This article was co-written with Ryan Gallagher.
Across the world, people who work as system administrators keep computer networks in order – and this has turned them into unwitting targets of the National Security Agency for simply doing their jobs. According to a secret document provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the agency tracks down the private email and Facebook accounts of system administrators (or sys admins, as they are often called), before hacking their computers to gain access to the networks they control.
The document consists of several posts – one of them is titled “I hunt sys admins” – that were published in 2012 on an internal discussion board hosted on the agency’s classified servers. They were written by an NSA official involved in the agency’s effort to break into foreign network routers, the devices that connect computer networks and transport data across the Internet. By infiltrating the computers of system administrators who work for foreign phone and Internet companies, the NSA can gain access to the calls and emails that flow over their networks.
The classified posts reveal how the NSA official aspired to create a database that would function as an international hit list of sys admins to potentially target. Yet the document makes clear that the admins are not suspected of any criminal activity – they are targeted only because they control access to networks the agency wants to infiltrate. “Who better to target than the person that already has the ‘keys to the kingdom’?” one of the posts says.
The NSA wants more than just passwords. The document includes a list of other data that can be harvested from computers belonging to sys admins, including network maps, customer lists, business correspondence and, the author jokes, “pictures of cats in funny poses with amusing captions.” The posts, boastful and casual in tone, contain hacker jargon (pwn, skillz, zomg, internetz) and are punctuated with expressions of mischief. “Current mood: devious,” reads one, while another signs off, “Current mood: scheming.”
The author of the posts, whose name is being withheld by The Intercept, is a network specialist in the agency’s Signals Intelligence Directorate, according to other NSA documents. The same author wrote secret presentations related to the NSA’s controversial program to identify users of the Tor browser – a privacy-enhancing tool that allows people to browse the Internet anonymously. The network specialist, who served as a private contractor prior to joining the NSA, shows little respect for hackers who do not work for the government. One post expresses disdain for the quality of presentations at Blackhat and Defcon, the computer world’s premier security and hacker conferences:
When I first went to Blackhat/Defcon, it was with the wide-eyed anticipation of, ‘I’m going to go listen to all of the talks that I can, soak up all of the information possible, and become a supar-1337-haxxor.’ What a let-down of an experience that was. You find the most interesting topics and briefings, wait in lines to get a seat, and find yourself straining your ears to listen to someone that has basically nothing new to say. Most of the talks get hyped up exponentially past any amount of substance they actually provide, most of the ‘interactive sessions’ end up in a ‘oh! woe is the state of the security industry!’ chant, and leave the audience no better off than before.
It is unclear how precise the NSA’s hacking attacks are or how the agency ensures that it excludes Americans from the intrusions. The author explains in one post that the NSA scours the Internet to find people it deems “probable” administrators, suggesting a lack of certainty in the process and implying that the wrong person could be targeted. It is illegal for the NSA to deliberately target Americans for surveillance without explicit prior authorization. But the employee’s posts make no mention of any measures that might be taken to prevent hacking the computers of Americans who work as sys admins for foreign networks. Without such measures, Americans who work on such networks could potentially fall victim to an NSA infiltration attempt.
The NSA declined to answer questions about its efforts to hack system administrators or explain how it ensures Americans are not mistakenly targeted. Agency spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in an email statement: “A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. Attorney General-approved procedures to protect privacy rights.”
As The Intercept revealed last week, clandestine hacking has become central to the NSA’s mission in the past decade. The agency is working to aggressively scale its ability to break into computers to perform what it calls “computer network exploitation,” or CNE: the collection of intelligence from covertly infiltrated computer systems. Hacking into the computers of sys admins is particularly controversial because unlike conventional targets – people who are regarded as threats – sys admins are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
In a post calling sys admins “a means to an end,” the NSA employee writes, “Up front, sys admins generally are not my end target. My end target is the extremist/terrorist or government official that happens to be using the network some admin takes care of.”
The first step, according to the posts, is to collect IP addresses that are believed to be linked to a network’s sys admin. An IP address is a series of numbers allocated to every computer that connects to the Internet. Using this identifier, the NSA can then run an IP address through the vast amount of signals intelligence data, or SIGINT, that it collects every day, trying to match the IP address to personal accounts.
“What we’d really like is a personal webmail or Facebook account to target,” one of the posts explains, presumably because, whereas IP addresses can be shared by multiple people, “alternative selectors” like a webmail or Facebook account can be linked to a particular target. You can “dumpster-dive for alternate selectors in the big SIGINT trash can” the author suggests. Or “pull out your wicked Google-fu” (slang for efficient Googling) to search for any “official and non-official e-mails” that the targets may have posted online.
Once the agency believes it has identified a sys admin’s personal accounts, according to the posts, it can target them with its so-called QUANTUM hacking techniques. The Snowden files reveal that the QUANTUM methods have been used to secretly inject surveillance malware into a Facebook page by sending malicious NSA data packets that appear to originate from a genuine Facebook server. This method tricks a target’s computer into accepting the malicious packets, allowing the NSA to infect the targeted computer with a malware “implant” and gain unfettered access to the data stored on its hard drive.
“Just pull those selectors, queue them up for QUANTUM, and proceed with the pwnage,” the author of the posts writes. (“Pwnage,” short for “pure ownage,” is gamer-speak for defeating opponents.) The author adds, triumphantly, “Yay! /throws confetti in the air.”
In one case, these tactics were used by the NSA’s British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, to infiltrate the Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom. As Der Speigel revealed last year, Belgacom’s network engineers were targeted by GCHQ in a QUANTUM mission named “Operation Socialist” – with the British agency hacking into the company’s systems in an effort to monitor smartphones.
While targeting innocent sys admins may be surprising on its own, the “hunt sys admins” document reveals how the NSA network specialist secretly discussed building a “master list” of sys admins across the world, which would enable an attack to be initiated on one of them the moment their network was thought to be used by a person of interest. One post outlines how this process would make it easier for the NSA’s specialist hacking unit, Tailored Access Operations (TAO), to infiltrate networks and begin collecting, or “tasking,” data:
So, by combining all of that information, you end up with a list of public IP addresses that probably belong to sys admins as well as personal accounts that probably belong to those admins. All you have to do is put all this info in a database somewhere, and what you end up with is a list of networks as well as personal accounts of probable admins for those networks! Then, as soon as one of those networks becomes a target, all TAO has to do is query the database, see if we have any admins pre-identified for that network, and if we do, automatically queue up tasking and go-go- CNE!
Aside from offering up thoughts on covert hacking tactics, the author of these posts also provides a glimpse into internal employee complaints at the NSA. The posts describe how the agency’s spies gripe about having “dismal infrastructure” and a “Big Data Problem” because of the massive volume of information being collected by NSA surveillance systems. For the author, however, the vast data troves are actually something to be enthusiastic about.
“Our ability to pull bits out of random places of the Internet, bring them back to the mother-base to evaluate and build intelligence off of is just plain awesome!” the author writes. “One of the coolest things about it is how much data we have at our fingertips.”
Micah Lee contributed to this report.
What if the National Security Agency had its own advice columnist? What would the eavesdroppers ask about?
You don’t need to guess. An NSA official, writing under the pen name “Zelda,” has actually served at the agency as a Dear Abby for spies. Her “Ask Zelda!” columns, distributed on the agency’s intranet and accessible only to those with the proper security clearance, are among the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The columns are often amusing – topics include co-workers falling asleep on the job, sodas being stolen from shared fridges, supervisors not responding to emails, and office-mates who smell bad. But one of the most intriguing involves a letter from an NSA staffer who complains that his (or her) boss is spying on employees.
In the letter, which Zelda published in a column on September 9, 2011, the employee calls himself “Silenced in SID” – referring to the Signals Intelligence Directorate, the heart of the NSA’s surveillance operations. Zelda’s column, headlined “Watching Every Word in Snitch City,” offers an ironic insight into a spy agency where the spies apparently resent being spied upon.
“Dear Zelda,” the letter of complaint begins:
Here’s the scenario: when the boss sees co-workers having a quiet conversation, he wants to know what is being said (it’s mostly work related). He has his designated “snitches” and expects them to keep him apprised of all the office gossip – even calling them at home and expecting a run-down! This puts the “designees” in a really awkward position; plus, we’re all afraid any offhand comment or anything said in confidence might be either repeated or misrepresented.
Needless to say, this creates a certain amount of tension between team members who normally would get along well, and adds stress in an already stressful atmosphere. There is also an unspoken belief that he will move people to different desks to break up what he perceives as people becoming too “chummy.” (It’s been done under the guise of “creating teams.”)
Surveillance tends to sow suspicion and unease among the people who are being surveilled. Is anyone listening? Who might be the spy among us? What trouble might I get into with the things I say? These questions can eat away at the core of human relations – trust. And this is true even at the agency that is conducting the surveillance.
The letter continues:
We used to be able to joke around a little or talk about our favorite “Idol” contestant to break the tension, but now we’re getting more and more skittish about even the most mundane general conversations (“Did you have a good weekend?”). This was once a very open, cooperative group who worked well together. Now we’re more suspicious of each other and teamwork is becoming harder. Do you think this was the goal?
Silenced in SID
Zelda is shocked.
Wow, that takes “intelligence collection” in a whole new – and inappropriate – direction. …. We work in an Agency of secrets, but this kind of secrecy begets more secrecy and it becomes a downward spiral that destroys teamwork. What if you put an end to all the secrecy by bringing it out in the open?
Her column reads like an unintended allegory – or a cleverly masked one. The NSA’s own advice columnist explores the ways in which pervasive surveillance can erode freedom of expression and social cohesion by making it difficult for people to have faith in the privacy of their communications.
You and your co-workers could ask [the supervisor] for a team meeting and lay out the issue as you see it: “We feel like you don’t trust us and we aren’t comfortable making small talk anymore for fear of having our desks moved if we’re seen as being too chummy.” (Leave out the part about the snitches.) Tell him how this is hampering collaboration and affecting the work, ask him if he has a problem with the team’s behavior, and see what he says. …. Stick to the facts and how you feel, rather than making it about him (“We’re uncomfortable” vs “You’re spying on us.”).
There is no indication that Zelda is trying to make a larger point, but some of what she goes on to propose would be useful for ordinary citizens outside the agency who worry about government and corporate surveillance.
If you are bothered by snitches in your office, whether of the unwilling or voluntary variety, the best solution is to keep your behavior above reproach. Be a good performer, watch what you say and do, lock your screen when you step away from your workstation, and keep fodder for wagging tongues (your Viagra stash, photos of your wild-and-crazy girls’ weekend in Atlantic City) at home or out of sight. If you are put in the “unwilling snitch” position, I would advise telling your boss that you’re not comfortable with the role and to please not ask that of you.
Who is Zelda? And who is “Silenced in SID”? The document provides no information about the identity of the letter’s author; he or she could be almost anybody at the agency. In a previous column, Zelda explains that Ask Zelda! was initially intended as a forum for supervisors in the Signals Intelligence Directorate, but that non-supervisory workers began submitting questions, too.
A bit more is known about Zelda. Her introductory column, in 2010, identifies her as serving for approximately 20 years as “a first-line and mid-level Agency supervisor.” At the time her column began, she was also an adjunct faculty member of the agency’s National Cryptologic School. Her column was part of a regular NSA bulletin called “SIDtoday” that is distributed on the agency’s classified NSAnet. According to traffic statistics, in fact, Ask Zelda! quickly proved to be among the bulletin’s most popular features.
“We usually end the calendar year by providing a suspenseful countdown of the top dozen most widely read SIDtoday articles of the year,” noted a SIDtoday bulletin on December 27, 2011, “but this time around it is not really a nail-biter, because Zelda articles occupied all of the top five slots!” Her most popular article that year, about swearing at the NSA, received 19,446 hits.
“Since SIDtoday is like an online newspaper, we decided to follow the tradition of newspaper write-in advice columnists (such as Dear Abby and Miss Manners) and give me a nom de plume,” Zelda writes in advance of the first anniversary of her column. “I like it because using a pen name creates a persona who’s more memorable and accessible than ‘Ask Mary Smith, Chief of S456.’ Plus it creates a certain mystique about Zelda… she’s bigger than life. It also prevents me from getting inundated with hate mail and requests for advice outside of the column.”
Zelda can be a church lady. Her first column addressed employee attire in summer months, and she was not pleased. “Somehow, shorts and flip-flops don’t exactly convey the image of a fierce SIGINT warrior,” she writes. “Not only is beach attire unprofessional in the workplace, but in certain cases it can be downright distracting to co-workers (if you get my drift).” She recommends that offenders, who might be just out of college and not know any better, should be told to dress “in a professional manner” even when it feels like a swamp outside. This column received 9,186 hits by the end of 2010 – placing it number four on the list of most-read SIDtoday articles for the year.
But on privacy, Zelda is surprisingly liberal, given that the agency where she works spies on vast numbers of private phone calls, emails, texts, chats, status updates, webcams and address books. In a column titled, “Guilty Until Proven Innocent?”, Zelda responds to an NSA worker who goes by the pen name “Innocent Bystander” and who explains that a colleague has filed an anonymous complaint about their bosses, calling them “abysmal” and “idiotic.” Unfortunately, everyone believes that Innocent Bystander has written the complaint, and as a result, “The chill I’m feeling is pretty severe!” Anonymous complaints should be discouraged, Innocent Bystander says, so that innocent parties do not come under suspicion.
“You make a good case against anonymous mailbags,” Zelda replies, “but a lot of people won’t give feedback at all if they know it will be attributed to them. I believe scathing comments such as your co-worker’s are the exception and not the rule.”
Her response to “Silenced in SID” does not acknowledge the irony – or hypocrisy – of an employee at a spy agency complaining about being spied on. But Zelda directly addresses the long-lasting effects of inappropriate surveillance. “Trust is hard to rebuild once it has been broken,” she observes. “Your work center may take time to heal after this deplorable practice is discontinued.”
This past January, Laura Poitras received a curious e-mail from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key. For almost two years, Poitras had been working on a documentary about surveillance, and she occasionally received queries from strangers. She replied to this one and sent her public key — allowing him or her to send an encrypted e-mail that only Poitras could open, with her private key — but she didn’t think much would come of it.
The stranger responded with instructions for creating an even more secure system to protect their exchanges. Promising sensitive information, the stranger told Poitras to select long pass phrases that could withstand a brute-force attack by networked computers. “Assume that your adversary is capable of a trillion guesses per second,” the stranger wrote.
Before long, Poitras received an encrypted message that outlined a number of secret surveillance programs run by the government. She had heard of one of them but not the others. After describing each program, the stranger wrote some version of the phrase, “This I can prove.”
Seconds after she decrypted and read the e-mail, Poitras disconnected from the Internet and removed the message from her computer. “I thought, O.K., if this is true, my life just changed,” she told me last month. “It was staggering, what he claimed to know and be able to provide. I just knew that I had to change everything.”
Poitras remained wary of whoever it was she was communicating with. She worried especially that a government agent might be trying to trick her into disclosing information about the people she interviewed for her documentary, including Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks. “I called him out,” Poitras recalled. “I said either you have this information and you are taking huge risks or you are trying to entrap me and the people I know, or you’re crazy.”
The answers were reassuring but not definitive. Poitras did not know the stranger’s name, sex, age or employer (C.I.A.? N.S.A.? Pentagon?). In early June, she finally got the answers. Along with her reporting partner, Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer and a columnist for The Guardian, Poitras flew to Hong Kong and met the N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, who gave them thousands of classified documents, setting off a major controversy over the extent and legality of government surveillance. Poitras was right that, among other things, her life would never be the same.
Greenwald lives and works in a house surrounded by tropical foliage in a remote area of Rio de Janeiro. He shares the home with his Brazilian partner and their 10 dogs and one cat, and the place has the feel of a low-key fraternity that has been dropped down in the jungle. The kitchen clock is off by hours, but no one notices; dishes tend to pile up in the sink; the living room contains a table and a couch and a large TV, an Xbox console and a box of poker chips and not much else. The refrigerator is not always filled with fresh vegetables. A family of monkeys occasionally raids the banana trees in the backyard and engages in shrieking battles with the dogs.
Greenwald does most of his work on a shaded porch, usually dressed in a T-shirt, surfer shorts and flip-flops. Over the four days I spent there, he was in perpetual motion, speaking on the phone in Portuguese and English, rushing out the door to be interviewed in the city below, answering calls and e-mails from people seeking information about Snowden, tweeting to his 225,000 followers (and conducting intense arguments with a number of them), then sitting down to write more N.S.A. articles for The Guardian, all while pleading with his dogs to stay quiet. During one especially fever-pitched moment, he hollered, “Shut up, everyone,” but they didn’t seem to care.
Amid the chaos, Poitras, an intense-looking woman of 49, sat in a spare bedroom or at the table in the living room, working in concentrated silence in front of her multiple computers. Once in a while she would walk over to the porch to talk with Greenwald about the article he was working on, or he would sometimes stop what he was doing to look at the latest version of a new video she was editing about Snowden. They would talk intensely — Greenwald far louder and more rapid-fire than Poitras — and occasionally break out laughing at some shared joke or absurd memory. The Snowden story, they both said, was a battle they were waging together, a fight against powers of surveillance that they both believe are a threat to fundamental American liberties.
Two reporters for The Guardian were in town to assist Greenwald, so some of our time was spent in the hotel where they were staying along Copacabana Beach, the toned Brazilians playing volleyball in the sand below lending the whole thing an added layer of surreality. Poitras has shared the byline on some of Greenwald’s articles, but for the most part she has preferred to stay in the background, letting him do the writing and talking. As a result, Greenwald is the one hailed as either a fearless defender of individual rights or a nefarious traitor, depending on your perspective. “I keep calling her the Keyser Soze of the story, because she’s at once completely invisible and yet ubiquitous,” Greenwald said, referring to the character in “The Usual Suspects” played by Kevin Spacey, a mastermind masquerading as a nobody. “She’s been at the center of all of this, and yet no one knows anything about her.”
As dusk fell one evening, I followed Poitras and Greenwald to the newsroom of O Globo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil. Greenwald had just published an article there detailing how the N.S.A. was spying on Brazilian phone calls and e-mails. The article caused a huge scandal in Brazil, as similar articles have done in other countries around the world, and Greenwald was a celebrity in the newsroom. The editor in chief pumped his hand and asked him to write a regular column; reporters took souvenir pictures with their cellphones. Poitras filmed some of this, then put her camera down and looked on. I noted that nobody was paying attention to her, that all eyes were on Greenwald, and she smiled. “That’s right,” she said. “That’s perfect.”
Poitras seems to work at blending in, a function more of strategy than of shyness. She can actually be remarkably forceful when it comes to managing information. During a conversation in which I began to ask her a few questions about her personal life, she remarked, “This is like visiting the dentist.” The thumbnail portrait is this: She was raised in a well-off family outside Boston, and after high school, she moved to San Francisco to work as a chef in upscale restaurants. She also took classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied under the experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. In 1992, she moved to New York and began to make her way in the film world, while also enrolling in graduate classes in social and political theory at the New School. Since then she has made five films, most recently “The Oath,” about the Guantánamo prisoner Salim Hamdan and his brother-in-law back in Yemen, and has been the recipient of a Peabody Award and a MacArthur award.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Poitras was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when the towers were attacked. Like most New Yorkers, in the weeks that followed she was swept up in both mourning and a feeling of unity. It was a moment, she said, when “people could have done anything, in a positive sense.” When that moment led to the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, she felt that her country had lost its way. “We always wonder how countries can veer off course,” she said. “How do people let it happen, how do people sit by during this slipping of boundaries?” Poitras had no experience in conflict zones, but in June 2004, she went to Iraq and began documenting the occupation.
Shortly after arriving in Baghdad, she received permission to go to Abu Ghraib prison to film a visit by members of Baghdad’s City Council. This was just a few months after photos were published of American soldiers abusing prisoners there. A prominent Sunni doctor was part of the visiting delegation, and Poitras shot a remarkable scene of his interaction with prisoners there, shouting that they were locked up for no good reason.
The doctor, Riyadh al-Adhadh, invited Poitras to his clinic and later allowed her to report on his life in Baghdad. Her documentary, “My Country, My Country,” is centered on his family’s travails — the shootings and blackouts in their neighborhood, the kidnapping of a nephew. The film premiered in early 2006 and received widespread acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for best documentary.
Attempting to tell the story of the war’s effect on Iraqi citizens made Poitras the target of serious — and apparently false — accusations. On Nov. 19, 2004, Iraqi troops, supported by American forces, raided a mosque in the doctor’s neighborhood of Adhamiya, killing several people inside. The next day, the neighborhood erupted in violence. Poitras was with the doctor’s family, and occasionally they would go to the roof of the home to get a sense of what was going on. On one of those rooftop visits, she was seen by soldiers from an Oregon National Guard battalion. Shortly after, a group of insurgents launched an attack that killed one of the Americans. Some soldiers speculated that Poitras was on the roof because she had advance notice of the attack and wanted to film it. Their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, retired, told me last month that he filed a report about her to brigade headquarters.
There is no evidence to support this claim. Fighting occurred throughout the neighborhood that day, so it would have been difficult for any journalist to not be near the site of an attack. The soldiers who made the allegation told me that they have no evidence to prove it. Hendrickson told me his brigade headquarters never got back to him.
For several months after the attack in Adhamiya, Poitras continued to live in the Green Zone and work as an embedded journalist with the U.S. military. She has screened her film to a number of military audiences, including at the U.S. Army War College. An officer who interacted with Poitras in Baghdad, Maj. Tom Mowle, retired, said Poitras was always filming and it “completely makes sense” she would film on a violent day. “I think it’s a pretty ridiculous allegation,” he said.
Although the allegations were without evidence, they may be related to Poitras’s many detentions and searches. Hendrickson and another soldier told me that in 2007 — months after she was first detained — investigators from the Department of Justice’s Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed them, inquiring about Poitras’s activities in Baghdad that day. Poitras was never contacted by those or any other investigators, however. “Iraq forces and the U.S. military raided a mosque during Friday prayers and killed several people,” Poitras said. “Violence broke out the next day. I am a documentary filmmaker and was filming in the neighborhood. Any suggestion I knew about an attack is false. The U.S. government should investigate who ordered the raid, not journalists covering the war.”
In June 2006, her tickets on domestic flights were marked “SSSS” — Secondary Security Screening Selection — which means the bearer faces extra scrutiny beyond the usual measures. She was detained for the first time at Newark International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where she was showing her film. On her return flight, she was held for two hours before being allowed to re-enter the country. The next month, she traveled to Bosnia to show the film at a festival there. When she flew out of Sarajevo and landed in Vienna, she was paged on the airport loudspeaker and told to go to a security desk; from there she was led to a van and driven to another part of the airport, then taken into a room where luggage was examined.
“They took my bags and checked them,” Poitras said. “They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was showing a movie in Sarajevo about the Iraq war. And then I sort of befriended the security guy. I asked what was going on. He said: ‘You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.’ I said, ‘Is this a scoring system that works throughout all of Europe, or is this an American scoring system?’ He said. ‘No, this is your government that has this and has told us to stop you.’ ”
After 9/11, the U.S. government began compiling a terrorist watch list that was at one point estimated to contain nearly a million names. There are at least two subsidiary lists that relate to air travel. The no-fly list contains the names of tens of thousands of people who are not allowed to fly into or out of the country. The selectee list, which is larger than the no-fly list, subjects people to extra airport inspections and questioning. These lists have been criticized by civil rights groups for being too broad and arbitrary and for violating the rights of Americans who are on them.
In Vienna, Poitras was eventually cleared to board her connecting flight to New York, but when she landed at J.F.K., she was met at the gate by two armed law-enforcement agents and taken to a room for questioning. It is a routine that has happened so many times since then — on more than 40 occasions — that she has lost precise count. Initially, she said, the authorities were interested in the paper she carried, copying her receipts and, once, her notebook. After she stopped carrying her notes, they focused on her electronics instead, telling her that if she didn’t answer their questions, they would confiscate her gear and get their answers that way. On one occasion, Poitras says, they did seize her computers and cellphones and kept them for weeks. She was also told that her refusal to answer questions was itself a suspicious act. Because the interrogations took place at international boarding crossings, where the government contends that ordinary constitutional rights do not apply, she was not permitted to have a lawyer present.
“It’s a total violation,” Poitras said. “That’s how it feels. They are interested in information that pertains to the work I am doing that’s clearly private and privileged. It’s an intimidating situation when people with guns meet you when you get off an airplane.”
Though she has written to members of Congress and has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests, Poitras has never received any explanation for why she was put on a watch list. “It’s infuriating that I have to speculate why,” she said. “When did that universe begin, that people are put on a list and are never told and are stopped for six years? I have no idea why they did it. It’s the complete suspension of due process.” She added: “I’ve been told nothing, I’ve been asked nothing, and I’ve done nothing. It’s like Kafka. Nobody ever tells you what the accusation is.”
After being detained repeatedly, Poitras began taking steps to protect her data, asking a traveling companion to carry her laptop, leaving her notebooks overseas with friends or in safe deposit boxes. She would wipe her computers and cellphones clean so that there would be nothing for the authorities to see. Or she encrypted her data, so that law enforcement could not read any files they might get hold of. These security preparations could take a day or more before her travels.
It wasn’t just border searches that she had to worry about. Poitras said she felt that if the government was suspicious enough to interrogate her at airports, it was also most likely surveilling her e-mail, phone calls and Web browsing. “I assume that there are National Security Letters on my e-mails,” she told me, referring to one of the secretive surveillance tools used by the Department of Justice. A National Security Letter requires its recipients — in most cases, Internet service providers and phone companies — to provide customer data without notifying the customers or any other parties. Poitras suspected (but could not confirm, because her phone company and I.S.P. would be prohibited from telling her) that the F.B.I. had issued National Security Letters for her electronic communications.
