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ExxonMobil’s Dirty Secrets, from Indonesia to Nigeria to Washington: Steve Coll on “Private Empire”

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We continue our conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll, author of the exhaustive book, “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.” He examines the controversial role ExxonMobil has played in Afghanistan and Indonesia, where it operated lucrative gas fields amidst a bloody war for independence. Coll also discusses the corporate giant’s involvement in the controversial natural gas drilling process known as “fracking” and the role its lobbyists could play in the upcoming U.S. election. Click here to see part one of this interview. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 04, 2012“Private Empire”: Author Steve Coll on the State-Like Powers, Influence of Oil Giant ExxonMobil
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to part two of my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll. His most exhaustive book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, pulls back the curtain on one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the country. He calls it a corporate state within the American state. Earlier today, Fortune magazine announced ExxonMobil had topped its Fortune 500 list for 2012, beating out Wal-Mart.

Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously, he was managing editor of the Washington Post and has also been a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor at the Post. He was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize for his book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the C.I.A., Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, also author of the book The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.

We spoke to Steve Coll, Juan González and I, on Friday. You can see part one of our interview at our website, Here, we began by asking him about the controversial role ExxonMobil has played in Indonesia, as it operated lucrative gas fields amidst a bloody war for independence.

STEVE COLL: During this contest, the big prize, the source of the greatest wealth in the Acehnese economy was this large gas field and related manufacturing facilities, first owned by Mobil and then Exxon acquired it when they merged with Mobil in 2000. Now, under this set of arrangements, the Indonesian forces that were spread out around the perimeter of this gas field were paid for—their salaries were paid by ExxonMobil. And what the emails from the lawsuit show is that there was quite a lot of interaction from day to day of ExxonMobil’s security officers on the ground and the commanders of these forces. And I was able to interview, you know, different individuals involved in that, and there was a much closer relationship between ExxonMobil and the forces than the corporation had previously described. I think the documents make that clear.

The other thing that happened was that the guerrilla forces started to conclude, for the reasons that you described earlier—the use of these excavation—these bulldozers to dig graves, the persistence of torture and detention right on the perimeter of the gas fields that ExxonMobil owned, the fact that the Indonesians set up these detention centers right on the fence, and I was able to look at them when I traveled there and talked to victims—the guerrillas basically concluded that ExxonMobil was on the other side of the war, so they started attacking the corporation’s facilities. That brought the Bush administration into the picture. And these State Department cables that came out through this Freedom of Information Act request for the book show that the Bush administration basically went to the guerrillas in 2001 and said, “You know, we have terrorism lists that apply to people like you. And we would urge you to stop targeting ExxonMobil; otherwise, you’re going to go on our list as a global terrorist organization.” And there’s—the chapter that describes all this is drawn from a quotation from a contemporaneous State Department cable in which a Bush administration diplomat says to the guerrilla leaders, “Do you really want us as an enemy?” And ultimately, the guerrillas said, “OK, we’ll stop shooting at ExxonMobil and carry on our war by other means.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve Coll, you also have a chapter in your book, “Can’t the CIA and the Navy Solve This Problem?” And it’s referring to ExxonMobil’s involvement in Nigeria. Now, we’ve often reported here on Democracy Now! on Chevron in Nigeria, but what about ExxonMobil?

STEVE COLL: Well, they’re there. They’re in a somewhat more favorable position from a company’s point of view than Chevron and Shell, because their oil is offshore in deep water, and the facilities they have in the Delta are less intrusive and less spread out than those of Chevron and Shell. But I went down to visit them in Akwa Ibom state and talked to local community leaders and political leaders in the Delta, and they have as much of a struggle winning, you know, support from ExxonMobil for their development goals as is the case in Rivers state and Delta state nearby.

