedly paid huge bribes to officials to win government contracts in the Middle East.

In that story, we alleged Unaoil had been used by the Australian firm as a middle man and was somehow connected to powerful officials and politicians in charge of large, tax-payer funded oil field projects.

Upon publication, this allegation was immediately dismissed, denied and denigrated as a work of fiction by Unaoil. In 2014, Unaoil’s patriarch, the urbane Iranian-born multi-millionaire Ata Ahsani, even swore on oath in the UK High Court that it was sheer nonsense to suggest Unaoil was some sort of a bribe-paying fixer for multinationals.

My mystery letter-writer, though, said they had been impressed by our 2013 story. They also hinted that we had not dug nearly deep enough.

I also wonder if the two news organizations are using the best strategy in the release of this information. As readers of Richard Smith’s posts know, describing how fraud schemes and networks operate is daunting because the mechanics are inherently complex. Three large stories doesn’t seem like the best way to have gone. It might have been more effective to cut the stories into smaller bits, both to make them more digestible but also to keep the scandal in the public eye longer.

But regardless, this is an extremely important story and I hope the mainstream media blackout ends soon. Otherwise, it smells of high-level orchestration to make the bad news go away.

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  1. 1 Kings

    Wait, GAMBLING is going on in here?..says the 120 yr old Claude Reins. Still the greatest line in movie history and applies to each and every story Yves posts on this great website.

    Of course, what’s a billion here, there and everywhere between friends..

  2. James Levy

    Knowing who the players are and how to approach the fixers is probably the greatest advantage that the insider rich have over everyone else. When we talked about how the system is rigged, concrete examples like this really put meat on the bones of those claims. It is said that Lyndon Johnson so impressed FDR the first time they met that he paid Johnson the great compliment of introducing him to Roosevelt’s fixer, Tommy Corcoran. You couldn’t do a young Congressman a bigger favor. And that’s how the game operates. So all this crap about why those at the top need to be hugely compensated for their abundant wonderfulness often comes down to, will the fixers take their calls?

    1. Robert

      It’s got the hallmarks of a strong story that will run and run once law enforcement agencies get further into it in numerous countries. In the meantime, it is hard for MSM to pick up the first round of such serious allegations without their having direct access to all the leaked emails. They’d have no evidence themselves to fall back on if sued in certain jurisdictions for merely reporting the allegations. HuffPo and Fairfax Media should release all the documents online a la wikileaks.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        I beg to differ, and remember, for the last ten years, my job has consisted of extensive reading of a broad range of media.

        It is routine and widespread for MSM outlets to report that another MSM outlet has broken an important story with original reporting. They credit it in the headline and make very clear that what they are saying comes from another media organ. They then may be able to add some initial value by getting a few expert reactions.

  3. Larry

    I thought the story was well presented and included a short video focused on just Iraqi oil corruption. The video is the kind of content designed to go viral or be easily shared.

    And while the mainstream response is slow, this story cannot be ignored for long.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I beg to differ. I can’t think of a single case of a story of this importance getting no MSM attention whatsoever in the first 24 hours. Look how the media froze Sanders out. The only reason he broke out is his followers built support on social media and Sanders kept winning elections, which you can’t not report.

      After these three stories, it’s pretty much over unless a government or legislative committee decides to investigate. That could very well happen, but this type of MSM uniform silence is so unusual it suggests a lot of very powerful people want a cone of silence around this set of revelations. Look at how many whistleblowers who were higher-level intelligence community insiders made charges similar to the ones that Snowden made and they got no media traction.

      Or put it another way: you are operating from a dated set of assumptions about how the media works. We look more and more like late-stage USSR: all propaganda, all the time, and this story does not fit the official narrative. Even if some media outlets do start to take it up, given the initial response, it does not look as if they will give it prominent play. Expect minimization via kludgey headlines and secondary-story placement.

      1. visitor

        I quickly checked a few major European mainstream on-line information sources (Le Monde, FAZ, NZZ, Corriere della sera, El País).