Once she began working on her surveillance film in 2011, she raised her digital security to an even higher level. She cut down her use of a cellphone, which betrays not only who you are calling and when, but your location at any given point in time. She was careful about e-mailing sensitive documents or having sensitive conversations on the phone. She began using software that masked the Web sites she visited. After she was contacted by Snowden in 2013, she tightened her security yet another notch. In addition to encrypting any sensitive e-mails, she began using different computers for editing film, for communicating and for reading sensitive documents (the one for sensitive documents is air-gapped, meaning it has never been connected to the Internet).
These precautions might seem paranoid — Poitras describes them as “pretty extreme” — but the people she has interviewed for her film were targets of the sort of surveillance and seizure that she fears. William Binney, a former top N.S.A. official who publicly accused the agency of illegal surveillance, was at home one morning in 2007 when F.B.I. agents burst in and aimed their weapons at his wife, his son and himself. Binney was, at the moment the agent entered his bathroom and pointed a gun at his head, naked in the shower. His computers, disks and personal records were confiscated and have not yet been returned. Binney has not been charged with any crime.
Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy activist who was a volunteer with WikiLeaks, has also been filmed by Poitras. The government issued a secret order to Twitter for access to Appelbaum’s account data, which became public when Twitter fought the order. Though the company was forced to hand over the data, it was allowed to tell Appelbaum. Google and a small I.S.P. that Appelbaum used were also served with secret orders and fought to alert him. Like Binney, Appelbaum has not been charged with any crime.
Poitras endured the airport searches for years with little public complaint, lest her protests generate more suspicion and hostility from the government, but last year she reached a breaking point. While being interrogated at Newark after a flight from Britain, she was told she could not take notes. On the advice of lawyers, Poitras always recorded the names of border agents and the questions they asked and the material they copied or seized. But at Newark, an agent threatened to handcuff her if she continued writing. She was told that she was being barred from writing anything down because she might use her pen as a weapon.
“Then I asked for crayons,” Poitras recalled, “and he said no to crayons.”
She was taken into another room and interrogated by three agents — one was behind her, another asked the questions, the third was a supervisor. “It went on for maybe an hour and a half,” she said. “I was taking notes of their questions, or trying to, and they yelled at me. I said, ‘Show me the law where it says I can’t take notes.’ We were in a sense debating what they were trying to forbid me from doing. They said, ‘We are the ones asking the questions.’ It was a pretty aggressive, antagonistic encounter.”
Poitras met Greenwald in 2010, when she became interested in his work on WikiLeaks. In 2011, she went to Rio to film him for her documentary. He was aware of the searches and asked several times for permission to write about them. After Newark, she gave him a green light.
“She said, ‘I’ve had it,’ ” Greenwald told me. “Her ability to take notes and document what was happening was her one sense of agency, to maintain some degree of control. Documenting is what she does. I think she was feeling that the one vestige of security and control in this situation had been taken away from her, without any explanation, just as an arbitrary exercise of power.”
At the time, Greenwald was a writer for Salon. His article, “U.S. Filmmaker Repeatedly Detained at Border,” was published in April 2012. Shortly after it was posted, the detentions ceased. Six years of surveillance and harassment, Poitras hoped, might be coming to an end.
Poitras was not Snowden’s first choice as the person to whom he wanted to leak thousands of N.S.A. documents. In fact, a month before contacting her, he reached out to Greenwald, who had written extensively and critically about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. Snowden anonymously sent him an e-mail saying he had documents he wanted to share, and followed that up with a step-by-step guide on how to encrypt communications, which Greenwald ignored. Snowden then sent a link to an encryption video, also to no avail.
“It’s really annoying and complicated, the encryption software,” Greenwald said as we sat on his porch during a tropical drizzle. “He kept harassing me, but at some point he just got frustrated, so he went to Laura.”
Snowden had read Greenwald’s article about Poitras’s troubles at U.S. airports and knew she was making a film about the government’s surveillance programs; he had also seen a short documentary about the N.S.A. that she made for The New York Times Op-Docs. He figured that she would understand the programs he wanted to leak about and would know how to communicate in a secure way.
By late winter, Poitras decided that the stranger with whom she was communicating was credible. There were none of the provocations that she would expect from a government agent — no requests for information about the people she was in touch with, no questions about what she was working on. Snowden told her early on that she would need to work with someone else, and that she should reach out to Greenwald. She was unaware that Snowden had already tried to contact Greenwald, and Greenwald would not realize until he met Snowden in Hong Kong that this was the person who had contacted him more than six months earlier.
There were surprises for everyone in these exchanges — including Snowden, who answered questions that I submitted to him through Poitras. In response to a question about when he realized he could trust Poitras, he wrote: “We came to a point in the verification and vetting process where I discovered Laura was more suspicious of me than I was of her, and I’m famously paranoid.” When I asked him about Greenwald’s initial silence in response to his requests and instructions for encrypted communications, Snowden replied: “I know journalists are busy and had assumed being taken seriously would be a challenge, especially given the paucity of detail I could initially offer. At the same time, this is 2013, and [he is] a journalist who regularly reported on the concentration and excess of state power. I was surprised to realize that there were people in news organizations who didn’t recognize any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world.”
In April, Poitras e-mailed Greenwald to say they needed to speak face to face. Greenwald happened to be in the United States, speaking at a conference in a suburb of New York City, and the two met in the lobby of his hotel. “She was very cautious,” Greenwald recalled. “She insisted that I not take my cellphone, because of this ability the government has to remotely listen to cellphones even when they are turned off. She had printed off the e-mails, and I remember reading the e-mails and felt intuitively that this was real. The passion and thought behind what Snowden — who we didn’t know was Snowden at the time — was saying was palpable.”
Greenwald installed encryption software and began communicating with the stranger. Their work was organized like an intelligence operation, with Poitras as the mastermind. “Operational security — she dictated all of that,” Greenwald said. “Which computers I used, how I communicated, how I safeguarded the information, where copies were kept, with whom they were kept, in which places. She has this complete expert level of understanding of how to do a story like this with total technical and operational safety. None of this would have happened with anything near the efficacy and impact it did, had she not been working with me in every sense and really taking the lead in coordinating most of it.”
Snowden began to provide documents to the two of them. Poitras wouldn’t tell me when he began sending her documents; she does not want to provide the government with information that could be used in a trial against Snowden or herself. He also said he would soon be ready to meet them. When Poitras asked if she should plan on driving to their meeting or taking a train, Snowden told her to be ready to get on a plane.
In May, he sent encrypted messages telling the two of them to go to Hong Kong. Greenwald flew to New York from Rio, and Poitras joined him for meetings with the editor of The Guardian’s American edition. With the paper’s reputation on the line, the editor asked them to bring along a veteran Guardian reporter, Ewen MacAskill, and on June 1, the trio boarded a 16-hour flight from J.F.K. to Hong Kong.
Snowden had sent a small number of documents to Greenwald, about 20 in all, but Poitras had received a larger trove, which she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to read closely. On the plane, Greenwald began going through its contents, eventually coming across a secret court order requiring Verizon to give its customer phone records to the N.S.A. The four-page order was from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a panel whose decisions are highly classified. Although it was rumored that the N.S.A. was collecting large numbers of American phone records, the government always denied it.
Poitras, sitting 20 rows behind Greenwald, occasionally went forward to talk about what he was reading. As the man sitting next to him slept, Greenwald pointed to the FISA order on his screen and asked Poitras: “Have you seen this? Is this saying what I’m thinking it’s saying?”
At times, they talked so animatedly that they disturbed passengers who were trying to sleep; they quieted down. “We couldn’t believe just how momentous this occasion was,” Greenwald said. “When you read these documents, you get a sense of the breadth of them. It was a rush of adrenaline and ecstasy and elation. You feel you are empowered for the first time because there’s this mammoth system that you try and undermine and subvert and shine a light on — but you usually can’t make any headway, because you don’t have any instruments to do it — [and now] the instruments were suddenly in our lap.”
Snowden had instructed them that once they were in Hong Kong, they were to go at an appointed time to the Kowloon district and stand outside a restaurant that was in a mall connected to the Mira Hotel. There, they were to wait until they saw a man carrying a Rubik’s Cube, then ask him when the restaurant would open. The man would answer their question, but then warn that the food was bad. When the man with the Rubik’s Cube arrived, it was Edward Snowden, who was 29 at the time but looked even younger.
“Both of us almost fell over when we saw how young he was,” Poitras said, still sounding surprised. “I had no idea. I assumed I was dealing with somebody who was really high-level and therefore older. But I also knew from our back and forth that he was incredibly knowledgeable about computer systems, which put him younger in my mind. So I was thinking like 40s, somebody who really grew up on computers but who had to be at a higher level.”
In our encrypted chat, Snowden also remarked on this moment: “I think they were annoyed that I was younger than they expected, and I was annoyed that they had arrived too early, which complicated the initial verification. As soon as we were behind closed doors, however, I think everyone was reassured by the obsessive attention to precaution and bona fides.”
They followed Snowden to his room, where Poitras immediately shifted into documentarian mode, taking her camera out. “It was a little bit tense, a little uncomfortable,” Greenwald said of those initial minutes. “We sat down, and we just started chatting, and Laura was immediately unpacking her camera. The instant that she turned on the camera, I very vividly recall that both he and I completely stiffened up.”
Greenwald began the questioning. “I wanted to test the consistency of his claims, and I just wanted all the information I could get, given how much I knew this was going to be affecting my credibility and everything else. We weren’t really able to establish a human bond until after that five or six hours was over.”
For Poitras, the camera certainly alters the human dynamic, but not in a bad way. When someone consents to being filmed — even if the consent is indirectly gained when she turns on the camera — this is an act of trust that raises the emotional stakes of the moment. What Greenwald saw as stilted, Poitras saw as a kind of bonding, the sharing of an immense risk. “There is something really palpable and emotional in being trusted like that,” she said.
Snowden, though taken by surprise, got used to it. “As one might imagine, normally spies allergically avoid contact with reporters or media, so I was a virgin source — everything was a surprise. . . . But we all knew what was at stake. The weight of the situation actually made it easier to focus on what was in the public interest rather than our own. I think we all knew there was no going back once she turned the camera on.”
For the next week, their preparations followed a similar pattern — when they entered Snowden’s room, they would remove their cellphone batteries and place them in the refrigerator of Snowden’s minibar. They lined pillows against the door, to discourage eavesdropping from outside, then Poitras set up her camera and filmed. It was important to Snowden to explain to them how the government’s intelligence machinery worked because he feared that he could be arrested at any time.
Greenwald’s first articles — including the initial one detailing the Verizon order he read about on the flight to Hong Kong — appeared while they were still in the process of interviewing Snowden. It made for a strange experience, creating the news together, then watching it spread. “We could see it being covered,” Poitras said. “We were all surprised at how much attention it was getting. Our work was very focused, and we were paying attention to that, but we could see on TV that it was taking off. We were in this closed circle, and around us we knew that reverberations were happening, and they could be seen and they could be felt.”
Snowden told them before they arrived in Hong Kong that he wanted to go public. He wanted to take responsibility for what he was doing, Poitras said, and he didn’t want others to be unfairly targeted, and he assumed he would be identified at some point. She made a 12½-minute video of him that was posted online June 9, a few days after Greenwald’s first articles. It triggered a media circus in Hong Kong, as reporters scrambled to learn their whereabouts.
There were a number of subjects that Poitras declined to discuss with me on the record and others she wouldn’t discuss at all — some for security and legal reasons, others because she wants to be the first to tell crucial parts of her story in her own documentary. Of her parting with Snowden once the video was posted, she would only say, “We knew that once it went public, it was the end of that period of working.”
Snowden checked out of his hotel and went into hiding. Reporters found out where Poitras was staying — she and Greenwald were at different hotels — and phone calls started coming to her room. At one point, someone knocked on her door and asked for her by name. She knew by then that reporters had discovered Greenwald, so she called hotel security and arranged to be escorted out a back exit.
She tried to stay in Hong Kong, thinking Snowden might want to see her again, and because she wanted to film the Chinese reaction to his disclosures. But she had now become a figure of interest herself, not just a reporter behind the camera. On June 15, as she was filming a pro-Snowden rally outside the U.S. consulate, a CNN reporter spotted her and began asking questions. Poitras declined to answer and slipped away. That evening, she left Hong Kong.
Poitras flew directly to Berlin, where the previous fall she rented an apartment where she could edit her documentary without worrying that the F.B.I. would show up with a search warrant for her hard drives. “There is a filter constantly between the places where I feel I have privacy and don’t,” she said, “and that line is becoming increasingly narrow.” She added: “I’m not stopping what I’m doing, but I have left the country. I literally didn’t feel like I could protect my material in the United States, and this was before I was contacted by Snowden. If you promise someone you’re going to protect them as a source and you know the government is monitoring you or seizing your laptop, you can’t actually physically do it.”
After two weeks in Berlin, Poitras traveled to Rio, where I then met her and Greenwald a few days later. My first stop was the Copacabana hotel, where they were working that day with MacAskill and another visiting reporter from The Guardian, James Ball. Poitras was putting together a new video about Snowden that would be posted in a few days on The Guardian’s Web site. Greenwald, with several Guardian reporters, was working on yet another blockbuster article, this one about Microsoft’s close collaboration with the N.S.A. The room was crowded — there weren’t enough chairs for everyone, so someone was always sitting on the bed or floor. A number of thumb drives were passed back and forth, though I was not told what was on them.
Poitras and Greenwald were worried about Snowden. They hadn’t heard from him since Hong Kong. At the moment, he was stuck in diplomatic limbo in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, the most-wanted man on the planet, sought by the U.S. government for espionage. (He would later be granted temporary asylum in Russia.) The video that Poitras was working on, using footage she shot in Hong Kong, would be the first the world had seen of Snowden in a month.
“Now that he’s incommunicado, we don’t know if we’ll even hear from him again,” she said.
“Is he O.K.?” MacAskill asked.
“His lawyer said he’s O.K.,” Greenwald responded.
“But he’s not in direct contact with Snowden,” Poitras said
When Greenwald got home that evening, Snowden contacted him online. Two days later, while she was working at Greenwald’s house, Poitras also heard from him.
It was dusk, and there was loud cawing and hooting coming from the jungle all around. This was mixed with the yapping of five or six dogs as I let myself in the front gate. Through a window, I saw Poitras in the living room, intently working at one of her computers. I let myself in through a screen door, and she glanced up for just a second, then went back to work, completely unperturbed by the cacophony around her. After 10 minutes, she closed the lid of her computer and mumbled an apology about needing to take care of some things.
She showed no emotion and did not mention that she had been in the middle of an encrypted chat with Snowden. At the time, I didn’t press her, but a few days later, after I returned to New York and she returned to Berlin, I asked if that’s what she was doing that evening. She confirmed it, but said she didn’t want to talk about it at the time, because the more she talks about her interactions with Snowden, the more removed she feels from them.
“It’s an incredible emotional experience,” she said, “to be contacted by a complete stranger saying that he was going to risk his life to expose things the public should know. He was putting his life on the line and trusting me with that burden. My experience and relationship to that is something that I want to retain an emotional relation to.” Her connection to him and the material, she said, is what will guide her work. “I am sympathetic to what he sees as the horror of the world [and] what he imagines could come. I want to communicate that with as much resonance as possible. If I were to sit and do endless cable interviews — all those things alienate me from what I need to stay connected to. It’s not just a scoop. It’s someone’s life.”
Poitras and Greenwald are an especially dramatic example of what outsider reporting looks like in 2013. They do not work in a newsroom, and they personally want to be in control of what gets published and when. When The Guardian didn’t move as quickly as they wanted with the first article on Verizon, Greenwald discussed taking it elsewhere, sending an encrypted draft to a colleague at another publication. He also considered creating a Web site on which they would publish everything, which he planned to call NSADisclosures. In the end, The Guardian moved ahead with their articles. But Poitras and Greenwald have created their own publishing network as well, placing articles with other outlets in Germany and Brazil and planning more for the future. They have not shared the full set of documents with anyone.
“We are in partnership with news organizations, but we feel our primary responsibility is to the risk the source took and to the public interest of the information he has provided,” Poitras said. “Further down on the list would be any particular news organization.”
Unlike many reporters at major news outlets, they do not attempt to maintain a facade of political indifference. Greenwald has been outspoken for years; on Twitter, he recently replied to one critic by writing: “You are a complete idiot. You know that, right?” His left political views, combined with his cutting style, have made him unloved among many in the political establishment. His work with Poitras has been castigated as advocacy that harms national security. “I read intelligence carefully,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shortly after the first Snowden articles appeared. “I know that people are trying to get us. . . . This is the reason the F.B.I. now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. . . . It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”
Poitras, while not nearly as confrontational as Greenwald, disagrees with the suggestion that their work amounts to advocacy by partisan reporters. “Yes, I have opinions,” she told me. “Do I think the surveillance state is out of control? Yes, I do. This is scary, and people should be scared. A shadow and secret government has grown and grown, all in the name of national security and without the oversight or national debate that one would think a democracy would have. It’s not advocacy. We have documents that substantiate it.”
Poitras possesses a new skill set that is particularly vital — and far from the journalistic norm — in an era of pervasive government spying: she knows, as well as any computer-security expert, how to protect against surveillance. As Snowden mentioned, “In the wake of this year’s disclosure, it should be clear that unencrypted journalist-source communication is unforgivably reckless.” A new generation of sources, like Snowden or Pfc. Bradley Manning, has access to not just a few secrets but thousands of them, because of their ability to scrape classified networks. They do not necessarily live in and operate through the established Washington networks — Snowden was in Hawaii, and Manning sent hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks from a base in Iraq. And they share their secrets not with the largest media outlets or reporters but with the ones who share their political outlook and have the know-how to receive the leaks undetected.
In our encrypted chat, Snowden explained why he went to Poitras with his secrets: “Laura and Glenn are among the few who reported fearlessly on controversial topics throughout this period, even in the face of withering personal criticism, [which] resulted in Laura specifically becoming targeted by the very programs involved in the recent disclosures. She had demonstrated the courage, personal experience and skill needed to handle what is probably the most dangerous assignment any journalist can be given — reporting on the secret misdeeds of the most powerful government in the world — making her an obvious choice.”
Snowden’s revelations are now the center of Poitras’s surveillance documentary, but Poitras also finds herself in a strange, looking-glass dynamic, because she cannot avoid being a character in her own film. She did not appear in or narrate her previous films, and she says that probably won’t change with this one, but she realizes that she has to be represented in some way, and is struggling with how to do that.
She is also assessing her legal vulnerability. Poitras and Greenwald are not facing any charges, at least not yet. They do not plan to stay away from America forever, but they have no immediate plans to return. One member of Congress has already likened what they’ve done to a form of treason, and they are well aware of the Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit of not just leakers but of journalists who receive the leaks. While I was with them, they talked about the possibility of returning. Greenwald said that the government would be unwise to arrest them, because of the bad publicity it would create. It also wouldn’t stop the flow of information.
He mentioned this while we were in a taxi heading back to his house. It was dark outside, the end of a long day. Greenwald asked Poitras, “Since it all began, have you had a non-N.S.A. day?”
“What’s that?” she replied.
“I think we need one,” Greenwald said. “Not that we’re going to take one.”
Poitras talked about getting back to yoga again. Greenwald said he was going to resume playing tennis regularly. “I’m willing to get old for this thing,” he said, “but I’m not willing to get fat.”
Their discussion turned to the question of coming back to the United States. Greenwald said, half-jokingly, that if he was arrested, WikiLeaks would become the new traffic cop for publishing N.S.A. documents. “I would just say: ‘O.K., let me introduce you to my friend Julian Assange, who’s going to take my place. Have fun dealing with him.’ ”
Poitras prodded him: “So you’re going back to the States?”
He laughed and pointed out that unfortunately, the government does not always take the smartest course of action. “If they were smart,” he said, “I would do it.”
Poitras smiled, even though it’s a difficult subject for her. She is not as expansive or carefree as Greenwald, which adds to their odd-couple chemistry. She is concerned about their physical safety. She is also, of course, worried about surveillance. “Geolocation is the thing,” she said. “I want to keep as much off the grid as I can. I’m not going to make it easy for them. If they want to follow me, they are going to have to do that. I am not going to ping into any G.P.S. My location matters to me. It matters to me in a new way that I didn’t feel before.”
There are lots of people angry with them and lots of governments, as well as private entities, that would not mind taking possession of the thousands of N.S.A. documents they still control. They have published only a handful — a top-secret, headline-grabbing, Congressional-hearing-inciting handful — and seem unlikely to publish everything, in the style of WikiLeaks. They are holding onto more secrets than they are exposing, at least for now.
“We have this window into this world, and we’re still trying to understand it,” Poitras said in one of our last conversations. “We’re not trying to keep it a secret, but piece the puzzle together. That’s a project that is going to take time. Our intention is to release what’s in the public interest but also to try to get a handle on what this world is, and then try to communicate that.”
The deepest paradox, of course, is that their effort to understand and expose government surveillance may have condemned them to a lifetime of it.
“Our lives will never be the same,” Poitras said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live someplace and feel like I have my privacy. That might be just completely gone.”
Here’s a recipe for diluting the debate about our surveillance state: start talking about the foibles of the leakers and whistleblowers.
Consider the case of Edward Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency and leaked secret documents revealing that the NSA has a vast surveillance operation that collects phone and e-mail data on Americans as well as foreigners. The NSA dragnet is far more extensive than has been proven before. The documents raise a major question: Is the NSA undermining our democracy and violating our right to privacy? The character question—who is Edward Snowden, hero or traitor?—serves as a distraction from this urgent discussion. The legislators and journalists who focus on Snowden’s background (high school dropout? narcissistic millennial? pole-dancing girlfriend?) are either missing the point or trying to make us miss it.
Enter Alex Gibney’s new documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which could not have come at a better moment—it opened in America just as the NSA scandal opened worldwide. The film focuses on two men: Julian Assange, who founded WikiLeaks, and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of government documents to it. Amid a torrent of stories, tweets and video clips about Snowden’s revelations, we need an intellectual frame to understand the morality and legality of our sprawling surveillance state and the secrecy on which it depends. Gibney would seem to be the man for the job. He is the Academy Award–winning director of two of the best political documentaries of recent time: Taxi to the Dark Side, about the torture and murder of Afghans and Iraqis in US custody, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the scandalous collapse of a house-of-cards energy company.
Unfortunately, just as today’s debate is already being diluted by focusing on Snowden’s psychology and motives, We Steal Secrets gets sidetracked by character issues. Although We Steal Secrets criticizes the Obama administration for excessive secrecy and its crackdown on leakers, a fair amount of the film’s fury is directed at Assange, who currently resides in a small room in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual assault allegations. The debate that the film has stirred up consists mainly of an exchange of invective between Gibney and Assange, in which Gibney and his allies compare the WikiLeaks creator to a cult leader, while Assange and his allies accuse the director of mounting a smear campaign that benefits the US government. The upshot is that we have gotten neither the film nor the debate we need.
We Steal Secrets includes extensive footage of Assange shot by other filmmakers; Gibney met him for six hours to negotiate an interview, but they could not agree on the terms. What happened in that session is a bombshell. “Julian wanted money,” Gibney says in the film. “He said the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million. When I declined, he offered an alternative: perhaps I would spy in my other interviews and report back to him, but I couldn’t do that either.” WikiLeaks, which of course leaked an extensively annotated transcript of the film, replied that “Julian Assange did not say the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million”; as for the spying charge, the organization claims Assange suggested only that he would be interested in hearing whatever Gibney learned about government investigations against WikiLeaks.
Cue the character debate. Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer at the Government Accountability Project and a prominent supporter of WikiLeaks, has written that Gibney “perpetuates the usual smears that the government levels against whistleblowers and their allies: that they are vengeful, unstable, or out for fame and profit.” On Twitter, Radack attacked Gibney and former NSA director Michael Hayden, one of the film’s talking heads: “Hayden, you little fucker, you’re fooling no one by being Gibney’s transparency bitch….” WikiLeaks—which the film contends has been reduced to just Assange and a handful of followers—has pointedly criticized the film’s exploration of the gender identity crisis of Manning, now on trial in a military court. WikiLeaks stated in its annotated transcript, “This crude gay caricature is a version of a classic attack on whistleblowers, once used on Daniel Ellsberg: to distract from acts of conscience by focusing on sexuality, character, psychology and alleged ‘issues,’ rather than conscience, motive and morality.”
Gibney subsequently went defcon against Assange. In an interview with a journalist who had defended the film and received angry tweets and messages from Assange’s supporters, Gibney remarked: “I guess that is their way of trying to stamp out criticism…. It’s the tactics of Scientology.” The Scientology comparison—which might be a new iteration of Godwin’s Law, in which the first person in a debate who makes a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler is deemed the loser and the debate over—has also been made by one of the film’s executive producers, Jemima Khan, the glamorous British writer and campaigner. Khan was originally a supporter of Assange—to the point of helping to post a £200,000 bail for him in the United Kingdom after Swedish authorities tried to extradite him—but they have since fallen out. In a 2,500-word story published by the New Statesman earlier this year, Khan lamented that the supporters of WikiLeaks exude a “blinkered, cultish devotion” and that Assange might be turning into “an Australian L. Ron Hubbard.”
