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):
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.