But what actually happened in 2008 was that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which is this somewhat shadowy guerrilla group that has attacked oil companies there, started to target ExxonMobil. They acquired speedboats and were going out to these offshore platforms and attacking the company’s facilities. And the corporation, having been chastened by the experience in Indonesia in Aceh, and not wanting another lawsuit, had finally, very late, signed up for corporate responsibility practices in which they promised not to shoot at people, you know, except in the most extreme circumstances. And so, they were implementing this new regime, but they weren’t quite sure how to handle the fact that they were being attacked again and again. So, essentially, they contacted the Bush administration again in 2008 and said — that’s where the quote comes from— “Can’t the CIA and the Navy solve this problem?” The United States had already created a new military command based in Germany for Africa, and there were efforts to try to see if the U.S. military could address this problem for them.

AMY GOODMAN: In late February, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether corporations can be sued in U.S. courts for human rights abuses—

STEVE COLL: Sorry, I appear to have lost the connection.

AMY GOODMAN: —committed overseas. That case is called Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell. Democracy Now! spoke to Marco Simons, legal director of EarthRights International, who explained its significance.

MARCO SIMONS: So this case is really about whether a corporation that participates in serious human rights abuses, such as crimes against humanity or genocide or state-sponsored torture, can profit from those abuses and shield those profits from the victims when the victims come to take them to court. It’s essentially about whether corporations are immune from any kind of liability for serious human rights abuses worldwide. And that’s what the Court of Appeals held in this case. They said under no circumstances can a corporation ever be sued for the most serious human rights violations today.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Marco Simons, legal director of EarthRights International. Steve Coll, this issue of corporations being sued for human rights abuses?

STEVE COLL: Well, some human rights lawyers in the Aceh case have been remarkably persistent and skillful in keeping their clients in the game. I mean, it’s almost like a Dickens novel. The suit was filed in 2000. It’s still going on and hasn’t come close to reaching trial, because ExxonMobil has appealed and appealed. And while at some stages they’ve won, the lawyers for the victims in Aceh have stayed with it and have kept it going. It’s back—it’s back in play. Now, in the 12 years since it was filed, a couple of the plaintiffs, the victims, have died of old age, and it’s not clear whether this case will go to trial. But what is impressive is the extent to which different judges, from—you know, appointed by different presidents, from different orientations, have refused to basically accept the idea that no one should be held accountable. And they have kept this question that your previous speaker illuminated—they’ve kept it alive in the courts, so there’s still some hope that there will be accountability.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve Coll, what about ExxonMobil’s involvement in Chad?

STEVE COLL: So this is a fascinating story. Chad, of course, is a benighted country—today about 181st out of 187 countries in the human development index kept by the United Nations indicating quality of life. Life expectancy there is still below 50 years. But it has oil. And its authoritarian leader, to put it politely, Idriss Déby, decided to try to develop this oil, even though Chad was landlocked and didn’t have any national capacity to build an oil company, so they invited in Exxon and the World Bank. And they undertook this experiment, really without precedent, to require Chad to use its oil profits for the good of its people, spending on education, health and social development. And Exxon was a participant in this and described it as potentially a new model to address the resource curse in Africa, where countries that are rich in minerals but try to develop through the sale of those minerals often fail to serve their people very well. So this was a kind of a grand experiment. And it failed.

It failed in 2006 when Déby decided that he needed more guns to fend off rebels who were challenging his regime. And what the book describes, again through State Department documents and others that came out during the research, was that the reason Déby was able to get out of this deal that he had made, promises that he had made to use oil money to service people, was that oil prices rose, and ExxonMobil came to him and said, “We’re about to pay you more than $500 million a year in taxes, because we’re now in the money. And you can use that money to get out of your World Bank agreements and free yourself from these onerous requirements that you spend your money on health and education.” And that’s what happened. And in fact, in this case, ExxonMobil fought with the Bush administration, which wanted this deal to remain in place, and ExxonMobil basically, without calling any attention to itself, provided the means for Déby to abandon the agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Afghanistan, and you have been covering this even beyond this remarkable tome you have written, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, with your previous books. But earlier this week in Afghanistan, several large explosions rocked Kabul hours after President Obama’s surprise visit on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden. The suicide attacks were claimed by the Taliban and resulted in at least seven deaths, numerous wounded. During his brief visit, President Obama delivered a prime-time address to the American people from Bagram Air Base. Obama signed an agreement with President Karzai on future Afghan-U.S. relations in Kabul ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago later this month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good evening from Bagram Air Base. This outpost is more than 7,000 miles from home, but for over a decade it’s been close to our hearts, because here in Afghanistan more than half a million of our sons and daughters have sacrificed to protect our country. Today I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries, a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states, a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama. Steve Coll, the significance of oil and the Afghan war, and also the significance of this time in Afghanistan, still the longest war in U.S. history?