The Khan piece set off its own morality play within a morality play. It drew attention to the fact that Gibney’s documentary was backed by someone who suffered a financial loss when Assange jumped bail by fleeing to the Ecuadorean embassy, and who now accuses Assange of being the Colonel Kurtz of whistleblowing. Khan’s story prompted a 1,000-word response in the same publication from the writer John Pilger, who had also contributed to Assange’s bail but continues to support him. Pilger’s article sparked a 1,600-word retort from Gibney. And Pilger issued a reply to that. After more than 5,000 words of furious polemics, the fire finally burned out.
Key players in this drama have become Ahabs obsessed with their Moby-Dicks, losing sight of the government secrecy and surveillance that are the central issues to which attention must be paid. WikiLeaks and its embassy-confined leader are no longer the forces they used to be; they are diminished and tarnished, spending their time annotating a film they don’t like. The biggest leaks of the moment, courtesy of Edward Snowden—exposing a secret court order that compelled Verizon to give the phone records of millions of Americans to the NSA, as well as a highly classified program, PRISM, under which the NSA pulls data from major Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft—were slipped to journalists writing for The Guardian and The Washington Post. These days, the question of whether Julian Assange is the new L. Ron Hubbard is a minor and distracting one.
* * *
Let’s think about our era. President Obama, a constitutional law professor who vowed to preside over the most transparent government ever, has overseen an unprecedented crackdown on leakers, whistleblowers, hackers and journalists. Manning is at Fort Meade on trial for his life—the rest of which could be spent in prison if he is found guilty. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who criticized the agency’s torture program, is serving a jail sentence. Aaron Swartz, a hacker who downloaded a trove of academic papers that were behind a private sector paywall, committed suicide after prosecutors filed charges that could have put him in prison for thirty-five years. Journalists for the Associated Press, The New York Times and Fox News have been subjected to startling levels of government surveillance, including the seizure of their phone records. And we have just learned that government surveillance of our phone and Internet activities is far broader than most of us suspected or had been led to believe. President Obama offers no apologies or regrets; it is all legal, he says.
The strength of We Steal Secrets—its focus on Assange and Manning—is also its weakness. Gibney tells us more about these men than many of us knew, particularly regarding Manning and his gender-conformity issues. But does this illuminate the bigger story of the surveillance state or muddy it? A soldier says Manning, small and effeminate, was bullied by drill sergeants. Once in Iraq, the film explains, Manning felt isolated and called a friend back home and cried like a child, saying, “I won’t make it, I can’t make it, I can’t do this.” He was talking to his army buddies about undergoing hormone replacement therapy. He even e-mailed a picture of himself dressed as a woman to his master sergeant. In a fit of frustration, he also punched another soldier in the face—a big mistake, because she was bigger than he was and put him in a headlock.
This is colorful in a BuzzFeed way, and it seems to support a theory that Manning leaked the documents in part because he needed to vent his sexual torment. Gibney said as much in an interview with the Daily Beast: “He was lonely and very needy. And I think he had an identity crisis. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman, and these issues are not just prurient. I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do.”
Really? I spent a lot of time in war zones and had a hard time finding a soldier who did not have an identity or alienation problem of some sort—a marriage breaking down, the agony of separation from children, the guilt of seeing a fellow soldier killed, a home being foreclosed on back in the States. Being gay in the military is extremely hard. Not being sure of your gender—that’s even harder, I suppose. Seeing your best friend killed in front of you during combat and blaming yourself for not preventing it, or killing an Afghan child by mistake and washing the blood from your hands afterward—that’s not easy to deal with, either. Crying and punching another soldier in anger—these things happen all the time on military bases, and far worse. It’s possible that Manning’s identity crisis was no more destabilizing or significant than the existential crises many soldiers go through at some point, especially if they undergo multiple deployments in active combat. I think it’s also possible that Manning’s personal struggle may have given him a clearer understanding of the plight of vulnerable people who are crushed or ignored by powerful institutions. But while the film does an artful job of using transcripts of Manning’s chats with the hacker Adrian Lamo to show how he was motivated by his outrage at the conduct of US forces, Gibney leads us to wonder whether less noble motivations were involved, too.
In the film, Assange is also put under a behavioral microscope, and what emerges is even less pretty. Assange, we learn, is arrogant, narcissistic, intolerant, secretive, hypocritical and perhaps a rapist. He created a pathbreaking portal for publishing government and corporate secrets but ruined it by, among other things, using it as a political shield to avoid answering investigators’ questions about sexual assault allegations from two women in Sweden. Much of this, and perhaps all of it, could be true. Yet it has been amply aired in other venues. Since the first major WikiLeaks scoop in 2010—its publication of a video, leaked by Manning, that showed a US helicopter gunship killing civilians—Assange has been on the front pages and gossip pages of news outlets across the globe. It makes for a colorful story, but Gibney hasn’t broken ground on the “who is Assange?” question as much as he has tended it in a way that, by the film’s end, makes us quite angry with the WikiLeaks founder.
There is nothing wrong with doing a deep dive on Assange or Manning; they have become public figures. And Gibney’s film tells us a lot about a surveillance state out of control. Yet it’s unfortunate that one of the most famous documentarians of our times has created a film that explores the alleged pathologies of these leakers and whistleblowers in a way that diverts our attention from the oppressive policies that turned them into outlaws. Though the film mentions on five occasions the condoms that Assange did or did not use while having intercourse with the Swedish women, Attorney General Eric Holder is referred to just once, with a banal video clip of him at a press briefing. The audience winds up knowing far more about Assange’s sexual practices than about the attorney general who oversees a vast apparatus of surveillance and prosecution. Which of these men should we know more about?
One of the greatest problems in our political discourse today is the dominant focus on personalities rather than systems. While Assange and Manning have colorful backstories, who they are and what they have done (or not done) in their private lives is not the most important thing. The system of secrecy that necessitates and criminalizes their actions should be the star and the villain of a film about these issues. Gibney has not made that film, but the good news is that we might not have to wait long to see it: documentarian Laura Poitras, one of the journalists Snowden confided in, is working on a film about the American surveillance state.
Guess what? The war in Iraq had a bright side. It created the Arab Spring.
That is the theory that proponents of the invasion are peddling on the tenth anniversary of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, on April 9, 2003. They are trying to persuade whoever will listen that the war was not such a bad idea after all, despite the bloodletting and wreckage. The latest push comes from Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor who was one of the most prominent intellectuals behind the invasion. In an anniversary piece in the Times, “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq,” Makiya wrote that “the removal of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of a whole succession of other Arab dictators in 2011 were closely connected.” The invasion, he added, “paved the way for young Arabs to imagine” the removal of dictators elsewhere in the region.
While events in one country can impact other countries, this is a wish-based myth. It demonstrates a sad consequence of the Iraq war: its discredited backers are committing the same error they did in 2003, making dubious assertions without solid evidence. Back then, the myth was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Today, it is a link between the American-led invasion of Iraq and popular uprisings in other countries. Makiya joins former Vice-President Cheney, who said, while promoting his memoir, “I think that what happened in Iraq, the fact that we brought democracy, if you will, and freedom to Iraq, has had a ripple effect on some of those other countries.” Condoleezza Rice, who was President Bush’s National Security Advisor, offered a similar idea while promoting her memoir: “The change in the conversation about the Middle East, where people now routinely talk about democratization, is something that I’m very grateful for and I think we had a role in that.”
Where’s the proof? The best Makiya can do is note that a number of years after the invasion, uprisings occurred elsewhere. The logical imperfection is audacious. He does not quote any leader of those uprisings as making a connection with Iraq—perhaps because they don’t. Wael Ghonim, one of the online leaders of the Egyptian uprising, has noted, “The war in Iraq killed so many innocent people, and it’s not something that any civilized nation should be proud of.” Makiya cannot drum up support from even Fouad Ajami, another backer of the invasion. “Having supported the Iraq war, I would love to make this connection,” he wrote last year. “But Iraq, contrary to the hopes and assertions of conservative proponents of the war, is not relevant to the Arab Spring.”
Iraq is a poster child for how you don’t want change to come to your homeland. Saddam was removed from power, but by a foreign army, not Iraqis. The country was consumed by an insurgency and civil war that continues to this day, though at lower levels of violence than in the worst years. The country’s leader, Nouri al-Maliki, is authoritarian, and presides over a nation divided along sectarian lines between the now dominant Shia and the no longer dominant Sunni. As Paul Pillar, a former C.I.A. officer and a Middle East expert has observed, “Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it.” If Iraq offered an example, in other words, it was as a model you don’t want to emulate.
The key problem in 2013, as in 2003, is not so much outright lying as the replacement of reality with fantasy. Makiya shifts the entire blame for Iraq’s descent into chaos onto the shoulders of the country’s post-invasion leaders. “There was hardly any war to speak of in 2003,” he writes in the Times. “Mr. Hussein’s whole terrible edifice just came crashing down under its own weight.” I was surprised to read this; I followed a Marine battalion to Baghdad in 2003 and found myself surrounded by violence and death—of Americans as well as Iraqis. The edifice didn’t collapse on its own accord; it was crushed by sixty-eight-ton Abrams tanks. While there was greater bloodshed during the occupation and civil war, the notion that “there was no war to speak of” in 2003 suggests a mind purged of memory or honesty.
It is the right of Cheney, Rice, Makiya, Dan Senor, Fred Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and other backers of the war to argue as they wish and make whatever connections they wish, no matter how preposterous. But the rest of us are not obliged to keep a straight face; a skewering by Jon Stewart would be a better response than a respectful interview by, say, Wolf Blitzer. On the tenth anniversary of a war that killed more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and Americans, the authors of the catastrophe should do us the small favor of offering their chastened silence rather than their half-baked theories.
The following story ran on the NYT’s At War blog.
With the invasion of Iraq just weeks away, Lt. Tim McLaughlin began a military ritual that dates back to Homer. He started a war diary. It was not a blog or e-mails sent from his waiting-to-invade base in the Kuwaiti desert, it was a plain notebook and pen with which he kept track of what was on his mind and what was in the crosshairs of his Abrams tank.
“Town car pops out on me, 200 meters,” he wrote of a battle near Baghdad. “Sgt. Wellons coaxed it, vehicle slowed down, swerved left off road + hit tree. Civilian shot 5 times in back and legs. Continued progress to Afaq.” He also penned a letter to a Victoria’s Secret model as well as a poem to his girlfriend, yet the heart of his diary, and the heart of warfare, is violence. After another battle he wrote, “My position is good to cut off back door exit. Kill dismounts in grove (3-7?) then 1 swimming across canal / 2 just about in canal…Covered canal w/.50 cal —killed 2 more.”
His journals are a raw reminder of what happens when young men, equipped with weapons that give them life-and-death powers, are dispatched on a mission to invade a foreign country. Lieutenant McLaughlin, who is now a lawyer in Boston, commanded a platoon of tanks that led the Marine advance on Baghdad, and his descriptions are brutal. That is why he shared the diaries with me and agreed, on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion, to have them displayed in an exhibition that opens Thursday at the Bronx Documentary Center. We are familiar with the polemics — Should we have gone to war? Why did we go to war? — but we are losing sight of what happens on the ground in the defining act of invasion. His journal is a jolt, a corrective.
Lieutenant McLaughlin is the perfect diarist. To begin with, he was a Russian language and poetry major at Holy Cross, he was raised in a big Irish-American family in the bedrock of New Hampshire and he emerged from the war with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder — which, he will tell you, should not be called a disorder, because he regards it as a normal reaction to the infliction and burden of extreme trauma. But Lieutenant McLaughlin was also at the Pentagon on 9/11, and his diary includes his recollection of what happened there — the thuds he heard when the plane hit the building, his effort to get through its smoke-filled corridors to find his brother, who also worked there, and the flashing emergency lights and emergency warning to evacuate the premises immediately.
That was the start of Lieutenant McLaughlin’s unique experience of our wartime. His battalion was the first Marine unit into the center of Baghdad and was responsible for the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square. The flag that was controversially placed on the statue belonged to Lieutenant McLaughlin. He still has it, and it will be displayed in the exhibit on select days. His diary explains what happened to him at Firdos Square, too — the chaos of storming into the heart of an enemy capital, the antiwar protester who called him a child killer, the order to get his flag for a souvenir picture atop the statue.
I covered the invasion for the Times Magazine as a “unilateral” journalist driving into the war zone in a Hyundai sport-utility vehicle I had rented from Hertz in Kuwait City; for most of the time I was following Lieutenant McLaughlin’s unit, the Third Battalion Fourth Marines. Years later I began to work on a story for The New Yorker that reconstructed the toppling of the Saddam statue, and while reporting it I got in touch with Lieutenant McLaughlin and he showed me his diaries, which he hadn’t opened since Iraq. Sand spilled out when I opened the first pages.
Not long afterward, I showed the diaries to photographer Gary Knight, a friend who also covered Lieutenant McLaughlin’s battalion during the invasion; Mr. Knight suggested an exhibit that would feature diary pages blown up to poster size. It is one thing to read a soldier’s words on an anodyne computer screen, but quite another thing to read his handwriting; testimony does not get much purer. The nonprofit Bronx Documentary Center agreed to host our exhibit — which is titled “Invasion: Diaries and Memories of War in Iraq” — and we raised nearly $17,000 on Kickstarter. The exhibit, which also features Knight’s photographs and excerpts from my stories, begins Thursday with an opening reception at the center and the online publication of Lieutenant McLaughlin’s diaries by Foreign Policy.
(Excerpted from “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil” by Peter Maass)
The addictions of Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, are regularly
in full view. On his television show, Aló Presidente, Chávez sips espresso
from a white porcelain cup, and because the program can last from
morning until night, with Chávez talking and singing and crying and
joking and taking phone calls from Fidel Castro, the nation watches
him drink cup after cup. Quite famously, the paratrooper-turnedpresident
is wired on caffeine. That’s not his only craving. In the halls
of American power, Chávez is known as a leftist who appeared at the
United Nations a day after President George W. Bush and proclaimed,
crossing himself and sniffing the air, “The devil came here yesterday,
and it still smells of sulfur.” In his disobedience of political etiquette,
Chávez acts with intended provocation. His defiance extends to the
realm of economic strategies, because he is trying to overturn the dismal
conventions of third-world resource management.
If, in the last century, you watched in dismay as oil profits were
stolen or wasted, you might have been hopeful when Chávez was
elected president and vowed to use resource wealth to help the needy.
Though Venezuela has the world’s seventh-largest reserves, most of its
26 million citizens are exceedingly poor. The enclaves of wealth in
Caracas are surrounded by coils of angry slums. It is a classic example
of what economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “rich countries with poor people.”
Chávez’s desire for a fairer economic order was not new, because
radical and well-meaning leaders across the globe had tried to make oil
a blessing. Nigeria had had one or two presidents who preferred
reform to looting, and even Huey Long tried to spread the oil wealth in
Louisiana. But Louisiana remains one of the poorest states in America,
and Nigeria is, well, Nigeria. I went to Venezuela to see whether
Chávez could perform the magic that had eluded so many others, and
my first stop was the barrio of Gramoven, where a new paradigm of
resource management was being built.
Gramoven, at first glance, seems a model for little more than worldclass
squalor. Its crowded streets are lined with bare-essentials shops
selling everything from sacks of flour to used shoelaces. Young men
linger on corners in the way of the unemployed, swapping rumors
about jobs that are hard to find. There is a wariness in their eyes, on the
lookout for not just work but danger, because on these unkind streets
even the jobless are mugged. Other hazards include manhole covers
that have been stolen, which means that if you do not watch your step,
you can disappear into a black hole. In a general sense, Gramoven is a
black hole of poverty from which few escape.
Gramoven was hosting a vision of the future that went by the awkward
name of Fabricio Ojeda Nucleus of Endogenous Development.
The “nucleus,” located on a side street near the barrio’s heart, consisted
of three main brick buildings the size of low-slung dance halls.
One building housed a medical clinic, while the others held cooperatives
that produced shoes and clothes. The well-tended complex covered
just sixteen acres and had, at its center, a small amphitheater for
meetings and performances; off to one side were an organic garden and
a sports field. This nucleus was a model for Chávez’s effort to plow oil
money into social development. There were plans for hundreds like it
across Venezuela, and not only did the funding come from oil, but the
state-owned oil company managed everything. At the time I visited in
2005, the nucleus had received more than $7 million from Petróleos de
Venezuela S.A., and a PDVSA manager, wearing a company badge,
helped run the place. It was a showcase of sorts, because Chávez had
broadcast an Aló Presidente episode from it, and its visitors included
Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Cornel West.
The shoe cooperative, suffused with the aromas of leather and
glue, was brightly lit and freshly painted. Its sewing and cutting
machines were not crammed together, as they might be in a typical
sweatshop. The pace of work was not hectic when I visited, and perhaps
because of that, the output was a modest six hundred pairs of
shoes a day. The measured rate of production did not translate into
high quality, unfortunately. The workers were new to shoemaking and
most of their output went to Cuba, which cannot afford to be picky, or
was distributed at discount prices to poor families in the barrio.
Oswaldo Quintero, one of the associates, as workers called themselves,
explained that the 140 members of the cooperative voted on their pay
(about $190 a month) and hours (two six-hour shifts a day). Quintero,
who was forty years old, a former taxi driver and the father of five children,
had an Everyman look, with a slight potbelly, a two-day stubble
and short legs. His blue overalls were smeared in shoe polish. He
savored his new life because he didn’t need to drive around the city for
twelve or fourteen hours a day, six days a week, risking robbery or carjacking
“PDVSA now belongs to all Venezuelans,” he said. “Before it was
just a small group who profited from it.”
He meant that PDVSA, though state-owned, had not served the
state well. In 1976, when a nationalization law went into effect,
PDVSA gained control of the country’s oil reserves. By the 1990s, most
of the firm’s gross revenues were plowed back into its operations; the
rest went to the government. Because oil revenues were the government’s
largest source of income, the company ended up with a larger
budget than the government, and this had the perverse effect of creating
a prosperous first-world company in an impoverished third-world
nation. The firm had a talented and well-paid cadre of engineers, its
facilities had up-to-date equipment and it smoothly pumped out large
amounts of oil—reaching a peak of nearly 3.5 million barrels a day. But
like the foreign companies with which it operated joint ventures,
PDVSA spent only a token amount of its considerable revenues on
social or economic programs.
When Chávez was elected, PDVSA was quasi-independent of the
government that owned it. This would not last. In 2002, after a series
of political conflicts that included an anti-Chávez coup, PDVSA workers
went on a two-month strike that ended with Chávez firing eighteen
thousand managers and engineers—most of the firm’s white-collar
workers. Chávez proceeded to turn the firm’s priorities upside down.
Instead of about 40 percent of its revenues going to the state, twothirds
did. But there was a twist: instead of the oil money being transferred
to the government and then to ministries that oversaw health,
education and welfare programs, PDVSA was put in charge of the blitz
of new programs. Chávez calculated that PDVSA’s revamped staff
would be more loyal and more capable than the civil servants whose
uninspired presence lent government ministries the aura of early
retirement homes for bureaucrats.
“Sowing the oil”—in Venezuela, this phrase is often used to
describe the spending of oil revenues on human development—had a
quick impact on the lives of people like Quintero. Thanks to his reasonable
work hours at the nucleus, he had enough time to attend an
adult-literacy course for which he received a “scholarship” of nearly
$100 a month; he was being paid to take the course, which was held at
a nearby school. PDVSA subsidized these courses—not only the
scholarships but teachers, textbooks, televisions and videocassettes.
PDVSA funded these adult schools across the country, as well as a network
of new universities and secondary schools named after Chávez’s
nineteenth-century hero, Simón Bolívar, who fought for Latin American
Because oil prices rose from almost the moment he was elected,
Chávez was able to pour tens of billions of dollars into these programs.
He had the same fortunate timing as another statesman who came to
power as oil prices took off—Vladimir Putin. Chávez called his reform
movement a Bolivarian revolution, and poor Venezuelans were its beneficiaries.
For the first time in his life, Quintero even had access to
decent medical care, thanks to the nucleus clinic, which had six pediatricians,
two gynecologists, a radiologist and three GPs, as well as
X-ray and ultrasound machines. Everything—the clinic building, the
medical equipment, the tongue depressors, the television and airconditioner
in the bright waiting room—was paid for by PDVSA. Oil revenues even fed Quintero,
who shopped at a subsidized grocery store, part of a chain called Mercal, adjacent
to the nucleus. This store sold sugar, rice, milk, cheese and other items for discounts
as high as 50 percent; the walls of the Gramoven Mercal were covered in murals that
showed a slave breaking his chains. The country had thousands of
these stores and, it seemed, a larger number of revolutionary murals.
It was stirring if you did not let your mind linger too long on economics
In the early 1980s, I’d visited Yugoslavia and toured a factory cooperative.
The Yugoslav economy revolved around workers’ cooperatives,
a proud achievement of the country’s longtime leader, Josip Broz
Tito, who claimed to have found a third way to prosperity that avoided
the brutishness of capitalist managers and the dimness of party apparatchiks.
At the cooperative I visited, the workers were the owners, or
so the pitch went, and all decisions were made democratically by the
workers or a council they elected. Shifts, pay and even disciplinary
measures were decided by them. Everything was done fairly, and everyone
It was splendid and unreal, because Yugoslavia’s economy was a
sort of Ponzi scheme. The cooperatives did not produce goods that
people wanted, and behind the scenes, dim-witted apparatchiks were
making the big decisions. The country’s showcase industrial product, a
compact car called the Yugo, was a punch line for late-night comics.
The economy held together because Western nations loaned about
$20 billion to the Yugoslav government so that it would not fall under
the sway of the Soviet Union. The loans were dispersed by Belgrade to
cooperatives like the one I visited, and they stayed afloat until the
decline of the Soviet Union meant the West no longer needed to subsidize
Yugoslavia. The subsequent contraction of the Yugoslav economy
helped trigger civil war in the 1990s.
Venezuela’s endogenous nuclei, adult-literacy programs and subsidized
Mercals were not being kept afloat by loans. They floated on oil.
Under Chávez, output was more than 2 million barrels a day, which
meant that when prices were $100 a barrel, Venezuela was producing
more than $200 million worth of oil every twenty-four hours. Even
after deducting the cost of getting the oil out of the ground and shipping
it to markets, it was a lot of money for a nation of 26 million
souls—not Kuwait levels of drowning-in-oil riches, but higher on a per
capita basis than Nigeria or Russia. You didn’t need to be a utopian or
Marxist to believe it might be possible to reach the goals enunciated by
Rafael Ramírez, who served as oil minister and PDVSA president: “To
rescue and redistribute petroleum rent to the benefit of the
people . . . to transform the terrible imbalances and social inequalities
which, paradoxically, are present in one of the countries with the
largest oil endowments on the planet.” Few governments had made this
happen, and by pouring oil money into programs that reminded me of
Yugoslavia, I suspected, Venezuela was galloping toward a mirage.
PDVSA’s fastest-growing subsidiary was Palmaven, which ran the
firm’s social programs and was located in an office tower adjacent to the
luxury Radisson hotel. It was unusual enough that an oil company had
an entire division devoted to good works, but even stranger that the
man in charge of the marquee program—the endogenous nuclei—was
a navy officer. Captain Rommel Rangel, whose handshake was military
strong and whose civilian clothes were pressed to perfection, was not a
typical naval or corporate man. He was a Chávez supporter who, like
the president, had been born into poverty and become disenchanted
with neoliberal policies that hollowed out his homeland in the 1980s.
Rangel didn’t mind that I arrived at his immaculate office on a Friday
afternoon, when the city was emptying out for the weekend; he happily
talked as it became dark outside, and his fervor was an evangelical’s.
When I mentioned the oddity of a navy officer running a social program
in a petroleum firm, he smiled and responded by turning globalization
on its head, Chávez-style. “Economic development is not as
important as social change,” he said, with the enthusiasm of a man who
has just solved a Rubik’s Cube. His optimism was admirable. His plans,
Chávez’s policies were born of the notion that because neoliberal
economics had failed, its opposite would succeed. His embrace of a
radical alternative brought to mind Ryszard Kapuscinski’s description
of oil as “the temptation of ease, wealth, strength, fortune, power.”
Kapuscinski meant that oil seduces rulers into believing it is possible to
build a new Rome with little difficulty, because money can do anything.
The shah of Iran, Kapuscinski noted, promised to create a second
America in a generation, but succeeded only in paving the way to an
oppressive religious regime that, among its many failures, cannot produce
enough gasoline for its drivers. Libya’s reserves spurred Muammar
Qaddafi to a particular brand of change-the-worldism, hinted at
by one of his titles, Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution.
After taking power in a 1969 coup, Qaddafi aspired to lead the nonaligned
world, then scaled back his ambitions to the Arab world, then
to Africa only. He planned to develop nuclear weapons and attack
American targets. After three decades of failure, and with his country
an economic wreck and politically isolated, Qaddafi finally let go of his
Chávez’s visions of petrograndeur were geographically vast, too. In
addition to subsidizing the barrios of Caracas, he was distributing discounted
heating oil to poor families in New York, Philadelphia and
Boston. Because these donations were intended to embarrass President
George W. Bush, who treated Chávez as a grave menace, PDVSA paid
for a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that boasted,
“Venezuela is warming up the holidays in New York.” And not just
there—Venezuelan oil was distributed at deep discounts throughout
Latin America, with a generous portion going to Cuba. Chávez’s
regime provided financing for a Latin American TV network, Telesur;
bought Argentinean bonds when the government in Buenos Aires was
reeling; and sent engineers to Bolivia to run gas facilities that were
being nationalized. Venezuela’s hemispheric outlays were estimated at
nearly $9 billion in 2007, which were several times more than the nonmilitary
aid doled out by the United States south of its border. Chávez
made no secret of his desire to be this century’s Bolívar.
The problem was not, as the Bush administration fretted in those
days, that Chávez would turn South America into Cuba writ large.