        Every search with the keyword “unaoil” on their site returns 0 results. An indirect approach, via a search engine, is also unsuccessful.

        The only exception is the NZZ, which has one reference to Unaoil: an announcement dating back to 2014 of a joint-venture with Sulzer (a large Swiss engineering company) regarding the oil industry in Iraq.

        There indeed seems to be a complete blackout on the topic.

        1. LeitrimNYC

          Google News is showing a bit more traction, most of the hits are from Huffington Post, but the story is on Salon and the UK’s Daily Mail now. Not great but hopefully its starting to spread.

          1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

            Dog bites man and everyone is surprised, it’s a clear as day now that the entire MSM is one big corporo-thought control sellout, even the plebes are starting to figure that out but they’ve got a long way to go yet.

            1. Skippy


              You can easily search for a graph showing the consolidation of media over a few decades, akin to island gigantism, strangely enough in human medical cases its started by a tumor….

            2. readerOfTeaLeaves

              Let’s see: terrorism is a scourge. And growing.
              Political instability creates the conditions for terrorism.
              Corruption creates the conditions for political instability.

              This story is not going away.
              It’s like the blood seeping under the carpet and staining outside the doorway in a horror movie: slow, silent at first, but after a while not possible to ignore.

      2. Harry

        Yes we do Yves! Astute observation.

        I see you have been watching Curtis!

        So we will just have to wait for revolution or economic collapse.

      3. WFGersen

        “it’s pretty much over unless a government or legislative committee decides to investigate”…
        Given the way the “government or legislative committees” are investigating Exxon’s ignoring research on global climate change I would say “it’s pretty much over”….

      4. susan the other

        Very timely. Exposed in the middle of a national food fight called an election. And so ignored. Must wonder if these big oil players are being given the permission by US/IRAQ/UK/others to spend their bribes to stockpile oil in tankers. Maybe to insure at least a drizzling supply of oil if all-out war shuts Iraq off completely. If we really are engaged in “shutting down oil and coal” as Hillary so indiscreetly told us in her Ohio town hall, then letting cronies buy a supply makes some sense. But less sense when you think also that the world depression is shutting down oil quite efficiently by itself, and that oil might never be sold on the black market for a profit. Details would be nice. Just last week Carter told us that Defense had already sent in the Marines to guard Iraqi oil fields. From international oil companies? Ha.

      5. Teejay

        “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell 1984

  4. SteveB

    They’re not bribes…. They are political contributions.

    A rose is a rose…. People are numb to it.

  5. Nick

    I think it’s important to remember that the MSM is, first and foremost, a money making machine. Anything that detracts from coverage of the US election (read: The Donald aka The Rainmaker) right now is probably off limits. This story – which, you’re right, Yves, is a lot to digest and takes a bit of concentration to get through – would take way too much time away from Trump coverage, and if they give readers even a little taste, they risk having readers actually ask for more. What I do find surprising is that even HuffPost didn’t have it as a cover story for all that long – they can otherwise be among the biggest offenders of overuse of caps locked and beating a dead horse in terms of keeping a cover story up way past its expiration date. If they spent six months preparing this story, surely it’s worth quite a bit of extra time on the front page. Of course, HuffPost is also a listed company, so even they can’t spend too much time on non-Don coverage nowadays.

  6. afisher

    When I read the first article about this yesterday AM, it was confusing. Was it me or was it too early. Then I found a link that actually provides better detail.

    It has been on the front page of Reddit and several sub-reddits, but very few have commented. Is it just too complex or long for people to read / comprehend. That is worse , when the reading public refuse to take the time to read a complex article. Giving into the oligarchs. sigh.

  7. Foppe

    Nothing on major Dutch news(paper) websites yet either, even though SBM Offshore has recently been in the news for settling a Brazilian bribery case (so I would assume reporters to be on at least slightly higher alert wrt mentions in the int’l press). Surprising, to be sure.

  8. gonzomarx

    I’ve been spreading it on twitter and recommend others do so. Worth a shot using social media that might embarrass an MSM outlet or reporter into covering it.