STEVE COLL: Well, it’s a very fragile time, and that speech was obviously directed at American audiences as much as anybody else and part of the sort of exploitation of the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden killing by politicians looking, you know, to be re-elected. I think the problem with the war is that there’s this increasing divergence between public speeches like that one, conferences, international conferences, declarations that the war is going well and that we’re going to get there, and the facts on the ground. This has been a tough couple of years in Afghanistan. And the trend lines in local districts and provinces, when I travel, I find to be unfavorable. I think the basic assumptions of the policy in Afghanistan, that the Afghan armed forces can hold together, that there can be a stable political transition in Kabul after President Karzai’s term ends in 2014, that the international community can reduce its presence without causing another round of civil war, all of these assumptions look quite shaky to me on the ground, I’m afraid. And so, I find it very discouraging when public officials, you know, talk at one level of 40,000-foot confidence and, you know, sort of a series of abstract statements, when in our system, whatever our weaknesses, you’d think we’d stop lying to ourselves about the facts and bring—and at least grapple with even unpleasant facts. And what worries me most about this war right now is the gap between what the truth on the ground looks like and what our decision makers say in public.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve Coll, to get back to ExxonMobil, the—as you say, this is one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the history of the United States. Yet, compared to several of the other corporations—a Wal-Mart, an Apple, a Microsoft—they get very little attention or very little coverage in the press, generally, other than the business pages. Why is that?

STEVE COLL: Well, it’s because that’s their policy, and they’re very good at carrying it out. I mean, their public affairs policy, even they joke, is to say, “No comment,” in 50 different languages. It’s their business strategy to keep a low profile. And when you think about the kinds of partnerships that they’re engaged in on the ground overseas in places like Chad or Ecuatorial Guinea or in Aceh, you can understand why they’d like to keep a low profile. It’s in their interests, is the way they would put it.

I found them, as a journalist—you know, I’ve been reporting on governments and corporations for a long time now, and I’m used to public affairs strategies and to hard targets and to corporations or subjects that don’t want you to write about them. I would say that ExxonMobil was about the hardest target I have ever taken on, not only because of their resistance to journalism or scrutiny by public groups, but also they’re just very disciplined. And they’re very well funded. And so, when they start going in a direction, such as the media strategy they have, they have the resources to really push. And so, anyway, it’s—it doesn’t—it’s an invisible company because it wants to be invisible.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Coll, talk about the “God pod” at the corporate headquarters in Irving, Texas. And also, you spend a great deal of time looking at Lee Raymond, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, a close relationship with Dick Cheney, and what all this means, what you were most surprised by in writing Private Empire?

STEVE COLL: Yeah, so I think the thing that surprised me most—I mean, the God pod is a reference to their corporate headquarters, which is just on a kind of bland campus outside the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, and it’s the worldwide headquarters of ExxonMobil. It’s a relatively small group that works there, but a very elite group. And it has the kind of sort of slightly empty and eerie feel inside. The halls echo, and it’s a very formal place. It almost feels like a Hollywood version of what the corporate headquarters of a worldwide corporation like ExxonMobil would be like.

But I think, to answer your question about what was surprising, you know, I sort of assumed that the relationship between ExxonMobil and the United States government would be more complicated than I thought or that it wouldn’t be easy to just sort of describe it in one sentence, but what surprised me was the extent to which ExxonMobil really sees itself, proudly, as an independent sovereign, as its own government, in effect, and that it has its own foreign policies, its own economic policies. And I came to sort of think of them as sort of like France, in the sense that they were aligned with the United States sometimes, they were opposed other times, but mostly they were just trying to run their own global system without necessarily worrying too much about what the government in Washington wanted.