That fear overlooked a geopolitical fact, which is that you can rent
political friends in this world but you cannot buy them. Chávez’s billions
in direct aid were no match for the cultural, corporate and political
influence Washington retained in the region; American dominion
would not be ended with a few years of subsidies from Caracas. The
problem was that Venezuela, believing its mirage, could not afford its
friends any more than the Soviet Union could afford its satellites in
Eastern Europe. The Gramoven nucleus was replicated throughout
Venezuela, but these cooperatives, created at great cost to PDVSA,
provided a fraction of what the country needed in the way of jobs.
Caracas was drowning in the usual mix of oil and unemployment. A
core feature of the resource curse, as we’ve seen, is that although the oil
industry dominates an economy, it creates few jobs. High-tech refineries
can cost billions of dollars to construct, but once they’re up and
running, perhaps a few hundred workers are needed to monitor them.
If you have as much oil per capita as Kuwait, you don’t need to worry
about real jobs—you can subsidize a life of indolence for everyone in
your kingdom. But Venezuela did not have enough oil for that, and the
upshot was that its unemployment rate was well into the double digits
even during the (relatively) good times. Caracas had a booming business
in luxury cars and the highest rate of gun violence in the world for
cities not at war. The capital’s infrastructure, ignored during decades of
economic doldrums, continued to be ignored during the boom. A
highway to the airport had to be rerouted for months due to a bridge
that was in danger of collapsing; what had been an hour-long commute
to the airport required three to four hours over a zigzag of back roads.
Chávez was not deterred. He was a true believer in a new economic
order that captivated, for a while at least, most Venezuelans. To understand
why, I turned on my television.
The day I watched Aló Presidente, Chávez was, as usual, a mix of Bill
Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. He sat at a desk under a large outdoor
tent, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, talking and joking with an audience
of several hundred people who fanned themselves to stay cool in
the muggy shade. With a microphone in hand, he walked among the
crowd and asked people about their lives, hugging and kissing whoever
praised his government, as all did. When he encountered a Cuban doctor—
thousands of them provide free medical care in Venezuela in
exchange for free oil to Cuba—he waved at the camera and shouted,
The show went on for hours, with Chávez extolling his Bolivarian
revolution. Bolívar is something of a fetish object for Chávez, who has
said he often talks to the great liberator, who has been dead for more
than a century. Occasionally, Chávez leaves an empty seat at a table, so
that the liberator’s spirit has a place to sit. Chávez has changed the
country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and this
episode of Aló Presidente was broadcast from a PDVSA facility that had
been turned into a Bolivarian university, at which admission was open
to all who applied. Chávez has also set up Bolivarian circles, local
groups with millions of adherents working on behalf of his policies
and, crucially, his election campaigns.
“We are not going to rest our bodies or souls until we get rid of the
chains around our homeland,” he said during the show. “We offer an
alternative to those who want a better road, the Bolivarian path. We
don’t need money from Washington or the IMF. We are not subordinate
to their will. We can do it with oil money.”
A band played a tune with the refrain “Long live the revolution,”
and after singing along Chávez embraced the musicians like old friends.
His joviality was genuine; Chávez clearly was enjoying himself and
drew energy from these people, who were not wealthy and seemed to
love their down-to-earth president-host. Chávez eventually returned
to his desk, began to sip a fresh cup of espresso and noticed that the
time had flown by. “Okay,” he said. “It’s now three o’clock, which
means I’ve been talking for four hours already. I feel good!”
The program continued for three more hours, during which
Chávez warned of the evils of Halloween, took a call from the
Venezuelan manager of the Chicago White Sox and announced a raise
in doctors’ salaries. In certain ways, the show worked. A leader who
hopes to fundamentally alter a dysfunctional economy will certainly
benefit from personal charm and political popularity; a mild-mannered
technocrat would have a hard time imposing the radical changes that
would be the preconditions for prosperity in Venezuela or any blighted
country that had failed to benefit from its oil.
Yet Chávez’s performance had the feel of what Fernando Coronil, a
Venezuelan scholar, described as a state limited to “magic performances,
not miracles.” I understood this more fully when I went to see
Chávez in the flesh at Miraflores Palace, his office and residence.
The Miraflores ceremony was part of the great game of our times—
the superpower search for steady supplies of energy. China, which
didn’t import much petroleum until 2000 yet is now the third-largest
importer after the United States and Japan, was doing whatever it
could to win the friends and resources it needed. In the realm of
oil supplies, long-term relationships and contracts are vital. Modest
amounts of oil can be bought on the “spot market,” which is where
countries and companies buy and sell crude for short-term delivery.
For example, the cargo of a supertanker can change hands while on the
open seas. (In fact, it can change hands several times.) But the amounts
of oil that can be purchased in this way are relatively minor. Most of the
world’s oil is spoken for in long-term contracts that guarantee deliveries
from a supplier for several years at least; values are linked to “spot
prices,” which are market rates that prevail at the time of shipment.
Through its state-owned companies, Beijing hoped to negotiate
long-term contracts for Venezuela’s crude (as well as Sudan’s, Saudi
Arabia’s and Equatorial Guinea’s, among others’). This was a potential
threat to America, which was Venezuela’s largest oil customer
even under Chávez; despite the Bolivarian rhetoric, two-thirds of
Venezuela’s exports went to America. Altering this balance was a delicate
game. Chávez could shout and threaten as much as he wanted—he
could even deride America’s president as the devil—but actually stopping
oil shipments to his large neighbor up north could lead to serious
consequences; addicts do not react calmly when separated from their
fixes. China knew this and did not want to provoke America, yet everyone
understood that some supplies could be acquired without causing
World War III. To woo Caracas, China had even agreed to launch a
communications satellite on favorable terms. At Miraflores, Chávez
was getting ready to break this news to the world.
In a basement conference room the size of a high school theater,
the front rows were reserved for Chinese officers and businessmen. On
stage, several executives from the China GreatWall Industry Corporation
waited for Chávez, who arrived a half hour late, clad in a blue suit,
white shirt and red tie. He is built stoutly and has thick facial features
that give him the look of a retired yet still-energetic boxer who would
be glad to return to the ring. His skin is dark brown, reflecting his mestizo
lineage. He fills a room like warm water poured into a cup. Dressed
in a suit or uniform, smiling or scowling, he makes an impression.
After the Chinese and Venezuelan anthems were sung, Chávez,
standing in front of a portrait of Bolívar, in whose honor the satellite
was named, launched into a speech of the sort that was his trademark—
presidential streams of consciousness. He congratulated the Chinese
for being clever at math and saluted their women for being so beautiful.
He thanked the Chinese government for training Venezuelans in
satellite technology, saying they were teaching Venezuela “how to fly.”
As a visual aid, he flapped his arms like wings. He added that the Chinese
had learned to fly under “the great Mao Tse-tung,” and because
Chávez drew inspiration from Mao’s one-party, one-truth pedigree, he
smiled broadly and exhorted, “Long live the Chinese revolution!”
The Chinese businessmen, as rigorously mercantilist these days as
John Rockefeller was in his time, gazed at Chávez. They didn’t seem to
know whether the desired response was sardonic smiles or clenched
fists, but their expressions veered toward the safe harbor of nodding
approval. One of them adjusted the volume on his headset—the speech
was being translated into Chinese—as Chávez said, “We don’t want to
earn money out of this. We’re not capitalists. This is about the survival
of our country and the destruction of capitalism. Capitalists are generating
Yet capitalists were still buying oil from Venezuela, and lots of it.
The substance, like water from the glaciers, tends to flow according to
a variety of gravitational forces. There is geography (American ports
are far closer than China’s), technology (American refineries were
equipped to process Venezuela’s heavier crudes) and, of course, political
realities (a cutoff might put Washington into a regime-changing
frame of mind). A presidente can flap his arms in Caracas and hold his
nose at the United Nations and promise to remake his nation, but
these are performances. The political or economic miracles that
Chávez or any leader in his situation might wish for are, most likely,
beyond reach, and have always been so.
A pop quiz:
What is the name of the Venezuelan president who described the
backers of globalization at the World Bank as “genocide workers in the
pay of economic totalitarianism”?
Which Venezuelan leader, nationalizing the operations of Exxon
and other foreign companies, described their corporate activities as
Which populist presidente poured billions of dollars into social pro-
grams, vowing that the wave of oil money washing into the country
would be used to create a “Great Venezuela”?
If you answered “Hugo Chávez,” you are wrong. The correct
answer is Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was president from 1974 to 1979
and dominated Venezuela so thoroughly that he was known by just his
initials, CAP. Pérez came to power as Venezuela began gorging on
petrodollars in the wake of the 1973 OPEC embargo. For a hallucinatory
period, Venezuela had the per capita income of West Germany,
the supersonic Concorde flew to Caracas three times a week and in
Miami’s luxury stores Venezuelans were known as dame dos, for “give
me two” in Spanish. Pérez was not as virulently anti-American as
Chávez but was every bit the populist. He boasted of walking across the
entire country during his presidential campaign, visiting every village
on foot. Because he assumed the postembargo windfall would be permanent
and ever-growing, he authorized billions of dollars in foreign
loans to plow ever more money into his Gran Venezuela programs.
This was the economic equivalent of a binge destined to end with
the money running out or the bloated corpus of Venezuela being
ruined by the windfall. As things turned out, both happened. One of
the few people who foresaw this was Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, the former
oil minister credited with coming up with the idea of a cartel of
producing nations in the 1960s. (Pérez Alfonzo is known as the father
of OPEC.) In semiretirement, Pérez Alfonzo told a visiting academic
researcher, when Venezuela was afloat on its first oil bonanza, “Don’t
study OPEC. Study what oil is doing to Venezuela. Ten years from
now, twenty years from now, you will see, oil will bring us ruin. . . . It’s
the devil’s excrement.”
To understand where Chávez was taking Venezuela, I looked not to
the future but to the past. When oil prices collapsed in the 1980s,
Venezuela came undone as public debt and national poverty soared.
There was no economic safety net, because the influx of oil money had
decimated the agricultural and industrial sectors by inflating their
costs. They had lost the competitive edge they’d had before the oil
boom. As in Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting countries, more peo-
ple looked to the government for their sustenance rather than to their
own brawn or brains. Yet the government, at times of low oil prices,
had little to offer. The country went into a free fall.
Because oil can instigate any absurdity, CAP was brought out of
retirement and reelected president in 1988, with a desperate nation
hoping he could resummon the prosperity that had existed in his previous
reign. Yet he had no more magic tricks or even performances. He
bowed to global economic winds and imposed an austerity program
that had the short-term effect of making the poor even poorer. Widespread
rioting broke out, and as many as three thousand people were
killed in the Caracazo, as the 1989 disturbances were called. Among
the country’s impoverished—and this was now most of the country—
the perceived cause of their misery was not oil or debt but the capitalist
order. Army officers staged two coups against CAP, and though these
uprisings were quashed, the leader of the first one, a charismatic lieutenant
colonel, became a national hero for defending the interests of
the poor. After more than two years in jail, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo
Chávez was set free.
There is a saying that Venezuela does not have good or bad presidents,
just presidents who serve at times of high or low oil prices.
Chávez, running for president in 1998 as the main political parties all
but collapsed from decrepitude, had the great luck of being elected
when oil sold for just $12 a barrel. As his presidency got under way,
prices began climbing, and six years later, a barrel fetched more than
$65, on its way to more than $140. Under his caffeinated direction,
Venezuela began a radical spending spree that was similar to the Gran
Venezuela effort of a generation earlier, and for economists like José
Toro-Hardy, it was akin to watching a car speed toward a wall that it
had smacked into not so long ago.
If you don’t mind surveillance cameras and ten-foot walls topped with
shards of glass, or barking German shepherds and private security
guards who glare at all newcomers, the neighborhood of El Country
Club is delightful. It is one of the capital’s enclaves of wealth and is
noted for its namesake, a two-hundred-acre club built in the early
twentieth century for the benefit of American oilmen and their good
friends, the local oligarchy. El Country Club has horse stables, tennis
courts and an eighteen-hole golf course, and is such an untouchable
institution that when the mayor of Caracas proposed confiscating its
land to build low-income housing, Chávez’s federal government
advised that this would be an excessive act of Bolivarism.
For the fortunate Venezuelans who reside along the area’s spotless
and quiet streets—a universe apart from the chaos in the rest of Caracas—
these were wealth-enhancing times. Although Chávez was despised
by the upper class, some of whom had already decamped to
luxury condos in Miami, the flood of oil money did not bypass them.
When I visited in 2005, the monthly rent on a three or four bedroom
apartment near El Country Club was running at about $7,000. The
providers of luxury goods and services, from late-model BMWs to plastic
surgery, were doing a booming business in precincts around the club.
This was where José Toro-Hardy lived, and after I was buzzed
through a locked gate along his street, a maid opened the front door
and walked me through an open-air atrium. The quiet and the greenery
and the chirping of birds imparted an eco-resort vibe, but Toro-
Hardy, unlike his home, was not at peace. A former director of PDVSA
who was ousted after Chávez came to power, Toro-Hardy had become
a fierce critic of the president’s economic policies. His critique rose
above the entitled whinings heard on the shady verandas around El
Country, because Toro-Hardy was the author of scholarly books on oil
economics and considered himself a nationalist whose nation was yet
again being ruined by oil.
His demeanor was nervous, with his eyes darting and his voice
wavering, as if he were a fugitive from the illusion of reality Venezuela
was embracing. His warnings were issued in the manner of a man
imparting what he believed to be a vital yet ignored truth; his pulse and
blood pressure made him a candidate for immediate bed rest.
Venezuela, with the world’s highest proportion of beauty queens, was a
nation of obsessives, and Toro-Hardy was obsessed about oil. He led
me into his office and asked me to peruse economic charts as he
searched the Internet for up-to-the-second oil data. One chart told a
notable story. From 1920 to 1980, Venezuela had the strongest growth
of any country in South America. For much of that time, oil was not a
curse, largely because it was not a dominant force—with oil prices
quite low, Venezuela also maintained vigorous farming and industrial
sectors. Another chart showed how the petrodollar flood that began in
1973 had upset the country’s balance. This is a paradox of windfalls like
the one inundating Chávez-era Venezuela; they can distort rather than
strengthen national institutions. We’ve seen this before: as the oil sector
grows, farming and manufacturing may contract, unemployment
may expand, inflation may rise due to the influx of revenues from oil
sales, and the gap between rich and poor may widen. This began in the
1970s, and the latest boom was only papering over the structural problems—
it was the euphoria of the bubble.
“This is not something that can be sustained,” Toro-Hardy said.
“The whole economy depends on government expenditure, but that
depends on one factor: oil prices. The laws of economy cannot be violated
any more than the laws of gravity. Sooner or later we will have a
serious economic crisis.”
It was hard to imagine prices returning to the $12-a-barrel lows
that had prevailed when Chávez came to power, but even high prices
were not a guarantee of high revenues. Like almost every oil exporter,
Venezuela struggled to maintain its output. After the mass firing in
2002, PDVSA’s output plunged by nearly 50 percent, and not all of the
lost ground had been regained. Geology was not helping matters,
because Venezuela was running short of the light crude that is easiest to
refine. The country has vast deposits of tar sands near the Orinoco
River, but converting them into conventional oil is a complex process
that involves costly technologies, large volumes of water and natural
gas—and it causes severe environmental damage. To get the job done,
PDVSA needed the help of foreign firms that were now reluctant to
get involved because they had been forced to cede control of oil projects
they’d operated before Chávez came to power. Orinoco’s heavy oil
seemed unlikely to fund the Bolivarian revolution.
Toro-Hardy saw a landscape of problems that centered on dogmatic
economic programs implemented not by a government ministry
but by an oil company that was having a hard time just pumping oil. He
was ready to acknowledge that PDVSA, when Chávez came to power,
had needed to be reformed because it had indeed grown aloof from the
country. But Chávez’s method, firing half the workforce, was akin to
destroying a village in order to save it. Extracting oil requires immense
amounts of expertise, in the form of engineers who understand the
geological profiles of the reservoirs they are drilling into. These
experts cannot be replaced like waiters in a restaurant. When large
numbers of oil experts left Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, production
plummeted; Iran’s production has inched back, after three
decades of war and instability, to just 4 million barrels a day, which is a
third less than its prerevolution rate. A similar decline was taking place
in Venezuela, where the output was no more than 2.5 million barrels a
day when I visited—or a third less than its peak. PDVSA, shorn of its
best and brightest, could not do its job as well as it used to, and now it
had an additional task to perform.
Chávez did not just order PDVSA to boost its community spending
by a few percentage points; he turned the firm into the engine of revolutionary
change. PDVSA allotted more to its social projects in 2006—
nearly $10 billion—than to its operations ($5.9 billion). In a sense, it
became a development agency with oil wells. No other oil company,
whether publicly traded or state-owned, spent nearly as much on noncore
programs. In Saudi Arabia, Russia and other oil countries, stateowned
firms tend to have modest social programs. Their surpluses are
transferred to the Treasury and distributed to ministries that chase the
holy grail of sustainable development. Usually they fail. You can build
colleges, as Saudi Arabia did, but that doesn’t mean the degrees will
count for much or that jobs will await the graduates.
Chávez was betting, almost literally, that an oil company would
succeed where government ministries might not. PDVSA went from
one extreme—disassociated from the government it was supposed to
serve—to the opposite extreme of taking over the government’s duties.
I knew that villagers in the Niger Delta would be delighted if Shell or
its government-owned partner would provide the education, electricity,
medical care and jobs that the negligent and corrupt government
did not offer. But it was hard to imagine how oilmen might do better
development work than a government’s development experts. Oil companies
should certainly provide funding and support to official efforts,
as well as fight corruption and waste. But replacing a government
seemed a doomed concept. As Toro-Hardy said in his exasperated way,
“Oil companies should do more, but they should not change their mission.
Now, instead of investing in its own projects, PDVSA is investing
in housing and social programs. This is very nice, but it’s not for an oil
In Venezuela, it was as though a well-meaning doctor was using the
wrong instruments and wrong procedures to operate on a sick patient.
Even during the boom years, signs of failure were ample—price controls
on foodstuffs were leading to shortages, and the government was
spending so much on subsidies that it was running into deficit problems,
which is a striking achievement when large amounts of revenues
are being received from oil sales. Chávez’s policies, intended to break
the resource curse, seemed likely to prolong it. “I am not defending the
previous governments,” Toro-Hardy said as he walked me out of his
private sanctuary. “They did an awful job. But giving away money is
not going to solve people’s problems. We have a saying here: ‘Bread for
today and hunger for tomorrow.’”
When oil prices slid back to the double digits, Chávez’s popularity
began to slide, too. He didn’t have as much money to throw at the
country’s problems. An opposition candidate even won election as
mayor of Caracas in 2008. Magic shows can obscure reality but cannot
make it disappear.
Copyright Peter Maass
A few years ago, a former marine named Tim McLaughlin drove to New Hampshire in his red pickup to visit his parents’ farmhouse, which is where he stored his gear from Iraq, among which were his war diaries. A marine decal was on one of the covers, and below it, a haunting phrase he had written based on both a Johnny Cash song and the Book of Revelations: “His horse was named Death… and Hell followed them.” When he opened the first pages, sand fell out; the journals had not been touched since he returned from the invasion in 2003.
These days, we are drawn to digital methods of memory preservation — blogs and tweets and status updates — but handwritten diaries endure, especially in wartime. They do not need electricity or to be handled with care, and they carry a unique form of literary DNA. Each stroke of the pen is a highly individualised signature that reveals the writer’s emotional state. Diaries were kept by American and British soldiers in Iraq, as they were kept by Iraqis. McLaughlin was a 25-year-old Marine Corps first lieutenant when he started his journals in the Kuwaiti desert. As he waited for the invasion, he was filled with a combination of boredom and anxiety, a longing to be at war and no longer at war. His diary opens with a stunning remembrance of the day that marked the start of his journey to Kuwait and beyond.
On September 11, 2001, McLaughlin’s workday began at the Pentagon, where he was a general’s aide. He went to a basement gym around eight in the morning, and in the locker room he heard a radio report about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Odd. Moments later, he saw live television reports of a second plane hitting the centre. He was shocked. He headed outside for his run. After a mile and a half, he heard two thuds behind him. A cloud was over the Pentagon. Emergency vehicles roared past. He sprinted back to the torn building and rushed inside to find his brother, also a marine, who worked there.
“It was like climbing a chimney with smoke filling in from top to bottom,” McLaughlin wrote in his diary’s first pages. “I stopped, finally realising that I was completely alone in the largest office building in the world. I could barely see my hand in front of me, the only light was from the refraction of the blinking emergency lights and the only sound was from a mechanical/computerised woman’s voice that repeated — There has been an emergency. Please exit the building immediately.”
Outside again, McLaughlin met a corporal who asked: “What do we do now, sir?”
McLaughlin’s experience makes for an ideal diarist.
He read Russian language and poetry at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, he was at the Pentagon on 9/11, he commanded a tank at the tip of the invading force in 2003, and he played a key role in the invasion’s famous culmination — the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square. It was McLaughlin’s American flag that was draped controversially on the statue. And when he left the marines, McLaughlin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Few people are connected so intimately to such essential matters of war and peace.
Back in New Hampshire, McLaughlin brought out the flag and described how it was given to him by a family acquaintance a few days after 9/11, how he packed it in his rucksack when his tank company was deployed to Kuwait two years later, and how he tried to raise it several times during the invasion, to get a souvenir snapshot. Once, he almost got hit by bullets while trying to raise it atop a building, another time a tank ran over the flagpole he was about to use. By the time his tank company stormed into Baghdad and surrounded the statue, his flag was semi-famous among his fellow marines. So the order went out: McLaughlin, get your flag, it’s time.
The core of the diary is an account of violence and death and regret. In McLaughlin’s tight script, there is this after-battle notation: “Killed 4 soldiers trying to run away… then 1 swimming across the canal.” And this one, about his tank turning its 7.62mm coaxial machinegun on a car that suddenly drove onto the road during a battle: “Civilian [driver] shot 5 times in back and legs. Continued progress to Afaq.” On another page, there is a careful list of vehicles his tank had destroyed. At the bottom is the tally in lives: “70 people dead.” The diaries are a visual experience. There are pictures and maps of the places he has been and things he saw — drawings of the Pentagon on the day it was attacked and of Firdos Square on the day of the toppling. The pages devoted to the toppling are a mad rush of impressions: “Swamped by mass of reporters — could not move/peace protester ‘How many children have you killed today’ ” — until he writes, “Capt Lewis sent me back to get flag… [Corporal Edward] Chin draped it over Saddam’s face… Got flag back — people tried to get it from me.”
Diaries reflect the mess of life, the incoherence of events as they trip over each other, tragedy followed by farce and absurdity and tragedy again. On the second-to-last page of one of the diaries, there is a picture of a kitten and the warning: “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten.” Funny. On the last page, facing the kitten, McLaughlin quotes from a country song by Tim McGraw: “So you do what you do and you pay for your sins and there’s no sense wondering what might have been that’s a waste of time, drive you outta your mind.” Not funny.
Ten years on from the Iraq invasion, McLaughlin is now a lawyer in Boston and heads a nonprofit organisation that provides free legal advice to veterans and the homeless. But it is in his diaries that we learn of the things he still carries with him.
One of the most dramatic scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, takes place in a conference room where the CIA team hunting Osama bin Laden is lambasted by its boss, played by Mark Strong. “There’s no working group coming to the rescue,” he says. “There’s nobody else, hidden away on some other floor. There is just us. And we are failing.” Voice filling with rage, he recounts the death toll from 9/11 and other al Qaeda attacks, shouting at his team, “I want targets! Do your fucking jobs, bring me people to kill!”
Much of the pre-release debate about the movie has focused on whether it portrays torture as effective, in the sense of prying information out of al Qaeda suspects. Yes, the movie conveys that view, and I think it’s inaccurate. Many experts, including key senators who oversaw an extensive congressional investigation, have concluded that torture did not play a significant role in finding bin Laden, and that torture in general is a counter-productive way to get information from prisoners. But the heated debate on torture misses what’s far more important and troubling about a film that seems destined for blockbuster and Academy Award status. Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism.
Unlike Lincoln, about a man who was killed a century and a half ago, Zero Dark Thirty portrays recent events. We know pretty much everything there is to know about Lincoln—all that’s left is to interpret the historical record—but precious little about the hunt for bin Laden. That’s why I was not only riveted by the “Bring me people to kill” line, but curious. Did it really happen? Did the film’s heroine, who is called Maya, really tell the CIA director, during a meeting about bin Laden’s compound, “I am the motherfucker that found that place”?
I had fact-or-fiction questions about nearly every scene in the movie. Because the historical record is so slim, there was really only one person who could answer all my questions. A few days ago I talked with Boal, a former journalist who wrote the screenplay, basing it on exclusive interviews he conducted with, among others, people at the CIA.
“It’s a movie,” Boal reminded me. “It’s not a documentary.” He continued, “I’m not going to go scene by scene or line by line, because first of all I think I’ve got to have some authorial privilege ... My standard is not a journalistic standard of ‘Is this a word-for-word quote?’ I’m not asking to be held to that standard and I’m certainly not representing my film as that. The standard is more, ‘Is this more or less in the ballpark?’” I pressed for detail and he replied, “It gets very dicey for me if I start confirming specific lines from specific people, so I’m not going to do that.”
I am a journalist of the quotes-are-sacred sort, which means this is the point in the story where I should begin tearing into Boal and Bigelow. But I don’t think the problem rests with them. They set out to create a feature film based on real events, and they have done so, making very clear that the film’s heroine and other characters, while based on real people, are composites or complete inventions. I was hardly the only person who received the it’s-a-movie-not-a-documentary line; the web is filled with instances of that quote from Boal and Bigelow. They are quite literally telling us to not believe every word we hear.