  9. Chauncey Gardiner

    Quite a story!… Thank you for posting this. Together with your remarkable analytics, this article exemplifies why I come here.

    Whether the corporate MSM continues to spike or obfuscate this matter, as well as investigate potential political and corporate connections, is reflective of longstanding, deeper issues.

    I hope the Justice Department pursues warranted legal action under the FCPA and other relevant laws. MSM coverage should not be a material consideration in that decision.

  10. JohnnyGL

    Democracy Now just has a quick blurb on it. Interestingly, the FBI and DOJ are jumping on it. That might suggest they want to get a grip on this, and fast. What’s that old saying about getting in front of a mob and calling a parade?

    If Sanders were to pull off an upset and win the presidency, this would be as good as gold for him. Could be an opportunity to bring the oil industry under control. Perhaps DOJ and FBI are going to rush to settle this for a nominal fine as quickly as they can to get this out of the headlines?

  11. Robert Coutinho

    Well, the MSM may not have picked it up–but they almost certainly will soon! It is on soooo many blogs already, and seems to be spreading like a wild fire on a parched prairie.

    1. JohnnyGL

      If corp media holds out much longer….their lack of coverage starts to become a story in and of itself.

      1. Epic

        17th April and still nothing. I think by now we can safely assume they buried this, which is all the more reason to keep digging it back up.

        I’m starting to think Xboxes, Playstations and porn were invented for days like this. I have a brother in law who refuses to lift his head from his xbox these days. Mention Panama or Unaoil to him and all I can get out of him is “whaa?” and then “oh……right”.

        People like him will get the world he deserves. They already did, but it gets worse from here with this level of ignorance going on.

  12. JohnnyGL

    McKenzie and the source communicated back and forth for several months and finally met in Europe. The award-winning journalist described being introduced later to additional sources and eventually receiving large chunks of information, including tens of thousands of Unaoil emails.

    “The sources of this story never asked for money,” McKenzie wrote. “What they wanted was for some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in governments and companies across the globe to be exposed for acting corruptly, and with impunity, for years.”

    It seems like the oil industry now has its own Ed Snowden!

  13. Jerry Denim

    “The oil for food program, which was meant to assure that oil revenues were spent on food, pharmaceutical, and other essentials for the population, was rife with bribery. ”

    if you go back and review the UN vote to invade Iraq the yea’s and nay’s divided cleanly between those who were on the take from the oil for food program and those who were not. The UN vote on the Iraq invasion wasn’t a referendum on an invasion but really a referendum on maintaining the ‘cash for diplomats’ program created by the “oil for food” graft.

  14. Tim

    Have to say I’m not surprised this story has had little follow. It’s a great story, but it is highly defamatory and relies on documents that are not available to anyone else who wants to take it up. Maybe that doesn’t matter in the US, but in many other parts of the world anyone simply repeating these allegations without the underlying evidence is wide open to a costly lawsuit. Personally I’d have high confidence that Fairfax has its facts right, but if I’m wrong about that I’m toast.

    1. Lambert Strether

      That doesn’t apply to Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times (or McClatchy). Or Yahoo News.

      The contrast between the WSJ’s coverage of the (admittedly huge) 1MDB scandal, and the Unaoil scandal, is instructive. I checked Google news on the story this evening, and still nothing. If we get a few weekend damp squibs, then nothing, the behavior pattern will make it quite evident that the fix is in.

  15. lb

    I reloaded searches via google, bing and yahoo news to see the progress (or lack thereof) on Unaoil today. A partial blackout is a really weird thing to watch. Australian articles appeared and a couple from NZ.

    Here’s what’s weirdest: AP and Reuters both ran articles — AP’s with a Paris byline, then picked up by American affiliates (which somehow don’t show up in searches readily, e.g., and Reuters’ coming out of Sydney. The substance of the Sydney piece? That the UK authorities had asked Monaco to raid Unaoil. How is this not UK news!?

    Finally, I see the Reuters piece was picked up by the NYT at 1:18AM:

    Perhaps we’ll wake up to the mainstream folks outside Australia having come around. Still, weird patterning…

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