But the exception to that was the very personal relationship between Lee Raymond, the chairman of ExxonMobil, and Dick Cheney, the vice president. They were friends and neighbors in Dallas before Cheney went to Washington. When Cheney ran Halliburton and Raymond ran ExxonMobil, they were business partners. But more important, they were hunting friends, and they came from a similar background in the Midwest, and they sort of saw the world—they had the same kind of outlook on the world. And so, when Cheney was in Washington, Raymond had his own channel to the U.S. government that was very efficient. He found lobbying at the State Department or going through the bureaucracy very frustrating, and he tried to stay away. And he could afford to stay away, because he had a one-call relationship with the Vice President, where they could exchange views about what was happening in the world. And on occasion, he asked Cheney to intervene to support ExxonMobil’s, you know, oil deal making in the Middle East.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And talk to us about ExxonMobil’s bet or involvement in fracking.

STEVE COLL: Right. So it’s a big—it’s a big issue for them. In 2010, they bought the largest natural gas company engaged in fracking in the United States, a company called XTO. They spent $40 billion to buy them. And in doing so, they’ve made a very important turn toward the development of natural gas in the United States, and particularly gas that has to be extracted through these unconventional techniques, referred to as “fracking,” basically fracturing rocks in order to free up relatively small pockets of gas and bring them out of the ground.

What’s interesting about this—I mean, obviously, you know, there’s a lot of attention to fracking across the industry. ExxonMobil, A, is now the biggest player in the industry, B, is very focused on trying to control the regulatory regime that’s now emerging. And there’s a lot of dispute and argument about whether the regulations should be overseen by the federal government, the EPA, which is probably the toughest regulator we have, or whether it should be distributed around states and local communities, where power is more diffuse and there’s less expertise. So ExxonMobil is lobbying very busily to try to shape this regime.

But, you know, in the long run, they have this self-limiting habit of undermining their own kind of radicalism about government regulation sometimes. I think climate was an example where they took such an extreme tact, they did a lot of damage, but they also ended up exposing themselves. And this is the sort of next generation challenge to them. Can they get out of their own way as they try to shape this fracking regime, or are they going to end up becoming the sort of, you know, poster child of popular doubts about fracking?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Steve Coll, as we wrap up, we want to go back to where we started. You had excerpted a piece in The New Yorker from Private Empire about GOP politics and ExxonMobil. If you can talk once again about the significance of Exxon’s role now in this election year and the power that it has in Washington, D.C.

STEVE COLL: Well, we talked about their Washington office, which is one of the most influential corporate lobbying offices in town over on K Street, and about how their political action committee contributions are so heavily directed to one side of the aisle, to the Republican Party. And as your—as some of the reporting you’ve put on the air as we’ve talked showed, this is another election, as 2008 one was, where the power of oil companies, and ExxonMobil in particularly, is actually an explicit subject of the campaign. It’s pretty unusual to have the president of the United States calling out a corporation by name and calling out its profits and questioning, in effect, the legitimacy of those profits. Now, that shows that this contest is really serious, and I think ExxonMobil has the same attitude. The President and the Democratic Party, for their part, are well aware that ExxonMobil is really quite unusual among corporations in the way that it has allowed its political action committee spending to be identified solely with the Republican Party. So that also emboldens them to—you know, to go out and really speak directly about these issues.

So I think the good part of it is that we may get, during this campaign, a more direct argument about the power of Big Oil in the United States and what it means to ordinary families, commuters and, you know, working families that really don’t have any choice but to go to the pump and fill up their trucks or their cars as they go to work. They can’t control the price, and they end up, in effect, getting taxed in a very indirect way without the government ever passing a bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Steve Coll. His most recent book is called Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power , pulling back the curtain on one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the United States, ExxonMobil. If you’d like to see part one of our conversation, go to our website at When we come back, the mass student strike, the largest in Quebec’s history in Canada, has been suspended. We’ll go to one of the leading student organizers. Stay with us.

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