The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell.
Don’t get me wrong—some good journalism has emerged from embedded or invitation-only reporting. I was embedded on two occasions in Iraq, and I would like to think my stories were critical and worthwhile. But the new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.
Is this the fault of Boal and Bigelow? Not really. I can’t imagine any filmmaker or journalist saying “no” to the sort of access they apparently received (I say “apparently” because they haven’t provided details; much of the information about their access comes from news stories). And I can’t imagine many filmmakers or journalists, having gotten that access, writing a story or making a movie that would be less favorable to the CIA than Zero Dark Thirty. That is the nature of embedding: It primes its targets (I mean, journalists and filmmakers) to create stories that are skewed in the government’s favor. That is one reason, I think, the film presents torture as effective—the CIA is ground zero of that unholy belief. If Boal and Bigelow had embedded at the FBI, whose agents have been critical of torture, their film would probably have a different message about waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and cramming a prisoner into a sealed box that’s no bigger than an oven.
Yet I wonder about the ire the film arouses in its critics. I agree that the movie’s depiction of the CIA is regrettably uncritical; let’s remember, the CIA provided false evidence for going to war against Iraq, it tortured prisoners in secret jails and sent others to third countries where they would be tortured (and covered up as much of this as possible), and it is now engaged in a covert program using aerial drones to kill people who have not been convicted of any crime—and in these attacks women and children are often killed. The film fails to consider the notion that the CIA and the intelligence industry as a whole, rather than being solutions to what threatens us, might be part of the problem. These are big omissions, but let’s be honest—similar omissions are committed every day by journalists, pundits, politicians and filmmakers, and we don’t get terribly upset. At most, we change the channel.
Zero Dark Thirty will likely find a bigger, more captivated audience than any cable-news blatherer would. It’s a dazzling film. But what’s more dazzling—and frustrating—is the government’s skill, time and time again, in getting its story told so uncritically.
In 1987, when Judge Robert Bork was enmeshed in a partisan struggle over his Supreme Court nomination, a reporter for an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C., got a tip that the judge was a patron of a local video store. Michael Dolan went to Potomac Video, in the western corner of the capital, and asked the assistant manager for a list of videos the judge had checked out. “Cool,” the assistant manager said. “I’ll look.”
Dolan’s subsequent story, published in the Washington City Paper, caused a sensation, though not because of the judge’s taste in videos, which, it turned out, was unremarkable. There were a hundred and forty-six rentals in less than two years, including lots of Hitchcock and Bond, as well as movies featuring Meryl Streep and Bette Midler. As Dolan wrote, “Despite what all you pervs were hoping, there’s not an X in the bunch, and hardly an R.”
After a bitter fight, the Senate rejected Bork’s nomination. One thing everyone agreed on, however, was that Bork’s privacy had been invaded. In 1988, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act, making it illegal to release video lists without the customer’s consent to anyone but law enforcement, and then only with an appropriate warrant. It is reasonable to note that the unusually rapid congressional action was perhaps aimed at protecting the privacy of Legislator X as much as Citizen Y. If a reporter could easily get the judge’s video list, a senator’s list would not be much harder to get, and would probably be a lot more lively.
Will the scandal surrounding David Petraeus, General John Allen, Paula Broadwell, Jill Kelley, and a shirtless F.B.I. agent turn into the same sort of eureka moment that Congress experienced when Bork was, as the saying now goes, “borked”? Although the lustful portion of the Petraeus scandal is hardly disappearing—who else will be drawn into it, and when will we read the e-mails?—attention is turning toward the apparent ease with which the F.B.I. accessed the electronic communication of Petraeus, Broadwell, Kelley, and Allen. The exact circumstances of how the F.B.I. got its hands on all this material remains to be revealed—for instance, whether search warrants were obtained for everything—but the bottom line appears to be that the F.B.I. accessed a vast array of private information and seriously harmed the careers of at least Petraeus and Broadwell without, as of yet, filing a criminal complaint against anybody. As the law professor and privacy expert James Grimmelmann tweeted the other day, “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal (or what the FBI thinks is legal).”
In recent years, a handful of privacy activists—led by the A.C.L.U., the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Center for Democracy & Technology—have filed lawsuits and requested official documents in an effort to reveal and challenge the government’s vast surveillance powers. For the most part, they have not succeeded in changing things; the Petraeus scandal appears to show just how much surveillance the F.B.I. and other law-enforcement agencies can conduct without a judge or a company telling them, “No, you can’t have that.”
For instance, in its semiannual transparency report, Google announced this week that it receives more requests for user data from the U.S. government than any other government in the world, and that those requests rose twenty-six per cent in the latest six-month reporting period, to nearly eight thousand; the company said that it complied with ninety per cent of the requests, either fully or partially. As Chris Soghoian, the A.C.L.U.’s principal technologist and senior policy analyst, wrote this week, “The guest lists from hotels, IP [computer] login records, as well as the creative request to email providers for ‘information about other accounts that have logged in from this IP address’ are all forms of data that the government can obtain with a subpoena. There is no independent review, no check against abuse, and further, the target of the subpoena will often never learn that the government obtained data.”
It’s not just e-mail. In July, Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, cajoled major cell-phone carriers into disclosing the number of requests for data that they receive from federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies: in 2011, there were more than 1.3 million requests. As ProPublica reported at the time, “Police obtain court orders for basic subscriber information so frequently that some mobile phone companies have established websites—here’s one—with forms that police can fill out in minutes. The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice has said mobile phone users have ‘no reasonable expectation of privacy.’”
There’s a particularly cruel irony in all of this: if you contact your cell-phone carrier or Internet service provider or a data broker and ask to be given the information on you that they provide to the government and other companies, most of them will refuse or make you jump through Defcon levels of hops, skips, and clicks. Uncle Sam or Experian can easily access information that shows where you have been, whom you have called, what you have written, and what you have bought—but you do not have the same privileges.
The surveillance, which is being challenged in a number of suits, is conducted through an alphabet soup of laws, regulations, and loopholes, including the Wiretap Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (which extended the Wiretap Act to e-mail, and added the Stored Communications Act for stored e-mail), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Patriot Act (which amended all the others). One of the remedies that’s before Congress is a bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, to require that in most cases law-enforcement agents must obtain a search warrant from a judge before getting customer e-mails from an Internet company. It would also provide more guarantees that citizens be notified that their e-mail is being surveilled. It’s only a partial fix, of course; for instance, it does nothing about cell-phone surveillance.
Everyone has an opinion on what should be done, and one of the country’s most famous judges is of two minds on the subject. “It seems to me we often hamper enforcement agencies so that they can’t do their job, and when we aren’t doing that we are cutting them loose so they can abuse their power,” said Judge Bork, reached by phone at his home in northern Virginia. “Is there too much intrusion into private lives? I can’t answer that very well, because sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t.”
Until now, Congress has not stood in the way of expanding surveillance, mainly because it was justified as part of the effort to prevent another 9/11. But the Petraeus case shows that among the people who have the most to lose from unchecked surveillance are the people who thought they would benefit from it—government élites who allocate the funding and make the laws and operate the bureaucracy of surveillance. Perhaps they will start worrying a bit more about becoming the next Petraeus or Bork. Our legislators, who are not all angels, now have real skin in the game, so to speak.
This story was co-authored with Megha Rajagopalan
Gen. Keith Alexander is the director of the National Security Agency and oversees U.S. Cyber Command, which means he leads the government’s effort to protect America from cyberattacks. Due to the secretive nature of his job, he maintains a relatively low profile, so when he does speak, people listen closely. On July 9, Alexander addressed a crowded room at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and though he started with a few jokes — his mother said he had a face for radio, behind every general is a stunned father-in-law — he soon got down to business.
Alexander warned that cyberattacks are causing “the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” and he cited statistics from, among other sources, Symantec Corp. and McAfee Inc., which both sell software to protect computers from hackers. Crediting Symantec, he said the theft of intellectual property costs American companies $250 billion a year. He also mentioned a McAfee estimate that the global cost of cybercrime is $1 trillion. “That’s our future disappearing in front of us,” he said, urging Congress to enact legislation to improve America’s cyberdefenses.
These estimates have been cited on many occasions by government officials, who portray them as evidence of the threat against America. They are hardly the only cyberstatistics used by officials, but they are recurring ones that get a lot of attention. In his first major cybersecurity speech in 2009, President Obama prominently referred to McAfee’s $1 trillion estimate. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the main sponsors of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 that is expected to be voted on this week, have also mentioned $1 trillion in cybercrime costs. Last week, arguing on the Senate floor in favor of putting their bill up for a vote, they both referenced the $250 billion estimate and repeated Alexander’s warning about the greatest transfer of wealth in history.
A handful of media stories, blog posts and academic studies have previously expressed skepticism about these attention-getting estimates, but this has not stopped an array of government officials and politicians from continuing to publicly cite them as authoritative. Now, an examination of their origins by ProPublica has found new grounds to question the data and methods used to generate these numbers, which McAfee and Symantec say they stand behind.
One of the figures Alexander attributed to Symantec — the $250 billion in annual losses from intellectual property theft — was indeed mentioned in a Symantec report, but it is not a Symantec number and its source remains a mystery.
McAfee’s trillion-dollar estimate is questioned even by the three independent researchers from Purdue University whom McAfee credits with analyzing the raw data from which the estimate was derived. “I was really kind of appalled when the number came out in news reports, the trillion dollars, because that was just way, way large,” said Eugene Spafford, a computer science professor at Purdue.
Spafford was a key contributor to McAfee’s 2009 report, “Unsecured Economies: Protecting Vital Information” . The trillion-dollar estimate was first published in a news release that McAfee issued to announce the report; the number does not appear in the report itself. A McAfee spokesman told ProPublica the estimate was an extrapolation by the company, based on data from the report. McAfee executives have mentioned the trillion-dollar figure on a number of occasions, and in 2011 McAfee published it once more in a new report, “Underground Economies: Intellectual Capital and Sensitive Corporate Data Now the Latest Cybercrime Currency”.
In addition to the three Purdue researchers who were the report’s key contributors, 17 other researchers and experts were listed as contributors to the original 2009 report, though at least some of them were only interviewed by the Purdue researchers. Among them was Ross Anderson, a security engineering professor at University of Cambridge, who told ProPublica that he did not know about the $1 trillion estimate before it was announced. “I would have objected at the time had I known about it,” he said. “The intellectual quality of this ($1 trillion number) is below abysmal.”
The use of these estimates comes amid increased debate about cyberattacks; warnings of a digital Pearl Harbor are becoming almost routine. “A cyberattack could stop our society in its tracks,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this year. Bloomberg reported just last week that a group of Chinese hackers, whom U.S. intelligence agencies referred to as “Byzantine Candor,” have stolen sensitive or classified information from 20 organizations, including Halliburton Inc., and a prominent Washington law firm, Wiley Rein LLP.
There is little doubt that a lot of cybercrime, cyberespionage and even acts of cyberwar are occurring, but the exact scale is unclear and the financial costs are difficult to calculate because solid data is hard to get. Relying on inaccurate or unverifiable estimates is perilous, experts say, because it can tilt the country’s spending priorities and its relations with foreign nations. The costs could be worse than the most dire estimates — but they could be less, too.
Computer security companies like McAfee and Symantec have stepped into the data void. Both sell anti-virus software to consumers, and McAfee also sells a range of network security products for government agencies and private companies, including operators of critical infrastructure like power plants and pipelines. Both firms conduct and publish cybercrime research, too. “Symantec is doing outstanding work on threat analysis,” said Thomas Rid, a cybersecurity expert at Kings College London. “But still, of course they have a vested interest in portraying a more dangerous environment because they stand to gain for it.”
The companies disagree. Sal Viveros, a McAfee public relations official who oversaw the 2009 report, said in an email to ProPublica, “We work with think tanks and universities to make sure our reports are non-biased and as accurate as possible. The goal of our papers [is] to really educate on the issues and risks facing businesses. Our customers look to us to provide them with our expert knowledge.”
Symantec said its estimates are developed with standard methods used by governments and businesses to conduct consumer surveys and come from “one of the few, large, multi-country studies on cybercrime that asks consumers what forms of cybercrime they have actually experienced and what it cost them.”
* * *
Cyberattacks come in many flavors. There are everyday crimes in which hackers access personal or financial information, such as credit card numbers. There are industrial crimes and espionage in which the attacker — perhaps a foreign country or company — breaks into a corporate or government network to obtain blueprints or classified information; sometimes the attacker gets inside a network and lurks there for months or years, scooping up whatever is of interest. One of the biggest categories of cybercrime is one of the least discussed — insider theft, by disgruntled or ex-employees. There’s also a category of attacks that do not have overt financial motives and that can constitute acts of war: Attempts to create havoc in computer systems that control nuclear power plants, dams and the electrical grid. This category is of the greatest concern to national security officials.
One reason it’s a challenge to measure the financial costs of cybercrimes is that the victims often don’t know they’ve been attacked. When intellectual property is stolen, the original can remain in place, seemingly untouched. Even when the breach is known, how do you put a dollar value on a Social Security number, a formula for a new drug, the blueprints for a new car, or the bidding strategy of an oil firm? It may be impossible to know whether an attacker uses intellectual property in a way that causes economic harm to the victim; maybe the data isn’t of much use to the attacker, or maybe the attacker, though using the data to quickly bring out a new product, is not successful in gaining market share.
There’s an added complication in some attacks: Companies can be reluctant to admit they have been hacked because they fear a loss in confidence from consumers or clients. This can lead to underreporting of the problem.
“How do you even start to measure the monetary damages?” asked Nick Akerman, a partner at the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney LLP who specializes in computer cases — and one of the contributors to the McAfee report. “I would argue it is impossible. Not to say the problem isn’t enormous. It is enormous. But I don’t see how you can adequately come up with dollar figures.”
Companies that sell security software are not bound by the same professional practices as academics, whose studies tend to refrain from sweeping estimates. Even when corporate reports involve academic researchers, the results can be suspect. Industry-sponsored studies — pharmaceuticals are an example, according to a 2003 study published by BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) — can have a bias toward the industry’s economic interests. Unlike academic journals, which use a peer review process, there’s no formal system of oversight for studies published by industry. The economic interest of security companies is clear: The greater the apparent threat, the greater the reason to buy their anti-intruder software. Norton, which is owned by Symantec and sells a popular suite of anti-virus software, advises in its latest cybercrime report: “Don’t get angry. Get Norton.”
Computer scientists Dinei Florencio and Cormac Herley, who work at Microsoft Research, the software giant’s computer science lab, recently wrote a paper, “Sex, Lies and Cyber-crime Surveys,” that sharply criticized these sorts of surveys. “Our assessment of the quality of cyber-crime surveys is harsh: they are so compromised and biased that no faith whatever can be placed in their findings,” their report said. “We are not alone in this judgement. Most research teams who have looked at the survey data on cyber-crime have reached similarly negative conclusions.”
Julie Ryan, a professor of engineering management and systems engineering at George Washington University, co-authored a paper, “The Use, Misuse, and Abuse of Statistics in Information Security Research” . In an interview with ProPublica, she said: “From what I’ve seen of the big commercial surveys, they all suffer from major weaknesses, which means the data is worthless, scientifically worthless. But it’s very valuable from a marketing perspective.”
Yet corporate cybersurveys are repeatedly invoked; the NSA’s Alexander is merely among the most prominent senior officials to do it. ProPublica provided the NSA’s media office with links to critical studies, stories and blog posts about the Symantec and McAfee numbers and asked whether Alexander or the agency was aware of them or, alternately, had other data to support the numbers he cited. The NSA media office responded: “The information is publicly available and was appropriately sourced.”
* * *
McAfee was founded by John McAfee, a software engineer who wrote some of the first anti-virus software in the 1980s. The company grew quickly, thanks in part to a novel marketing strategy in those days — McAfee gave away its software, charging only for tech support. The company went public in 1992 and remained a leader in its field; last year it was acquired by Intel Corp. for $7.68 billion. “We have had just one mission: to help our customers stay safe,” McAfee says on its website. “We achieve this by creating proactive security solutions for securing your digital world.”
In 2008, McAfee decided to commission a report that would look at how the global economic downturn was affecting data theft against companies. McAfee put one of its public relations officials, Viveros, in charge of the project. Viveros, in a phone interview, said a technology marketing company was hired to create and distribute a survey to about 1,000 information and technology executives across the globe. Purdue University’s Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, headed by Spafford, analyzed the survey results, conducted follow-up interviews and helped write the report. McAfee confirmed that it helped steer $30,000 from a foundation to Purdue for the work.
The 31-page report found that the companies surveyed had an average of $12 million worth of sensitive information stored in offshore computer systems in 2008, and that each lost an average $4.6 million worth of intellectual property in 2008. The report was released on Jan. 29, 2009, in Davos, Switzerland, during a meeting of the World Economic Forum. McAfee issued a news release to announce it, and the release included dramatic numbers that were not in the report.
“The companies surveyed estimated they lost a combined $4.6 billion worth of intellectual property last year alone, and spent approximately $600 million repairing damage from data breaches,” the release said. “Based on these numbers, McAfee projects that companies worldwide lost more than $1 trillion last year.” The release contained a quote from McAfee’s then-president and chief executive David DeWalt, in which he repeated the $1 trillion estimate. The headline of the news release was “Businesses Lose More than $1 Trillion in Intellectual Property Due to Data Theft and Cybercrime.”
The trillion-dollar estimate was picked up by the media, including Bloomberg and CNET, which expressed no skepticism. But at least one observer had immediate doubts. Amrit Williams, a security consultant, wrote on his blog a few days later, “$1 trillion a year? Seriously? Where the hell did the figure come from? To give you some perspective of size the total US GDP is about 14 trillion and that includes EVERYTHING.”
The news stories got the worried attention of some of the report’s contributors because McAfee was connecting their names to an estimate they had no previous knowledge of and were skeptical about. One of the contributors, Augusto Paes de Barros, a Brazilian security consultant, blogged a week after the news release that although he was glad to have been involved in the report, “I could not find any data in that report that could lead into that number. … I’d like to see how they found this number.”
When the number was announced in 2009, McAfee provided no public explanation of how it was derived. “Initially we were just going to do the report, but a lot of people were asking us what was the total number, so we worked on a model,” said McAfee’s Viveros. This week, in response to queries from ProPublica, he disclosed details about the methodology. He said the calculations were done by a group of technology, marketing and sales officials at McAfee and were based on the survey responses.
“McAfee extrapolated the $1 trillion … based on the average data loss per company, multiplied by the number of similar companies in the countries we studied,” Viveros said in an email.
The company’s method did not meet the standards of the Purdue researchers whom it had engaged to analyze the survey responses and help write the report. In phone interviews and emails to ProPublica, associate professor Jackie Rees Ulmer said she was disconcerted when, a few days before the report’s unveiling, she received a draft of the news release that contained the $1 trillion figure. “I expressed my concern with the number as we did not generate it,” Rees Ulmer said in an email. She added that although she couldn’t recall the particulars of the phone conversation in which she made her concerns known, “It is almost certainly the case that I would have told them the number was unsupportable.”
Viveros said McAfee was never told by Purdue that the number could not be supported by the survey data. The company moved ahead with the news release and, Viveros noted, the trillion-dollar estimate “got a life of its own.”
In February 2009, President Obama ordered a 60-day cybersecurity review to look into ways to better protect the country from cyberattacks, and he appointed Melissa Hathaway, who served as a cybersecurity adviser in the Bush administration, to oversee the effort. On May 29, Obama unveiled the review and delivered his first major cybersecurity speech. The second page of the 38-page review cited McAfee’s trillion-dollar figure, and the president used it in his speech, saying, “It’s been estimated that last year alone cybercriminals stole intellectual property from businesses worldwide worth up to $1 trillion.”
The administration’s Cyberspace Policy Review includes footnotes, and the one for the $1 trillion estimate directs readers to McAfee’s news release. It is not an ordinary occurrence that a president relies on the contents of a corporate news release to warn Americans of a major threat to the homeland’s economic and national security, but Hathaway, now a security consultant, told ProPublica that at the time of the president’s speech she was comfortable with McAfee’s estimate because it appeared to be associated with Purdue researchers. However, she became wary of it once she began making more inquiries after the speech. “I tend not to use that number anymore,” she said. “I was surprised that there wasn’t proved methodology behind the number.”
In March 2011, McAfee published its “Underground Economies” report, which repeated the $1 trillion estimate. Criticism of it continued, too. Robert Richardson, then director of the Computer Security Institute, skeptically wrote on the group’s website in the spring of 2011 that “The trillion dollar number is just too good to kill.” Later in 2011, Wired’s British edition reported that “if true, the figure amounts to a massive 1.6 percent of global GDP.” This year, Microsoft Research’s Florencio and Herley wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that described widely circulated cybercrime estimates as “generated using absurdly bad statistical methods, making them wholly unreliable.”
These critiques have now taken on added importance because government officials are citing a variety of industry-generated numbers in their efforts to bolster support for major cybersecurity legislation. The House passed its version of a cybersecurity bill this spring; the pending Senate bill, known as the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, would enable the U.S. government and private companies to more easily share information about cyberthreats and create a set of voluntary cybersecurity standards for operators of critical infrastructure.
* * *
In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Gen. Alexander said Symantec placed the cost of intellectual property theft to the U.S. at $250 billion a year. Tracing the origins of this statistic — as both the U.S. Government Accountability Office and technology writer Julian Sanchez have attempted before — is not unlike pulling a piece of yarn to unravel an old sweater. Although Symantec mentioned the $250 billion estimate in a 2011 report, “Behavioral Risk Indicators of IP Theft,” the estimate is not Symantec’s.
The report mentions the figure in passing, sourcing it in a footnote to a legal paper, where, as it turns out, the $250 billion number is not mentioned at all. Eric Shaw, one of two forensic psychologists Symantec retained to research the “Behavioral Risk” report, told ProPublica the footnote was a mistake. Instead, it should have referred to a different paper that points to a 2003 speech by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller. The figure is also cited in old FBI news releases available via the Internet Archive.
An agency spokeswoman said that although she believed FBI officials used a reliable source for the number, the FBI had neither developed the number nor claimed to have done so. She pointed to another document , from the U.S. Department of Justice, attributing the $250 billion figure to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke used the $250 billion number in a 2010 speech. Like Locke, the trade representative is a member of the president’s cabinet; a spokeswoman for the office said the figure was not from them. “Your inquiry appears to refer to an industry-reported figure,” the spokeswoman told ProPublica, pointing to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce paper on intellectual property theft. Sure enough, there’s the $250 billion again — this time attributed to none other than the FBI.
There are other concerns about Symantec estimates cited by Alexander. Drawing from the 2011 Norton Cybercrime Report, Alexander put the direct cost of cybercrime at $114 billion and cybercrime’s total cost, factoring in time lost, at $388 billion. The report was not actually researched by Norton employees; it was outsourced to a market research firm, StrategyOne, which is owned by the public relations giant Edelman.
StrategyOne surveyed almost 20,000 people in 24 countries, asking them to report whether they had experienced cybercrime and how much it had cost them. The company said it used “standard research practice for online surveys” to obtain a representative sample of Internet users. To calculate a total cost, it multiplied the estimated number of victims by the average cost of cybercrime in each country.
But that still leaves room for uncertainty, several researchers told ProPublica. For example, if responses came mainly from those most concerned about cybercrime or from those who suffered the biggest losses, it could inflate the average cost. And one person’s estimate of the financial damage from a cybercrime might be completely different from the next person’s guess, even if both suffered the same crime and the same amount of lost time.
A StrategyOne spokesman, asked if the Symantec estimates could be called scientific, responded, “Yes, as much as any survey or poll that relies on consumers to estimate their losses based on recall.”
Some experts say that’s not good enough. “Nobody can really assess the true impact of cybercrime,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, an analyst at a security-focused think tank called the EastWest Institute. “It’s really the self-reporting — because we can’t verify it. It’s just as simple as that.”
In their 2011 paper, Florencio and Herley of Microsoft Research did not specifically mention the Symantec or McAfee numbers. But they observed, “Far from being broadly-based estimates of losses across the population, the cyber-crime estimates that we have appear to be largely the answers of a handful of people extrapolated to the whole population.”
Sen. Collins added another layer of confusion about the mysterious $250 billion figure when she spoke last week in support of the cybersecurity bill. In remarks on the Senate floor, she mentioned Gen. Alexander and said, “He believes American companies have lost about $250 billion a year through intellectual property theft.”
Collins’ office declined several requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Lieberman, who similarly cited Alexander and the $250 billion figure, replied, “Senator Lieberman and his staff believe that McAfee, Symantec, and General Alexander are reputable sources of information about cybersecurity.”
This article was co-authored with Megha Rajagopalan.
The device in your purse or jeans that you think is a cellphone — guess again. It is a tracking device that happens to make calls. Let’s stop calling them phones. They are trackers.
Most doubts about the principal function of these devices were erased when it was recently disclosed that cellphone carriers responded 1.3 million times last year to law enforcement requests for call data. That’s not even a complete count, because T-Mobile, one of the largest carriers, refused to reveal its numbers. It appears that millions of cellphone users have been swept up in government surveillance of their calls and where they made them from. Many police agencies don’t obtain search warrants when requesting location data from carriers.
Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.
We have all heard about the wonders of frictionless sharing, whereby social networks automatically let our friends know what we are reading or listening to, but what we hear less about is frictionless surveillance. Though we invite some tracking — think of our mapping requests as we try to find a restaurant in a strange part of town — much of it is done without our awareness.
“Every year, private companies spend millions of dollars developing new services that track, store and share the words, movements and even the thoughts of their customers,” writes Paul Ohm, a law professor at the University of Colorado. “These invasive services have proved irresistible to consumers, and millions now own sophisticated tracking devices (smartphones) studded with sensors and always connected to the Internet.”
Mr. Ohm labels them tracking devices. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a developer and spokesman for the Tor project, which allows users to browse the Web anonymously. Scholars have called them minicomputers and robots. Everyone is struggling to find the right tag, because “cellphone” and “smartphone” are inadequate. This is not a semantic game. Names matter, quite a bit. In politics and advertising, framing is regarded as essential because what you call something influences what you think about it. That’s why there are battles over the tags “Obamacare” and “death panels.”
In just the past few years, cellphone companies have honed their geographic technology, which has become almost pinpoint. The surveillance and privacy implications are quite simple. If someone knows exactly where you are, they probably know what you are doing. Cellular systems constantly check and record the location of all phones on their networks — and this data is particularly treasured by police departments and online advertisers. Cell companies typically retain your geographic information for a year or longer, according to data gathered by the Justice Department.
What’s the harm? The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruling about the use of tracking devices by the police, noted that GPS data can reveal whether a person “is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.” Even the most gregarious of sharers might not reveal all that on Facebook.
There is an even more fascinating and diabolical element to what can be done with location information. New research suggests that by cross-referencing your geographical data with that of your friends, it’s possible to predict your future whereabouts with a much higher degree of accuracy.
This is what’s known as predictive modeling, and it requires nothing more than your cellphone data.
If we are naïve to think of them as phones, what should we call them? Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, argues that they are robots for which we — the proud owners — are merely the hands and feet. “They see everything, they’re aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream around us,” he has said. Over time, we’ve used these devices less for their original purpose. A recent survey by O2, a British cell carrier, showed that making calls is the fifth-most-popular activity for smartphones; more popular uses are Web browsing, checking social networks, playing games and listening to music. Smartphones are taking over the functions that laptops, cameras, credit cards and watches once performed for us.
If you want to avoid some surveillance, the best option is to use cash for prepaid cellphones that do not require identification. The phones transmit location information to the cell carrier and keep track of the numbers you call, but they are not connected to you by name. Destroy the phone or just drop it into a trash bin, and its data cannot be tied to you. These cellphones, known as burners, are the threads that connect privacy activists, Burmese dissidents and coke dealers.
Prepaids are a hassle, though. What can the rest of us do? Leaving your smartphone at home will help, but then what’s the point of having it? Turning it off when you’re not using it will also help, because it will cease pinging your location to the cell company, but are you really going to do that? Shutting it down does not even guarantee it’s off — malware can keep it on without your realizing it. The only way to be sure is to take out the battery. Guess what? If you have an iPhone, you will need a tiny screwdriver to remove the back cover. Doing that will void your warranty.
Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about these issues and believes we are confronted with two choices: “Don’t have a cellphone or just accept that you’re living in the Panopticon.”
There is another option. People could call them trackers. It’s a neutral term, because it covers positive activities — monitoring appointments, bank balances, friends — and problematic ones, like the government and advertisers watching us.
We can love or hate these devices — or love and hate them — but it would make sense to call them what they are so we can fully understand what they do.
Jonathan Mayer had a hunch.
A gifted computer scientist, Mayer suspected that online advertisers might be getting around browser settings that are designed to block tracking devices known as cookies. If his instinct was right, advertisers were following people as they moved from one website to another even though their browsers were configured to prevent this sort of digital shadowing. Working long hours at his office, Mayer ran a series of clever tests in which he purchased ads that acted as sniffers for the sort of unauthorized cookies he was looking for. He hit the jackpot, unearthing one of the biggest privacy scandals of the past year: Google was secretly planting cookies on a vast number of iPhone browsers. Mayer thinks millions of iPhones were targeted by Google.
This is precisely the type of privacy violation the Federal Trade Commission aims to protect consumers from, and Google, which claims the cookies were not planted in an unethical way, now reportedly faces a fine of more than $10 million. But the FTC didn’t discover the violation. Mayer is a 25-year-old student working on law and computer science degrees at Stanford University. He shoehorned his sleuthing between classes and homework, working from an office he shares in the Gates Computer Science Building with students from New Zealand and Hong Kong. He doesn’t get paid for his work and he doesn’t get much rest.
If it seems odd that a federal regulator was scooped by a sleep-deprived student, get used to it, because the federal government is often the last to know about digital invasions of your privacy. The largest privacy scandal of the past year, also involving Google, wasn’t discovered by federal regulators, either. A privacy official in Germany forced Google to hand over the hard drives of cars equipped with 360-degree digital cameras that were taking pictures for its Street View program. The Germans discovered that Google wasn’t just shooting photos: The cars downloaded a panoply of sensitive data, including emails and passwords, from open Wi-Fi networks. Google had secretly done the same in the United States, but the FTC, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees broadcast issues, had no idea until the Germans figured it out.
Nearly every day, and often several times a day, there is fresh news of privacy invasions as companies hone their ability to imperceptibly assemble a vast amount of data about anyone with a smartphone, laptop or credit card. Retailers, search engines, social media sites, news organizations — all want to know as much as they can about their visitors and users so that ads can be targeted as precisely as possible. But data mining, which has become central to the corporate bottom line, can be downright creepy, with companies knowing what you search for, what you buy, which websites you visit, how long you browse — and more. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Target realized a teenage customer was pregnant before her father knew; the firm identifies first-term pregnancies through, among other things, purchases of scent-free products. It’s akin to someone rifling through your wallet, closet or medicine cabinet, but in the digital sphere no one picks your pocket or breaks into your house. The tracking is done mostly without your knowledge and, in many cases, despite your attempts to stop it, as Mayer discovered.
The FTC is the lead agency in the government’s effort to ensure that companies do not cross the still-hazy border between acceptable and unacceptable data collection. But the agency’s ambitions are clipped by a lack of both funding and legal authority, reflecting a broader uncertainty about the role government should play in what is arguably America’s most promising new industry. Companies like Facebook and Google are global brands for which data mining is at the core of present and future profits. How far should they go? Current laws provide few limits, mainly banning data collection from children under 13 and prohibiting the sale of personal medical data. Beyond that, it’s a digital mosh pit, and it’s likely to remain that way because more regulation tends to be regarded by politicians in both parties as meaning fewer jobs. Students will probably continue to beat the FTC to the punch: The agency just has one privacy technologist working in its Division of Privacy and Identity Protection and one in the Division of Financial Practices. “I don’t think it’s controversial to note that they seem to be understaffed,” Mayer said in a phone interview between classes. “I think that’s pretty clear.”
This isn’t the usual sort of story about regulation watered down by intimate ties between government officials and the industry they oversee. Unlike the U.S. Minerals Management Service, where not long ago a number of officials were found to have shared drugs and had sex with representatives of the oil and gas industry, key FTC officials hired by the Obama administration are privacy hawks who worked previously for consumer-rights groups like Public Citizen and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Under Chairman Jon Leibowitz, a Democrat appointed to the FTC in 2004 and tapped as chairman by President Obama in 2009, the FTC has pushed boundaries; its first privacy technologist, hired shortly after Liebowitz became chairman, was a semifamous activist who made a name for himself by printing fake boarding passes to draw attention to airline security lapses (the FBI, which raided his house, was not pleased). The agency is working with the tech industry to create and voluntarily adopt a Do Not Track option, so that consumers can avoid some intrusive web tracking by advertising firms. And it issued a report this year that called for new legislation to define what data miners can and cannot do.
Yet the FTC is ill-equipped to find out, on its own, what companies like Google and Facebook are doing behind the scenes. For instance, ProPublica discovered that the FTC’s Privacy and Identity Protection technologist has a digital hand tied behind his back because the computer in his office has security filters that restrict access to key websites. While Mayer has an ultrafast Internet connection, top-of-the-line computer, an office chair he loves and tasty lunches for free (“Stanford students do not want in any way,” he notes), the FTC technologist uses his personal laptop and, because there is no Wi-Fi at the agency, connects to the Internet by tethering it to his iPhone. He browses the Web at cellphone speed. There are no free lunches.
The FTC is headquartered in a landmarked building on Pennsylvania Avenue flanked by two sculptures of a man trying to restrain a muscle-bound horse that is straining to gallop away. The sculptures, completed in 1942, are entitled “Man Controlling Trade,” and they explain a lot about the FTC’s current dilemma. The notion of controlling trade, popular when the sculptures were erected a half-century ago, is not a vote-winner today. The FTC was an early battleground of the movement that began in the Reagan era to reduce government regulation. The agency had more than 1,700 employees in the 1970s, but is down to 1,176 today, even though the economy has more than doubled in that span. The FTC’s responsibilities are vast: It must police everything from financial scams to antitrust activity, identity theft and misleading advertising.
Especially among Republicans, there is little interest in providing more resources. California Rep. Mary Bono-Mack, at a recent hearing on privacy legislation, warned that the government “has this really bad habit of overreaching whenever it comes to new regulations.” Although the American Civil Liberties Union may see an epidemic of privacy violations, Bono-Mack said, “I haven’t gotten a single letter from anyone back home urging me to pass a privacy bill.” The skepticism is not just an outside-the-building phenomenon; it comes from within the FTC, too. One of the agency’s five commissioners, Republican Thomas Rosch, dissented from its 2013 budget request, which asks for less money than the prior year budget of $312 million. Rosch said he believed the FTC still wanted too much. “In these austere times we should do more ... with fewer resources,” his dissent said.
The cold shoulder is not entirely Republican. Earlier this year the Obama administration unveiled a “Privacy Bill of Rights” that sets a variety of enviable standards for consumer privacy. “American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” President Obama said. The document, which among other things would allow individuals to control the data collected on them, was welcomed by consumer groups. But it’s not legislation. It’s a wish-list. The administration hopes that some of its wishes, like a Do Not Track system, will be granted through voluntary industry standards. But many of the wishes require Congress to pass laws that it is unlikely to pass anytime soon. The FTC’s meager budget request would seem to be the best indication yet of the prospects for significantly greater federal privacy protection.
It’s an old story with a new twist. Few industries have as many admirers in Washington, D.C., as Silicon Valley, which unlike the oil industry has what appears to be an equally large number of friends on both sides of the aisle. The tech industry is generally regarded as liberal-leaning — for instance, Eric Schmidt, the Google chairman, was an Obama campaign adviser and serves on the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was counseled in his presidential bid by both Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and by Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay who now heads HP. Silicon Valley is one of the country’s few global growth industries; politicians are reluctant to put restrictions on what it can and cannot do.
The FTC tries to do the best with what it has. In 2009, with new Obama-era appointees aboard, it hired Christopher Soghoian, a privacy technologist who could perform the sort of sophisticated forensics that Mayer conducted on Google. A year later, in 2010, the FTC hired its first chief technologist, Edward Felten, a Princeton computer scientist who is highly regarded in tech policy circles. But the three men who have filled the privacy technologist job that Soghoian filled first (each have served for about a year) faced an awkward problem: The desktop in their office is digitally shackled by security filters that make it impossible to freely browse the Web. Crucial websites are off-limits, due to concerns of computer viruses infecting the FTC’s network, and there are severe restrictions on software downloads. When Soghoian tried to download a Wi-Fi-sniffing app, his boss told him within a few minutes that he had tripped a security alarm; he could not use the app on his computer. It had to be deleted immediately.
To defend against hackers, filtered computers are standard in the government, but they are problematic for officials who are trying to discover dishonest activity on the Web; it’s a bit like telling a cop he can’t patrol in high-crime neighborhoods. A handful of unfiltered computers are available in restricted labs at the FTC’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue and its satellite offices on New Jersey Avenue and M Street, but this is an ungainly setup. Rather than leaving their office, waiting for an elevator, swiping their ID badges across a sensor at the lab’s locked door and logging into a computer soaked with malware (because the lab computers are used to test suspicious applications and websites), the technologists have instead stayed in their office and tethered their personal laptops to their personal cellphones. The office does not have a window, and the cell signals are not strong; even by phone standards, their Web connection is slow.
Soghoian and the current privacy technologist, Michael Brennan, tried to get an unfiltered desktop installed in their office. Each time — Soghoian in 2010, Brennan in 2011 — they got tantalizingly close, with new machines delivered to them. But the computers were never connected to the Internet. Someone at the agency — they don’t know who — got cold feet. “I basically had a two-thousand-dollar computer doing nothing,” Soghoian said. Brennan isn’t even at the office so much these days; he is a part-timer who lives in Philadelphia, where he is getting a Ph.D. in computer science at Drexel University. When he works in Washington, the FTC’s privacy gunslinger crashes at a friend’s house.
Only one FTC official has an unfiltered desktop: Felten, the chief technologist. He is the sort of unconventional public servant the FTC has hired in recent years. He was an expert witness in the landmark antitrust suit against Microsoft, a board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and in April he participated in a privacy hackathon with his teenage daughter. Felten, hired mainly to provide policy advice to the FTC chairman, also conducts investigations of suspicious websites or apps — this is what he uses the unshackled computer for. During an interview, he pointed to it, a bit like a museum guide gesturing toward a priceless artwork, and said, “This is rare. I think this is the only one.”
He acknowledged the agency is hindered by a shortage of technical experts who can find the sorts of violations that Mayer stumbled on.
“We could for sure do more if we had more people,” he said while sitting in his office, which is nearly bare, with a few FTC posters on the walls, a small table and chairs, and a large desk for his two computers. “There are a lot of opportunities that we have to let go by because we don’t have the people to seize them ... opportunities to measure and evaluate what’s happening every day in people’s computers and phones.”
Felten, who plans to resume full-time teaching at Princeton in the fall, was asked whether he has better technological resources there.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “That’s certainly the case.”
The mismatch between FTC aspirations and abilities is exemplified by its Mobile Technology Unit, created earlier this year to oversee the exploding mobile phone sector. The six-person unit consists of a paralegal, a program specialist, two attorneys, a technologist and its director, Patricia Poss. For the FTC, the unit represents an important allocation of resources to protect the privacy rights of more than 100 million smartphone owners in America. For Silicon Valley, a six-person team is barely a garage startup. Earlier this year, the unit issued a highly publicized report on mobile apps for kids; its conclusion was reflected in the subtitle, “Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing.” It was a thin report, however. Rather than actually checking the personal data accessed by the report’s sampling of 400 apps, the report just looked at whether the apps disclose, on the sites where they are sold, the types of personal data that would be accessed and what the data would be used for. The body of the report is just 17 pages. (The FTC says it will do deeper research in future reports.)
The mobile unit has an equipment problem, too. Like most government agencies, the FTC issues Blackberries to key officials. Poss, the unit’s director, has one. The Blackberry dominated when Al Gore ran for president, but today it’s barely an also-ran with just 12 percent of the smartphone market. That’s not a problem if you only use your Blackberry for texts, emails and calls. But it’s a problem if, like Poss, your job is to keep track of what’s happening in the smartphone market. Most consumers use Androids or iPhones, and most of the apps written for them are not available on the Blackberry.
If Poss wants to learn what’s going on in the 88 percent of the smartphone market that her Blackberry cannot access, she would need to leave her office and go to one of the FTC labs, where she can use or check out an iPhone or Android. It’s a clunky setup, so she resorts to a familiar workaround: She uses her personal smartphones. She has an iPhone as well as an Android.
A moment after she mentioned this in an interview, she added, “I probably shouldn’t be saying that.”
FTC officials are reluctant to talk about their lack of funding, partly because public whining, especially during hard economic times, is infrequently rewarded. It’s also politically unwise. A vocal portion of the electorate believes the government and its regulatory arms have too much money and power as it is. Additionally, the FTC is trying to keep the tech industry honest by hinting that the feds are watching everything. It does not help if Silicon Valley realizes the FTC possesses just a handful of iPhones and Androids that are kept under lock and key in the basement.
The interview with Poss was conducted in an office on the third floor of the FTC’s headquarters, with an FTC spokeswoman on hand. When Poss was asked whether it wouldn’t make sense for the director of the Mobile Technology Unit to have a government-issued iPhone or Android, the spokeswoman, Claudia Farrell, interceded.
“He’s trying to get you to bitch, Patti. Don’t do it.”
Poss, a lawyer who has worked at the FTC for more than 12 years, began to look uncomfortable, as though she was in the witness box, unsure what she was supposed to say. She made amends by noting she can use her office computer to look at the smartphone app descriptions posted on the websites where they are sold. Then she reversed herself.
“Actually, you can’t,” Poss said. “We have some restrictions on the sites we can visit on government computers.”
She hesitantly mentioned that Apple’s app store is among the sites blocked by the FTC’s security system. If she wants to look at the most popular websites for mobile apps, she has to go to a basement lab.
Farrell joined the conversation again.
“You’re not going to make this a gut-wrenching story about how Patti has to leave the confines of her office to do her work?”
The FTC maintains an aura of secrecy about its Internet testing labs in Washington. Their location is known but not much else. Officials would not talk about the equipment in the labs. Poss and Farrell refused to divulge the number of iPhones and Androids, though it appears to be not much more than a handful. “I don’t want to lead you to think we have an unlimited supply,” Poss acknowledged before being discouraged from acknowledging anything more.
It is hard for outsiders to know more because the FTC refuses to let reporters visit the labs.
“We’re not going to show it to you, no way,” said David Vladeck, who directs the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and controls access to the labs.
It was pointed out that government agencies conducting far more secret operations — such as the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency — often allow journalists and other outsiders to visit classified facilities. The embedding program during the Iraq war gave reporters the chance to report on the planning and execution of secret military operations. The FTC’s labs would not seem to rival the technology displayed when journalists ride aboard nuclear-powered submarines, for instance.
Vladeck would not bend.
“We don’t trust anybody,” he said.
Current and former FTC officials say the labs are the size of suburban living rooms, with computers and accessories that do not look much different from what would be seen at a Kinko’s. “There’s nothing special there,” Soghoian said. “It looks like a computer room in a public library or middle school.”
Vladeck’s appointment, in 2009, was welcomed by consumer-rights activists because of the nearly three decades he worked as a crusading lawyer for Public Citizen, which was founded by Ralph Nader; Vladeck has advocated long and hard for better government regulation. A conversation with Vladeck, who has argued four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won three of them, is akin to a combative courtroom session. He often leans across the table and speaks in a high-pitched bellow. During an interview in his office, he said that when he arrived at the FTC, “We weren’t geared up for this battle.” That’s partly because the Bush-era FTC was not terribly aggressive on privacy but also because data mining has particularly taken off in the past few years.
“No regulator is ever going to tell you that he or she is satisfied with the resources,” Vladeck said. “Would I like more resources? Of course, and I think I could put them to good use. But let me toot our own horn. We’ve gotten an enormous amount done in three years. I think we are sending a strong signal to the industry — you’ve got to straighten up and do the right thing.”
Since he arrived, the FTC has reached privacy settlements with the some of the largest tech firms, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, though in each case, there were no fines, because the FTC’s authority to issue fines on a first offense is limited. The agency is like a runner with two sprained ankles, because in addition to its narrow legal power, it has a surprisingly small staff to pursue its legal cases.
Staffing at the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, which does the bulk of the FTC’s privacy work and is under Vladeck’s control, slid from 51 in 2011 to 50 in 2012, even though the data mining industry it oversees has rapidly expanded; it now employs more than 100,000 people and has revenues close to $5 billion, according to industry analyst and newsletter publisher Gregory Piatetsky-Shapiro. There are about 20 lawyers working on privacy cases at the FTC. “The bottlenecks are the lawyers for the most part,” Soghoian said. And the FTC has another problem: Republican Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is trying to evict the agency from its headquarters, which is on a prime block of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Vladeck has improvised. He described his strategy as similar to highway cops — the point isn’t to catch every car that breaks the speed limit, but enough to signal to the others that they can’t get away with much. He goes after the shiniest cars.
Yet those cases demonstrated the FTC’s limits, too. The agency was created in 1914 to prevent unfair and deceptive practices in commerce. Unfairness is harder to prove in privacy — what’s inappropriate data collection to one person might be fair and harmless to another — so the FTC is focusing enforcement efforts on deception. That means a company has to say one thing about its data-collection practices and do another. But many companies have privacy policies that say very little — in which case, they aren’t deceiving consumers if they do things that might be untoward.
Ironically, the best way for a company to avoid privacy tussles with the FTC is to not say much about their privacy practices. On the other side of things, many companies protect themselves from prosecution by fully disclosing their policies in dense legal jargon that few consumers bother to read or, when they do, they have a hard time understanding that their personal data will be collected and shared in nearly infinite ways. Companies that follow these strategies — and many do — are difficult targets for the FTC.
Big firms like Google and Facebook, which depend on consumers using their services, cannot get away with having no policy at all or hiding behind legal hieroglyphics. They are the shiny cars that the FTC pulls over when it can. The agency pounced when Google introduced its Buzz social network because Gmail users were more or less swept into Buzz without their consent, even though Google had previously said it would not take unilateral action of that sort. The agency can take companies to court, but its overworked lawyers don’t really have the time to go the distance against the bottomless legal staffs in Silicon Valley. The FTC settled the Buzz case with Google, which agreed to annual privacy audits for 20 years and promised to not lie to consumers about what the company does with their data. If Google violates the settlement, it then faces financial penalties that could be quite large — this is akin to a two-strike rule.
The settlement process is time-consuming, however. Due to the agency’s small legal staff, some settlements take years to complete, and by the time they’re done, the targeted companies are not what they used to be. Last month, the FTC announced a privacy settlement with Myspace, which it accused of disclosing user information to third parties despite pledging not to do that. The investigation was opened in 2009, when Myspace was already a fading giant; by the time it was concluded in May, Myspace was all but a museum artifact. On Twitter, reaction to the suit included jokes to the effect of, “You mean Myspace still exists?”
Although the agency has some sway with Google and other companies that are sensitive to reputational issues — an FTC settlement might not hurt Google’s bottom line but the bad press could — it has less influence over data mining firms like LexisNexis, Choicepoint and RapLeaf, whose revenues come mostly from businesses rather than consumers. This is a major hole in the government’s effort to protect consumers from privacy violations, and the FTC has all but thrown up its hands in futility. The privacy report it issued earlier this year called on Congress to pass legislation that would set guidelines on acceptable practices by data miners. The odds of that happening are quite long, because of industry opposition to government oversight and the difficulty of getting agreement in Congress on what should and should not be allowed.
Even though he lives in university housing, Jonathan Mayer is a star in the world of digital privacy; he is the mop-haired kid who busted Google in his spare time. Silicon Valley companies seek him out to learn what he’s up to. Mayer, being clever, uses these encounters to learn about the companies. What are they thinking about the most? What do they fear the most? He has made another discovery.
“The FTC doesn’t strike fear into the heart of tech companies,” he says. “They know that as long as they stay within lax boundaries, it’s unlikely the FTC will bring enforcement actions against them.”
Yet there is a feared privacy watchdog, Mayer notes: the European Union. American companies have far less political influence in Europe, and Europeans are far more attentive to privacy issues, partly due to memories of Nazi-era totalitarianism. Because most tech services offered to Europeans are the same as offered to Americans, protections required by EU regulators are usually extended to American consumers. It’s the globalization of digital regulation: What happens in one country can affect all countries.
For instance, under Irish privacy law, citizens are entitled to know the information a company possesses on them — and this was used against Facebook by a 24-year-old Austrian, Max Schrems, who asked the company to hand over all the data it had on him. Facebook’s international headquarters are located in Dublin, so the firm had to comply. Last year it gave Schrems more than 1,200 pages of data that included just about every keystroke he had made while on the social network, including items he had deleted and location information he had never provided. Facebook had kept almost every poke and like, every friend and defriend, every invitation accepted or rejected. Schrems posted the information online and compared his Facebook dossier to the data that the East German secret police, the Stasi, had kept on millions of citizens.
In effect, Schrems exposed Facebook’s data retention practices, and this led to a big change. In May, Facebook said its 900 million customers — not just the ones in Europe — would receive far more detail on its data collection, making it easier for them to know what information was being collected and what was being done with it. The company acknowledged that the change was the result of a harsh report issued by Irish authorities looking into the Schrems case. Ireland wasn’t trying to protect the privacy rights of Americans, but its pressure on Facebook had precisely that effect.
The outsourcing of consumer data protection has been going on for a number of years. In 2008, European privacy officials asked Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to delete, far quicker than they were doing, the data they were retaining about user searches. In short order, the search giants complied — not only for their European customers but for Americans, too. “The EU drives regulation worldwide,” Mayer says. “While we make nods to self-regulation and cooperation, the reality is that the EU is getting all of this done.”
The power of Europe’s privacy regulators — and the weakness of America’s — was demonstrated most vividly in the Street View dustup. While there was only modest protest against Google photographing American streets and homes, the company immediately ran into big trouble when its cars began to roam around Europe. The collection and abuse of personal information also was a hallmark of communist regimes that ruled Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Throughout Europe, local and national authorities expressed concerns about Street View, and the project quickly hit a number of walls.
Google promised its cars were only taking pictures — and the firm’s word was enough for U.S. officials — but French authorities demanded to know for sure. They inspected one of the vehicles in 2010 and realized that Google was not telling the whole story: The hard drives in the cars were downloading data from Wi-Fi networks. Google downplayed the revelation by contending the downloads were innocuous — just technical data, not personal information.
In Germany, where popular opposition to Street View was strongest, the data commissioner of Hamburg, Johannes Caspar, demanded to inspect a Street View car, too. At first, Google reportedly told him it didn’t know where the cars were. The firm eventually found one — but its hard drive was gone. At that point, Google said it was taking a new look at what the cars were downloading. Caspar insisted the company hand over a hard drive. After a few months, Google complied. Caspar discovered that Google had downloaded vast amounts of personal data.
It had done the same in the United States.
Vladeck had a quick response when it was suggested the Europeans were better privacy watchdogs.
“That’s a lie,” he shot back.
He leaned forward, speaking a bit more slowly.
“That is a lie.”
He argued that although the Germans uncovered Street View’s data collection, the FTC was not asleep at the wheel because it was investigating Street View at the time. But Vladeck said the FTC could not have done much even if it had examined a hard drive, since the agency’s reach extends only to unfair or deceptive practices. Google had never told consumers it wasn’t downloading Wi-Fi data, so it hadn’t deceived them by doing so. To prove an unfair practice, the FTC would have needed to show that the data downloads caused consumers an unavoidable harm. “Street View would have been a very difficult case for us,” Vladeck said. The agency quietly closed its investigation in late 2010 with no action.
Google was not yet free of the government’s watchdogs. The Federal Communications Commission conducted a separate investigation of its own and discovered the data collection was not accidental, as Google had claimed once it owned up to downloading the data. The FCC sharply criticized Google in April but fined the company just $25,000, which is not even a rounding error in the Web giant’s first quarter profit of $2.89 billion.
The phrase “war on terror” is rarely heard these days. Our fight in Iraq ended last year with the pullout of the remaining troops. Combat forces are set to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, and their fade-away has been highlighted by the fact that more private contractors are getting killed in the country than GIs. President Obama has declared, with apparent justification, that the end of our post-9/11 wars is near. Quite soon, Dover Air Force Base, where the fallen are brought home, will no longer have its grim intake of Americans who have seen the true end of war. The flow of flag-draped coffins ceased long ago; although Obama overturned a Bush-era ban on photos of them, they have been infrequently shown in newspapers or even on the web. No one cares to look.
That does not mean we’re done with war, however. There is talk of attacking Iran and Syria; American forces all but led the NATO assault in Libya, drone strikes are taking place from Pakistan to Somalia and Yemen, prisoners continue to be held at Guantánamo Bay, a shadowy game of cyber-war rages around the globe and the US government, in the name of national security, is prosecuting more whistleblowers than ever before while accumulating (or trying to accumulate) wide powers to conduct domestic surveillance of computers and cellphones. The paradox is that although war is waning in the classic configuration of brigades fighting an enemy on foreign shores, we are not rid of its specter, burdens, threats, costs and restrictions. What should we make of wartime that has the appearance of peacetime?
Mary Dudziak’s new book, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, is a crucial document. Dudziak, a legal historian at the University of Southern California, argues that we are experiencing “not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans.” Her smooth foray into legal and political history reveals that in not just the past decade but the past century, wartime has become a more or less permanent feature of the American experience, though we fail to recognize it. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but we are experiencing a reverse Orwellian situation, in which the state, rather than elevating war to perpetuate itself, obscures war to perpetuate itself.
Dudziak assembles an intellectual Rubik’s Cube, playing with ideas of time, law, killing and politics, and arranging them into a pattern that all but eliminates the distinctions we long assumed to have existed between war and peace. “We tend to believe that there are two kinds of time, wartime and peacetime, and history consists of moving from one kind of time to the next,” she writes. “Built into the very essence of our idea of wartime is the assumption that war is temporary…. When we look at the full time line of American military conflicts, however, including the ‘small wars’ and the so-called forgotten wars, there are not many years of peacetime. This shows us that war is not an exception to normal peacetime, but instead an enduring condition.”
For a country that considers itself an enlightened force for progress, a belief invoked with particular frequency in this election season, it seems odd to suggest at this moment of post-9/11 drawdown that the nation is, as ever, a Sparta at arms with soldiers, tanks, drones, nukes, spooks, hackers and every other method and manner of combat. But early in her book, Dudziak pre-empts this response by playing a visual trump card of sorts. The Defense Department has awarded combat medals for conflicts of the twentieth century in which soldiers served. The medals were plotted in a timeline by John E. Strandberg and Roger James Bender in their book The Call of Duty (2005), and Dudziak puts them into a user-friendly chart. The big wars of the twentieth century are of course represented in the timeline—World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait—but so too are smaller conflicts, from Abyssinia and Bocas del Toro to Nicaragua, Mexico, Mayaguez, Grenada, Lebanon, El Salvador and Bosnia. In almost every year of the last century, American soldiers served in a conflict that qualified for a combat medal. The military criteria for wartime, Dudziak notes, “swallow much of American history.”
* * *
I reported on the Iraq invasion as a “unilateral” journalist, which meant I rented an SUV from Hertz in Kuwait and sneaked across the border with the first US tanks. I wound up in Baghdad on April 9, 2003, and watched Marines tear down the iconic statue of Saddam Hussein at Firdos Square. I returned to Iraq on several occasions to work on lengthy stories about the dismal turn of events as the occupation turned into a war of Americans against Iraqis, and Iraqis against Iraqis. The carnage, though heartbreaking, was almost the least shocking experience of my journeys between war in the Mideast and my home in New York City.
While Americans killed and got killed in Iraq, Americans back home shopped at Walmart and watched reality television. I had covered a lot of wars and thought I had grown accustomed to peaceful countries being unconcerned by other people’s quarrels. My unsentimental education had begun in the 1990s in Bosnia, where I often had a Matrix-like experience. In the morning, I would wake up in Sarajevo or another cursed town that was blasted by bombs, frozen by winter and deprived of food. I would then begin my effort to get the hell out of hell. I would hope for a seat on what was known as Maybe Airlines. These were the UN relief flights that brought food into besieged Sarajevo. Maybe the shelling would be light enough for flights to land and take off, maybe not. If the flights were grounded, I could try to escape by driving along Sniper Alley and through a creepy no man’s land that constituted the only border that mattered in a nation cut and quartered by war.
Distances are small in Europe. By the afternoon, I could be in Vienna or Budapest or London, enjoying the comfortable life that Europe offered many of its citizens: hot showers, good food, clean sheets, the certainty that I would not be killed by a mortar as I slept. I had a hard time believing these altered states existed in such close proximity. The contented Europeans eating apple strudel or shopping at Harrods on those 1990s afternoons—didn’t they realize a war was being fought in their backyard? The answer was that they knew and didn’t care. Proximity isn’t destiny. Bosnia, though close, wasn’t their home. Other people were killing and dying, not their people.
I had understood only half of it and learned the other half a decade later, on my returns to America after sojourns in Iraq. Outside the tight-knit community of military families who cared so deeply about the wars, nearly everyone in America went about his or her life as though Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t matter much. Nor had Americans been asked to change their way of life. It had become possible, I realized, for a nation to be at war without suffering the inconveniences associated with war—including the inconvenience of thinking about it. As Dudziak makes clear, this is not a recent condition created by remote-controlled bombs equipped with cameras that render their destructive power appear as fantastic and innocuous as a video game. Its origins go back much further.
World War II was a classic war in the sense of rationing, of drives for war bonds, of a draft the elite could not avoid with college deferments (here’s looking at you, Dick Cheney) and of a ceaseless drumbeat in almost every sector of society that a great conflict was being fought that required great sacrifices of everyone. Even for families spared the loss of a loved one overseas, World War II was a visible—intentionally visible—aspect of life in the homeland; the nation’s leaders made it so. It was a conflict that required total support, and the sacrifices civilians had to make could not be obscured. Life as it was before the war had to be suspended.
The blurring of the difference between wartime and peacetime truly got under way with the cold war. A crucial oddity of the chart of combat medals in Dudziak’s book is that one of the biggest wars of the century is absent from it. Although a cold war medal was proposed in Congress as recently as 2007, it has not been approved and likely never will be. Dudziak suggests a teaching moment was missed. “The Cold War’s ambiguity might have signaled that the conventional categories no longer fit—that wartime and peacetime coexisted or had merged together,” she writes. Her chapter on the cold war offers an intellectual frame for understanding our post-9/11 condition. Just as President Truman faced the post–World War II challenge of fighting the Soviet Union without waging a shooting war against it, President Obama wishes to continue a war against Islamic radicals without engaging in the sort of protracted follies that President Bush began in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Historian Michael Hogan has described Truman’s challenge as an attempt to “advance the nation’s security and its new role as the defender of democracy everywhere without at the same time subverting democracy at home and transforming the republic into a garrison state.” It was an impossible task: the redbaiting of the McCarthy era, the building of a massive nuclear arsenal and a huge conventional force, the outsourcing of actual war to superpower proxies—all of these demonstrated that the absence of blood-and-guts combat (or atomic warfare) between the American and Soviet armies did not mean we were at peace. The garrison state remained fully operational. Domestic politics remained on a war footing long after McCarthy was shamed into silence; the slur of “being soft on communism” ensured that most politicians would hew to the line or risk being voted out of office.
The division between peacetime and wartime was blurred even more by Vietnam. Unlike World War II, it was an unpopular conflict that American politicians wished the voters would not even consider a proper conflict; famously, there was no Congressional declaration of war. Of course, no one was fooled: the body bags made sure of that, as did the evening news. To adapt Justice Potter Stewart’s remark about pornography, we know a war when we’re in it. But our involvement was of so long a duration, and there was so much else of great drama occurring in the country—the civil rights movement, for one—that the war in Vietnam festered like a chronic disease. It was not existential. Though we didn’t quite realize it, wartime mixed with peacetime, becoming a partner to it, rather than its opposite.
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A new kind of wartime emerged on September 11, 2001. The country had been attacked and, as a result, would attack others; references were made to its being our generation’s Pearl Harbor. But the method was strange. While President Bush emphasized that the “war on terror” was existential, that Al Qaeda and its sympathizers wanted to destroy us and would use nuclear weapons if they could, Americans who were not in the military were asked to live as though we were at peace. There would be no draft, no taxes, no war bonds. The solemnity of funerals at Arlington cemetery would not be broadcast. And there was Rudy Giuliani, as smoke still billowed from the destroyed World Trade Center, recommending that we respond to the terrorists by going shopping. The point was that aside from longer security lines at airports, the government would do its best to ensure that we experienced no inconvenience from the wars waged on our behalf. We wouldn’t even have to pay for them.
The understandable exceptionalism of genuine wartime—wartime of the we-have-just-been-attacked-and-must-counterattack variety—tends to involve exceptional legal action. During World War II, citizens of Japanese ancestry were interned (unjustifiably, as we now realize). As Dudziak notes, “Pushing the boundaries during military conflict is of course not new in the American experience.” Or in the experience of any nation at war, one might add. Dudziak, who does not appear to sympathize with the most extreme actions taken by the Bush administration, evenhandedly situates them in historical context. John Yoo, the Justice Department lawyer who drafted some of the key documents that purported to find constitutional justification for the torture of prisoners of war (rebranded as “enhanced interrogation” of “enemy combatants”), may have shocked us with his legal briefs, but for all their misbegotten logic, his arguments were consistent with the idea of wartime as a temporary period of unusual measures. “Wartime works as a shorthand, invoking the traditional notion that the times are both exceptional and temporary,” Dudziak writes. As problematic as the legal controversies were during the Bush era, they are even more problematic now, because as Dudziak notes, “It is one thing to suspend the rule of law during a time-limited war” and quite another to extend it into an unlimited future.
One of the scariest developments of the post-9/11 era isn’t the challenge to constitutional principles by the Bush administration—though many of these challenges were indeed quite worrisome—but their extension by the Obama administration, when one of Bush’s land wars is already over and the other looks to be wound down relatively soon. The organization that attacked the country, Al Qaeda, has been all but dismantled and its leader killed. If the war that began on 9/11 might have had a surrender-on-the-deck-of-the-Missouri moment, the death of Osama bin Laden should have been it. Yet that moment has passed. The New York Police Department has felt no need to apologize for its recently revealed surveillance of Muslim students during a whitewater rafting trip upstate.
Indeed, how can we explain the wartime-like secrecy about the use of weaponized drones? The government refuses to explain attacks that have been widely reported, even attacks in Yemen that, in a remarkable challenge to constitutional notions of due process, killed three American citizens (Anwar al-Awlaki, AbdulRahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan). Dudziak provides a clue in her observation that the cold war was perpetuated not only by the activities of the Soviet Union but also by domestic politics. “National security became a tool of partisan politics,” she writes. “Domestic and often partisan political discourse can be more important to public opinion on military conflict than international events themselves.” The Obama administration may believe that there is a genuine national security need to continue Bush-era policies, but there’s also a domestic political benefit to doing so. By perpetuating the wartime of 9/11, Obama cannot be accused of failing to perpetuate it. The only way Republicans can criticize him for being “soft” on Muslim terrorism is to pivot to Iran and urge an attack on its nuclear facilities. The position is so extreme that, though useful in the primaries, it may hurt the Republican nominee in the general election. These days, we prefer that wartime not involve a land war.
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Dudziak offers little hope for escaping the clutch of wartime. An exit strategy is proposed by John Horgan, who argues that the end of war is not only possible but imminent. Horgan is a science journalist who teaches at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he teaches a course called War and Human Nature. His book The End of War is written in a style that appears to be aimed at younger readers; it is folksy, heartfelt, basic and a bit simple-minded. He starts off by noting that war casualties have dropped significantly since the “cataclysmic first half of the twentieth century”—but I don’t know how much solace can be taken from the fact that humans are killing considerably fewer of one another than they did in World War I and World War II, among the worst slaughters in history. Horgan suggests that war “could end tomorrow through a simple act of will on the part of a relatively small number of leaders and combatants around the world”—if only they would get together and declare an end to war and the abolition of nuclear weapons. I am sure some leaders would like to do this, but I’m less sure that America is ready for Obama to attend a war-banning conference with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad anytime soon.
As a science journalist, Horgan likes to cite experiments. Is violence innate in human nature? He points to studies showing that chimpanzees are not terribly violent. “Chimps often hug and kiss each other and share food both to avoid fights and to make up after them,” Horgan writes. There has been a debate about chimp violence for many decades, and I’m willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that most chimps are pacifists. But humans are not chimps. We have shown, in our control of the planet and over the living things on it, and with our power to wipe out plant and animal species, that we are unlike any previous form of animal life. We have developed sophisticated weapons, political alliances, machines of propaganda and economic forces that make our societies utterly different from groups of chimpanzees.
Horgan acknowledges the complexity of human society, but he circles back to his basic point: “We have the ways to end war. We need only the will.” He cites a 1954 experiment in which twenty-two fifth-grade boys at Robbers Cave State Park were split into two groups that were kept apart for a week. Each team was then set against the other in a variety of sport contests like tug-of-war and swimming races. There was much insulting and some violence. That was the first part of the experiment. In the second part, the same teams were put together in situations that required cooperation—such as a truck breaking down and everyone needing to push to get it moving again. Guess what—the kids cooperated with one another. “Leaders can…drum up support for persecution, repression, war and genocide,” Horgan writes. “But we can clearly also learn to overcome our hostility towards others.” True, but the reason Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were such exceptional leaders is that they were… exceptional.
Horgan’s book is the inverse of Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). Whereas Hedges, a former war correspondent, presents an argument based to a great extent on his foxhole understanding of human passion and the powerful role of opportunistic politicians as well as the armaments industry, Horgan offers a sunnier outlook based on what he calls empirical evidence that suggests our drive to fight is not that deeply rooted. “We are not hardwired for war,” he asserts. “What was once a faith based on moral conviction has become a belief based on empirical evidence…. I believe war will end for scientific reasons; I believe war must end for moral reasons.” But the empirical evidence he cites is limited. He trumpets early in his book, for instance, that proof of lethal group violence dates back less than 13,000 years. For an evolutionary paleontologist, those are recent times, but 13,000 years strikes me as a relatively lengthy period during which humans have become culturally, politically and economically enmeshed with warfare in ways that make nearly irrelevant what happened (or more correctly, what didn’t happen) in the preceding hundreds of thousands of years.
Horgan’s book is useful, if only to stimulate our imagination and instill a bit of hope. Can a dictatorship be toppled without violence? Horgan rightly champions the sort of nonviolent action that Gene Sharp has advocated in his books since 1960, and that was practiced by many participants in the Arab revolutions of the past year (though not in Libya or Syria—notable exceptions). Horgan rightly expresses frustration with the United States, which he acknowledges pays “lip service to the principles of national sovereignty and international law while secretly carrying out deadly commando raids and drone attacks around the world.” He calls for cuts to our “bloated” military, the cessation of arms sales to other countries and the elimination of our nuclear arsenal. I agree with him about all those proposals—and I suppose Dudziak would support the same—but they are not an exit strategy from our peculiar and permanent wartime.
The anniversary of the largest oil spill in American history passed with little notice this summer. On July 15, 2010, the ruptured BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was finally sealed after gushing oil for nearly three months, but there were few stories to commemorate it a year later, owing in part to the headline-consuming hacking scandal that had broken out at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The occasion might have gone unnoticed even if there had been nothing to nudge it aside, because business-as-usual has returned with surprising speed to the Gulf of Mexico and to America.
A drilling moratorium imposed by President Obama was lifted last fall, tourists are back on the area’s beaches, commercial fishing has resumed, energy consumption is rising across the country, and BP has returned to the Gulf drilling scene—a well it owns was given the first permit after the moratorium was lifted. Tony Hayward, the BP chief executive who was forced to step down in October 2010, largely as a result of the disaster, has gotten his life back quite nicely, raising $2.18 billion earlier this summer for a new investment firm he has set up with the financier Nathaniel Rothschild.
The eleven workers who were killed at the ruptured well, and the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled, are slipping out of memory. The short-term environmental damage was not as catastrophic as feared, and the long-term impact—the toll the oil will take as it moves through the food chain of Gulf marine life—is not yet known. Yet the reports of the past year and anniversary-themed books on the disaster provide a trove of data that reveals how the oil and gas industry is as reckless and unaccountable as the too-big-to-fail banks that brought on the financial crisis of 2008. The BP disaster revealed the same problems—lax government regulation, corporate profits despite the risks, a fawning press—that characterized the financial meltdown. Big banks and big oil have more in common than their size.
When our attention was still fixed on the spill, which we could watch via underwater cameras that showed oil spewing from the seabed, everyone was beating up on BP, which was doing its best to blame Transocean, the company that owned and operated the drilling rig, and Halliburton, which carried out a cementing job so badly that it may have contributed to the disaster. Hayward was bumped out of his job once the crisis passed but it has been difficult to know who was responsible beyond BP, or the extent to which BP itself was responsible, just as it has been difficult to know whether the disaster was an inevitability in the risky offshore business or a fluke caused by singular incompetence at BP. As it turns out, both theories are correct.
BP recklessly cut corners whenever it could, but so did Transocean, and so did—does—the rest of the fossil fuel industry. For instance, ExxonMobil, with a better safety record than BP in recent decades, accused its British competitor of substandard practices. “When you do things the proper way, these kind of things do not happen,” said Rex Tillerson, the Exxon CEO, at a March conference. In June an Exxon pipeline burst under the Yellowstone River, spilling about a thousand barrels of oil into pristine waters. A few weeks before the spill, facing pressure from local authorities who were concerned that the pipeline could be ruptured by floodwaters, Exxon briefly shut it down but quickly reopened it, assuring everyone that the pipeline was safe. Once the spill happened, Exxon claimed to have closed the burst pipeline quicker than it had. So much for the “proper way” to do things.
Before the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the media generally treated BP in the respectful, do-no-wrong way that Citibank, Washington Mutual, Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, and Merrill Lynch were treated until it was discovered they had done quite a bit wrong. John Browne, BP’s chief executive from 1995 to 2007, was credited with turning a sleepy, tradition-encrusted firm into an aggressive top-rank juggernaut. Browne, who earned a business degree from Stanford and spent his most formative years working for BP in the United States, followed the ever-popular American strategy of increasing a company’s size by acquiring other firms (Amoco and Arco) and boosting profitability by laying off workers. In Browne’s first five years as CEO, BP’s stock price more than tripled.
The story of his rise is well told in Loren C. Steffy’s book, Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit. Steffy, a business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, reveals the emptiness behind a much-lauded pivot in Browne’s career: his rebranding of BP as a green oil company. At a Stanford speech in 1997, Browne broke ranks with the rest of the oil industry and announced that BP would invest $20 million in a solar plant as well as research into sustainable energy. The company’s logo was changed and BP, we were told, henceforth stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” The press loved it. As Steffy notes, the Financial Times lauded Browne as “the Sun King of the oil industry,” and Vanity Fair described him, in an issue devoted to the environment, as an “oilman with a conscience.”
Browne showed himself willing to run large risks—cutting the number of engineers, slashing maintenance—in order to increase profit margins. In 2005, a deadly explosion occurred at BP’s Texas City refinery, which had been the victim of relentless cuts to its operating budget. The explosion killed fifteen workers and injured more than 170. Afterward, it was revealed that the refinery manager was desperate to stave off funding cuts ordered by corporate headquarters that he knew were turning the refinery into a danger zone. When he commissioned an outside consultant to evaluate safety problems, the report had warned, “We have never seen a site where the notion of ‘I could die today’ was so real for so very many hourly people.’” A year later, the same dynamic of penny-pinching for the sake of higher profits led to the bursting of a corroded BP pipeline in Alaska; 270,000 gallons of crude spilled onto the tundra.
Though BP’s reputation was sullied and a modest number of unfavorable stories were published, its stock price and earnings remained strong; Browne was still loved by Wall Street and, to a great extent, the press. When he was forced to resign in 2007, it had nothing to do with the deaths and pollution caused by BP. Browne, who is gay, had lied to a British court about the origins of his relationship with an estranged boyfriend who was trying to extort money from him; the two had met on an escort website, Suited and Booted, rather than, as Browne had told the court, jogging in a park. Browne was replaced by Hayward, a longtime deputy. Steffy notes that when the Gulf of Mexico blowout occurred three years later, the correct question to ask was not how could such a disaster happen, but “How the hell could this happen again?”
Just as the financial industry was only lightly policed by the SEC and other agencies, the fossil fuel industry got what it wanted from its overseers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t conducted a scheduled or surprise inspection of the Texas City refinery for five years, even though it is the third-largest refinery in America. After the explosion, OSHA found three hundred “willful violations” of US regulations and fined BP more than $21 million—a tiny amount for one of the largest corporations in the world. BP didn’t bother to make all the changes it promised, so in 2009 OSHA imposed an additional $87 million fine for noncompliance. This didn’t hurt, either, because BP’s net income topped $16 billion that year. In the oil industry as in the financial industry, fines that hardly change the bottom line are principally public relations problems, if that.
The truly maddening story took place offshore. The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS)was responsible for overseeing offshore drilling yet its staff was too small for the job—just fifty-five inspectors for three thousand facilities in the Gulf. Worse, there was evidence that many inspectors were industry puppets. Even before the blowout, a federal investigation found that MMS staffers accepted golf and ski trips from the industry, had sex with industry representatives, and used illicit drugs with them. Surprise inspections of rigs were almost never conducted, though required by law. These inspections might not have done much good anyway—Steffy notes that a federal investigation concluded that some inspectors “had so little understanding of what they were inspecting that they simply asked company representatives to explain it to them.”
Many firms used a one-size-fits-all environmental impact statement for their wells in the Gulf, even though the statement mentioned types of wildlife, including walruses, that don’t live there. A wildlife expert listed as a contact by Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and BP had in fact been dead for several years. The MMS hadn’t noticed. When BP applied to the MMS for major safety and design exemptions on its Macondo well (its name for the well that ruptured), permission was sometimes granted not within days or hours but within minutes.
After the financial crisis, the Obama administration was criticized for not cracking down hard enough on the banks and investment firms that had nearly destroyed the economy. One of the reasons for its timidity is that the revolving door between Wall Street and government has meant Wall Streeters don’t just continue to influence policy, they continue to make it. The same holds true in the fossil fuel industry. After the disaster at the Macondo well, the Obama administration went through the rituals of change at MMS. The agency got a new name, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The people remained pretty much the same—connected to the industry. According to the Associated Press, which in July obtained previously withheld documents from the agency formerly known as MMS,
About 1 of every 5 employees involved in offshore inspections in the Gulf of Mexico has been recused from some duties because they could come in contact with a family member or friend working for a company they regulate.
Steffy tells this sordid story well, but his book, like others published within a year of the complex disaster, relies to a great extent on news stories and government reports. It can be hard to know in Steffy’s narrative where his own considerable research leaves off and previously published material begins; attribution and footnotes are not as comprehensive as they could be. We therefore don’t always know what we need to know about the forces that shape our lives. Publishers often follow a newsy calendar that does not allow sufficient time for the original investigatory work required. Steffy’s book was published just a few months after the well was capped; it’s quite an achievement that it reads as smoothly as it does.
The perils of hasty work are exhibited in Joel Achenbach’s A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, published on the blowout’s first anniversary. The book’s first sentence serves as a warning of sorts: “It came out of nowhere, a feel-bad story for the ages, a kind of environmental 9/11.” The clichés and near clichés get worse. Within the next twenty pages we read that the effort to cap the well was “a white-knuckle enterprise” while engineers were “working cheek by jowl” amid “howling political winds” during which scientists “racked their brains.” Sometimes Achenbach seems to have tried to pack as many clichés as possible into his work—how else to explain the following sentence? “The administration had scrambled all of its jets, had sent Cabinet secretaries into overdrive, had written a blank check to the agencies to do whatever it takes to deal with the spill.”
Achenbach, a reporter at The Washington Post, writes to a great extent about what he saw while covering the disaster for the Post. And what he saw—what most must-file-by-the-end-of-the-day journalists saw, because BP and the government made it difficult to visit the spill site and areas where oil fouled the shoreline—was a media circus featuring officials from BP, the Coast Guard, the Energy Department, and the White House. Many of the villains of Achenbach’s book are in the press and television, which he accuses of hyping the pollution threat (he also criticizes his own reporting for the Post), and in the White House, which comes off as caring too much about its image.
Perhaps that was true, but the battle over image is the least important of issues involved in the spill. Although Achenbach’s book has some useful information about the technical challenges faced and eventually overcome by BP engineers and government officials, there is little attribution in the text and he has no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography. A note at the back of his book mentions a Web page where this information is supposedly posted, but when I checked repeatedly this summer, the page had a notice that said “Under Construction.”
It’s not easy to write a book of investigation. Sources must be developed and checked. Complex technologies and financial transactions must be understood. Ida Tarbell’s magisterial History of the Standard Oil Company was not produced overnight. How can a writer today, with a mortgage to pay and a kid or two to put through college, do the job if her advance covers only a few months of living expenses? One of the answers is found in a rough gem from the pile of anniversary books: Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster, by John Konrad and Tom Shroder. Konrad is an oil rig captain who worked for Transocean and for BP as a contractor. With his insider knowledge of the industry, as well as friendships with some of the crew of the Deepwater Horizon, the name of the Transocean rig that drilled the well for BP, Konrad had a huge advantage over professional journalists, who have little expertise in offshore operations. Before the digital era, insiders like Konrad would have remained on the inside, but a few years ago he started a blog, gCaptain.com, and it became a hub for professional mariners. If a rig captain can blog, why not write a book? Konrad teamed up with Shroder, a Washington Post editor, and has written an excellent book that wraps concise explanations of technology into a fascinating story of danger and tragedy on the rig.
Konrad describes with particular clarity the part Transocean played. BP’s actions have gotten a fair amount of attention—the company was pushing Transocean and other subcontractors to work as quickly as possible, in order to reduce costs. BP was paying $500,000 a day to rent the Deepwater Horizon rig, and other costs, such as fuel and supplies, added an additional $500,000 to the daily bill. The sooner the well was drilled, the sooner BP’s financial hemorrhage stopped.
Although BP’s leaders insist that costs are not a factor when safety is involved, their actions, and the statements of people who worked for them, tell a different story. As Oberon Houston, a former BP rig manager, told the presidential commission that investigated the disaster in the Gulf, “The focus on controlling costs was acute at BP, to the point that it became a distraction. They just go after it with a ferocity that is mind-numbing and terrifying. No one’s ever asked to cut corners or take a risk, but it often ends up like that.”
Too much attention is devoted to BP—not because the company deserves a break but because the piling on has fed a perception that BP was a rogue. The rest of the industry has been glad to condemn BP so that our anger focuses on the supposed exception rather than the industry as a whole. This strategy was used in the financial world too, with industry leaders trying to persuade the government and public that misbehavior was limited to egregious lenders like Countrywide Financial, or to reckless traders within otherwise law-abiding firms. It’s the rogue tactic of blame shifting. The truth is that BP, while not the best (as the Texas City disaster showed), was not the worst and was not the only company that put profits ahead of safety. And it’s crucial to remember that BP, Exxon, Chevron, and the other names that we easily recognize aren’t the biggest players in the world of oil—it’s state-owned mammoths like Saudi Aramco, Venezuela’s PdVSA, and Russia’s Gazprom that own and extract most of the world’s oil. If you think BP doesn’t accord sufficient respect to the environment or its workers, just visit a field managed by, say, a Chinese firm. That’s why Konrad’s investigation of Transocean is so important—it reminds us that BP is no exception.
The multibillion-dollar Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, built in a South Korean shipyard and launched in 2001, was an engineering marvel. Rather than being an inert drilling platform towed to a well site and anchored to the bottom of the sea, it had a propulsion system that enabled it to move on its own power across the ocean. Once it reached a drilling site, its dynamic positioning system allowed its engines to adjust for the winds, waves, and currents, so the rig remained stationary over the wellhead on the seabed thousands of feet below. When a well was completed, the rig and its crew of 126 would motor off (slowly—top speed was 4.6 knots) to their next drilling assignment.
With oil prices rising in recent years and offshore drilling increasing, rigs like Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon were in heavy demand; their half-million-dollar-a-day rental price made them lucrative to own and operate. There is a hitch, however. If a rig is unable to drill because of equipment malfunction or maintenance work at port, it earns nothing. The upshot is that just as BP had an incentive to push Transocean to drill as fast as possible, Transocean wanted to keep its rig going even if equipment was aging or breaking down. And that’s what was happening on the Deepwater Horizon, which was overdue for an overhaul. It was beginning to fall apart.
Konrad’s book has much—not always well-sourced, however—about problems on the rig. For instance, the drill shack, which is where the drilling pipe is controlled, had an outdated computer that regularly froze. “It was more than an inconvenience,” Konrad writes. “When the screen froze, the driller was blind.” Even worse, the rig had a faulty blowout preventer (BOP), a four-hundred-ton device placed over the well on the seafloor. In a blowout emergency, the BOP can cut through the drilling pipe and seal off the well, so that oil and gas cannot leak out. But the BOP failed to shut down the rupturing Macondo well. Postmortems have shown that the BOP had faulty batteries and faulty valves that may have contributed to its failure. And the BOP, used on other wells previously drilled by the rig, had not been fully inspected since 2000, even though such inspections were supposed to occur every three to five years.
The most haunting indictment of Transocean’s practices is contained in a report the company commissioned from an outside consultancy just a month before the blowout. The rig was scheduled to undergo long-delayed maintenance after it completed the well, so Transocean wanted a thorough inventory of what needed to be fixed. The report, which Konrad cites without crediting The New York Times, which uncovered it, included interviews with crew members who warned of trouble. “At nine years old, Deepwater Horizon has never been in dry dock,” one worker said. “We can only work around so much.” Another worker described the rig’s rhythm as “Run it, break it, fix it.”
After disasters like the BP spill and the financial meltdown, two outcomes seem possible: real reform and a better system, or superficial change and danger-as-usual. The financial meltdown occurred in 2008, two years before the BP disaster, and it’s pretty clear which way that story is going. Modest financial reforms have been instituted but nobody of substance has been punished, and the big banks are bigger than ever and as powerful as ever, perhaps more so, in view of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision giving corporations greater leeway to make political donations. The banks remain too big to fail and could well fail again. The BP spill is following the same unfortunate path.
When oil was still gushing from the damaged well, President Obama did what presidents often do at moments of calamity—he appointed a committee from which little was expected. But his National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling produced an excellent report earlier this year. Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling has more detail and prescriptions than most of the anniversary books, and its criticism is sharp. “The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials,” it states. “Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.” The report makes its point with admirable relentlessness. “The accident of April 20 was avoidable,” the committee continues.
It resulted from clear mistakes made in the first instance by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, and by government officials who, relying too much on industry’s assertions of the safety of their operations, failed to create and apply a program of regulatory oversight that would have properly minimized the risks of deepwater drilling.
We have been warned, but will there be real reform? Will the revolving door between industry and regulators be shut? Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine President Obama, who supports more drilling in America, enacting the thorough changes his committee recommends. This is not an era in which lots of government jobs are being created to increase the regulation of an industry that, though unpopular with environmentalists, counts a large number of Americans as employees and shareholders.
Yet the peril posed by drilling is rising, because a new frontier beckons to the industry. Preliminary drilling has begun off Greenland in the Arctic Ocean, where the ecosystem is particularly fragile and spill-containment operations particularly difficult to accomplish, and the Obama administration has given conditional approval for Royal Dutch Shell to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska. Last summer, when icebergs threatened a drilling rig off Greenland, tugboats pulled them away. What happens if there are more icebergs than tugboats, or if the icebergs are too large to tow, or if a tug’s engine fails? The spokesmen for the industry, who insisted that a disaster like the BP blowout could not happen in the Gulf, say we can trust their companies in the Arctic. Their promises are even less comforting than the reassurances we hear from Wall Street about the impossibility of another financial crisis.
Oil firms give codenames to their drilling sites, to throw rivals off the scent of where they are finding oil. The US government, when it sold a Gulf drilling lease to BP in 2008, called the site Block 252. BP, to help raise money for United Way, let its employees bid for the right to choose a codename; the winning group of employees decided on Macondo, after the town in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. No one could know how miserably appropriate the choice would be. Both García Márquez’s fictional town and BP’s Macondo were destroyed. The final twist of One Hundred Years of Solitude is relevant, too. A text that had been impenetrable is finally deciphered at the end of the novel. Written one hundred years earlier, it foretold the events that destroyed Macondo. When it comes to drilling for oil and the hazards of climate change, the texts that predict our future are accumulating. They are all too clear.
(The following was published on the New York Review’s blog.)
How can you turn $3.2 billion into $500 billion in a day?
If you are Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia, and Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon, you announce a deal that allows Exxon to explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic waters. According to Putin, who last week said, “It’s scary to utter such huge figures,” the deal could reach $500 billion. According to Exxon’s news release, all that’s been agreed so far is an investment of $3.2 billion. The only certainty is that the energy industry’s numbers game sometimes resembles the magical calculations the financial industry relied on before the 2008 crash.
Take natural gas. There has been a flood of recent investment in the effort to extract gas from the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that runs underground from Virginia to New York. Drilling rights have been snapped up as everyone tries to get a piece of the hazardous action. Few seem concerned that it involves an extraction technique, known as hydraulic fracturing—it uses chemicals and explosives to release deposits of oil or gas that are trapped in rock formations—that can poison water tables. The technique, which has been around for decades, is now being applied far more frequently than before and has come under intense criticism by environmental and health groups.
The investments have been encouraged by bullish numbers from, among others, the US Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration, which earlier this year estimated that the Marcellus contains an astounding 410 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The fossil fuel industry loves suggestions of bountiful supplies because that means more investment, more drilling, and more profits, and it was not thrilled when the New York Times reported in June that some Energy Department officials were doubting the estimates:
“Am I just totally crazy, or does it seem like everyone and their mothers are endorsing shale gas without getting a really good understanding of the economics at the business level?” an energy analyst at the Energy Information Administration [a branch of the Energy Department] wrote in an April 27 e-mail to a colleague. Another e-mail expresses similar doubts. “I agree with your concerns regarding the euphoria for shale gas and oil,” wrote a senior official in the forecasting division of the Energy Information Administration in an April 13 e-mail to a colleague at the administration.
In August, the U.S. Geological Survey, which is part of the Interior Department, published its own estimate of Marcellus reserves, and its number was 84 trillion cubic feet—about 80 percent less than the Energy Department’s estimate. How can the figures be so different? Even under the best of circumstances, accurate estimates are difficult to get, but as the Times noted, it turns out the Energy Department outsourced much of its work to consultants with close ties to the oil and gas industry. By relying on consultants who appear to have accepted industry data at face value, the department acted much like the financial rating agencies that took Wall Street at its word and doled out triple-A ratings to mortgage securities that were doomed to fail. Thanks to the diligence of the Geological Survey, which relies on its own geologists to do the number crunching, the Energy Department abruptly announced that it will cut its estimate of Marcellus reserves by 80 percent—essentially adopting the Geological Survey numbers.
The Exxon deal, meanwhile, is attention-getting not just for its roulette of numbers but because it involves drilling in Arctic waters. The risk of an accident is higher there, due to only-in-Arctic perils that include icebergs crashing into drilling rigs. And even more worrying, the consequences of a spill are far greater than in less remote regions, since cleanup would be extremely difficult in the harsh weather and winter darkness of the Arctic. More and more, industry declarations about high safety standards–Exxon said it “will use global best practices to develop state-of-the-art safety and environmental protection systems”—seem akin to AIG giving paternal assurances to investors that its derivatives business was being managed in a way that would prevent a meltdown if the housing market declined.
The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year revealed the terrifying inadequacy of oil companies’ efforts to prepare for an offshore blowout. And just last month, after coming under pressure from environmentalists, the government of Greenland, which is based in the city of Nuuk, released an almost comical containment plan prepared by a Scottish company that is drilling exploratory wells in its Arctic waters. If an iceberg is stained with oil, the plan calls for cutting off the affected areas and towing them to shore, where they would be hoisted into a heated warehouse to separate the oil from the water. Needless to say, this has never been done before and sounds like an idea hatched by the editors of the Onion. In regard to other problems, the plan is dismally honest. Noting that Greenland’s coastline is rocky, it admits that “in some circumstances oil shorelines are best left to recover naturally.” In other words, no cleanup.
So it’s no surprise, given the secrecy and uncertainty and occasional chicanery in the fossil fuel industry, that the deal announced by Putin and Tillerson could amount to less than what Tillerson says—or, who knows, more than Putin hopes. Luckily for the Arctic environment, there’s a chance it will be less. This is not the first time an ambitious plan of this sort has been announced in Russia. Earlier this year—at a point when its drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico were still suspended over last year’s spill—BP reached a similar deal with Rosneft, the state-owned firm that is now Exxon’s partner. But it dramatically fell apart due to objections from a different Russian firm that BP was allied with in other projects, and the situation has deteriorated to the point that, in late August, Russian police raided BP’s Moscow office. There are other ways for such a deal to founder. If foreign oil firms are seen as doing too well in Russia, the reward can be nationalization—in 2006, Royal Dutch Shell, after spending more than $20 billion dollars on a project off Sakhalin Island, was forced to sell half its stake to a state-owned firm.
Even if Putin and Tillerson find nothing to argue about, and even if no icebergs crash into an Exxon rig, the project can fizzle because nobody knows for sure whether or where oil might be found under Russia’s Arctic waters. Even the best estimates by USGS geologists are simply educated guesses about amounts of oil and their location. Cairn Energy, the Scottish company drilling in Greenland’s waters, is spending at least $600 million on wells that have so far failed to find enough oil to justify full-blown extraction. The irony (and last-ditch hope for environmentalists if exploratory drilling gets underway in Russian waters) is that western energy companies might pour billions of dollars into the Arctic and get nothing more valuable from their efforts than a belated awareness that they were victims of their own irrational exuberance.
(An online-only article at NewYorker.com)
Can a news photograph be too vivid? It’s an essential question as we consider the pros and cons of President Barack Obama’s decision not to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. So far, though, the American media has done a poor job of managing the visual dilemmas prompted by the killing of Al Qaeda’s leader.
Look at the picture that was splashed across legions of front pages on Monday, shot by the Associated Press photographer Manuel Balce Ceneta and showing a crowd of Americans celebrating the news of bin Laden’s death. It was an image rich in spectacle—cheering youths, fists raised in triumph or index fingers extended in the we’re-number-one fashion, a flag draped around a celebrant in the foreground, and behind them the White House bathed in light.
A similar picture, shot by Chip Somodevilla of Getty Images, was published on a number of other front pages. Needless to say, these photos featured prominently on Web sites, too. On television, Geraldo Rivera waded into the White House crowd and offered nine minutes of ecstasy to the viewers of Fox News. “It’s wild out here,” he reported from the throng. “It’s Mardi Gras, it’s New Year’s Eve.” At that point, the youths around him broke into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
If you wanted to know what Americans were thinking and feeling, what better gauge could there be than the groups, composed to a great extent of students, that assembled at parks and monuments around the country, including Ground Zero? But the scenes of collegians waving the flag and shouting “U-S-A!” were problematic in their simplistic catchiness; they had something in common with the scenes (like the one below from the Associated Press) of young Muslims on the other side of the world burning our flag and shouting “Death to America!”
As we have come to learn, these photogenic extremists are not, in their hostile ways, representative of most Muslims, just as the partying college kids at the White House did not, I think, speak for all Americans. Look, for instance, at the following YouTube videos, which were shot at Tulane, Stanford, and Ohio State, according to the individuals who posted them.
It’s justifiable to have a drink to celebrate bin Laden’s killing or remember a loved one who was lost in the wars since 9/11, but the frat-house essence of these gatherings seems to have more to do with kegs than flags. It’s safe to assume the quieter (and older) majority reacted with thoughts and feelings far more complex and dignified than a collegian squealing, as one of Geraldo’s kids did, “It’s awesome, finally the guy’s dead!”
The media error of substituting a photogenic minority for a less-photogenic multitude is common. It occurred, for example, back in 2003, when a very small number of excitable Iraqis helped Marines topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. (I wrote about that event for The New Yorker.) The reaction of the majority of Iraqis to the American-led invasion was far more layered and sophisticated than what we saw from the handful of statue-topplers.
The error of these substitutions is compounded when the media plays an unacknowledged role in fomenting the great images that it promulgates. The Iraqis at Firdos Square played to the cameras, and a similar dynamic appeared to occur, to a lesser though still notable extent, in the bin Laden celebrations. There wasn’t a collegiate casting call at Lafayette Park, but the cheers in many of the scenes outside the White House were in response to cameras pointing at the students.
The visuals were fantastic; the journalism, less so.
(An online-only article at NewYorker.com)
In February, two days into the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, a crowd of protesters in Tobruk, in eastern Libya, created a political icon. At a square in the city, they toppled a larger-than-life version of Qaddafi’s Green Book—the cement pages were six feet by four feet—and cheers went up as the monument went down. The event was recorded on a cell phone and posted on YouTube, offering vivid proof that the uprising was for real.
An anti-government crowd, a pro-government edifice, a dramatic toppling: it is easy to regard such scenarios as inevitable or necessary parts of any revolution. The Sons of Liberty tore down a statue of George III in 1776; a statue of King Louis XV was toppled during the French revolution in 1792; statues were torn down across Eastern Europe as Communism collapsed a generation ago, and Marines yanked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003 (which I wrote about for the magazine earlier this year). A few weeks ago, in Syria, a crowd in Daraa attacked a statue of the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, who is the father of the current dictator, Bashar al-Assad. You can watch it on YouTube, naturally.
But the monument-toppling episodes that have emerged from the Middle East in recent months are exceptions; most of the uprisings have not relied on the visual clichés of the pre-digital age. There are lots of reasons for this, the most important of which is that camera-equipped cell phones are in the hands of everyone and Web sites like YouTube and Facebook are serving as distribution platforms; a far wider range of imagery is being produced by a far wider range of image-producers. We are flooded with photos and videos that used to be exceptional, such as graphic shots of protesters being beaten and gunned down—or its opposite, protesters standing up to security forces and forcing them to flee. Who needs effigies when you have the real thing?
It’s generally acknowledged that the catalytic event of Tunisia’s uprising was the self-immolation of a provincial fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, who was harassed and humiliated by a municipal inspector. Paradoxically, no video or photo has emerged of his death. The video that helped fuel the revolt showed an angry crowd outside the government building where, a short while before, Bouazizi had set himself on fire. Bouazizi’s cousin shot and uploaded it to Facebook, where it eventually drew the attention of Al Jazeera, which broadcast it widely. The amateur footage does not have a visual crescendo—the crowd mills, the crowd chants, a few people climb the gated entrance to the building. But that was the revolution—people standing up to the dictatorship—and that’s why the clip was so powerful. Indeed, other Tunisians had set themselves afire in recent years; the iconic act wasn’t the immolation of one person but the protest of many.
Egypt was similar. Tahrir Square, the focal point of the protests against Hosni Mubarak, was not all that photogenic, featuring an unharmonious assortment of buildings that included the headquarters of the ruling party. (Firdos Square had a statue of Saddam and the turquoise-domed 14th of Ramadan Mosque.) Yet Tahrir had something far more important: a mass of Egyptians whose unwillingness to leave, despite attacks by security forces and government thugs, constituted the revolution. The uprising did not need to be represented by an iconic image because the revolution, in its flag-waving, hundreds-of-thousands-of-boots-on-the-ground majesty, could be sampled in any viewfinder.
That’s not to say the revolution was icon-free, just that the icons it offered were neither crucial nor traditional. When Mubarak, on the evening of February 10th, announced that he would not be stepping down (a day before he agreed that he would), protesters became angry and many began waving their shoes at the video screens broadcasting his speech. In Arab culture shoes are regarded as particularly unclean, so waving your loafer is a high insult. Americans received a primer on shoe-as-icon in 2003, when a handful of Iraqis at Firdos Square used their footwear to beat the fallen head of the statue of Saddam, and a refresher in 2008 when an Iraqi reporter at a press conference threw his shoes at then President Bush.
In Bahrain, it was the government that tore down the icon. Pro-democracy demonstrators had gathered at the Pearl Roundabout, an intersection that had, at its center, six white arches holding a giant stone pearl three hundred feet above the ground. The monument was built in 1982 to celebrate a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council; the arches represented the number of G.C.C. members, and the pearl was a reminder of what had been a major local industry before the discovery of oil. Until protestors assembled at the roundabout—security forces killed the first of them—the monument had little political meaning. After the democracy movement was crushed by martial law, the arches and the pearl were pulled down, according to the government, “to remove a bad memory.”
The Bahraini government was fooling only itself, because destroying an icon is not the same as destroying the memory, the people, or the movement that gave it meaning. In the nineties, when I covered the Bosnian war, Croat and Serb forces destroyed landmarks that symbolized the country’s religious and cultural diversity, such as a sixteenth-century bridge over the Neretva River in Mostar and a sixteenth-century mosque in Banja Luka. This month marks the nineteenth anniversary of the Bosnian war, and, although the country is very far from overcoming its wounds, the Stari Most has been rebuilt in Mostar and the Ferhadija mosque is in the process of being rebuilt, both with their original stones.
The world’s first icons, predating the era of mass reproduction, originated in times when it was at least theoretically possible to smash every painting of a religious figure or tear down every statue of a potentate. That’s no longer possible. Bahraini bulldozers cannot remove the archive of YouTube clips showing security forces gunning down unarmed protesters. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, along with the eternal life the Web grants to digital imagery, is reshaping the form and impact of political iconography. Mubarak will not be the last dictator to suffer the consequences.
On April 9, 2003, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy, commander of the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines, awoke at a military base captured from the Iraqis a few miles from the center of Baghdad, which was still held by the enemy. It had been twenty days since the invasion of Iraq began, and McCoy had some personal chores to take care of—washing his socks, for one. Afterward, he walked over to a group of marines under his command who were defacing a mural of Saddam Hussein. As I watched, he picked up a sledgehammer and struck a few blows himself. The men cheered. Then he began preparing for the serious business of the day: leading the battalion into the heart of the city. He expected a house-to-house brawl that would last several days.
The battalion’s tanks were followed by Humvees with the barrels of M-16s pointing from every window. But only a few potshots were fired at the marines, and small groups of Iraqis and their children were on the streets waving. On the radio, McCoy’s men told of being served tea. “We’re not getting resistance, we’re getting cakes,” McCoy remarked.
As the battalion neared the center of the city, Colonel Steven Hummer, the regimental commander, ordered it to the Palestine Hotel. The hotel was in Firdos Square, but neither the hotel nor the square was labelled on McCoy’s map. All he had was a grid coördinate for an area that was a square kilometre.
The hotel was filled with international journalists, and by three in the afternoon some who had remained in Baghdad during the invasion were probing the city, freed of government minders who had controlled their movements until then. A few of them ran into McCoy as he was examining his map. McCoy turned to Remy Ourdan, a reporter for Le Monde. “Where is this damn Palestine Hotel?” he asked. Ourdan indicated the road to take.
Not far away, Captain Bryan Lewis, the leader of McCoy’s tank company, spotted a car with “TV” scrawled on its side and shouted from his turret, “Is this the way to the Palestine?” A German photographer named Markus Matzel pointed down the avenue—they were heading the right way. Lewis motioned for Grarup to come along, in case further directions were needed. Grarup hopped onto the turret and led the tanks to Firdos Square. (Note to reader: Please see the correction to this paragraph at the bottom of the story.)
After the marines arrived, a small group of Iraqis gathered around a statue of Saddam Hussein in the middle of the square and tried to bring it down with a sledgehammer and rope. More photographers and TV crews appeared. An American flag was draped over the statue’s head. Eventually, a Marine vehicle equipped with a crane toppled the statue. The spectacle was broadcast live around the world.
Some have argued that the events at Firdos were staged, to demonstrate that America had triumphed, the war was over, and the Iraqis were happy. After all, the marines had seized the only place in Baghdad where a large number of foreign reporters could be found—at least two hundred were at the Palestine. And U.S. officials were suspiciously quick to appropriate the imagery from Firdos. A few minutes after the toppling, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”
Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development. It expresses a media theory developed by, among others, Walter Lippmann, who after the First World War identified the components of wartime mythmaking as “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality.” As he put it, “Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities [and] in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.” In the nineteen-sixties, Daniel J. Boorstin identified a new category of media spectacle that he called “pseudo-events,” which were created to be reported on. But Boorstin was theorizing primarily about political conventions and press conferences, not about events on a battlefield.
The 2004 documentary film “Control Room” featured Al Jazeera journalists who argued that the toppling of Saddam’s statue was merely “a show . . . a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. Skeptics have also questioned whether the crowd was as large or as representative of popular sentiment as U.S. officials suggested. Might it have been just a small group of Iraqis whose numbers and enthusiasm were exaggerated by the cameras? Did the media, which had, with few exceptions, accepted the Bush Administration’s prewar claims about weapons of mass destruction, err again by portraying a pseudo-event as real? And were lives lost as a result of this error?
I had followed McCoy’s battalion to Baghdad for the Times Magazine. I was what the military called a “unilateral” journalist, driving unescorted into Iraq on the first day of the invasion in an S.U.V. rented from Hertz in Kuwait. A few days into the war, I happened to meet McCoy at a staging area in the Iraqi desert north of Nasiriya, and he agreed to let me and a number of other unilaterals follow his battalion to Baghdad. On April 9th, I drove into Firdos with his battalion, and was at his side during some of the afternoon.
My understanding of events at the time was limited. I had no idea why the battalion went to Firdos rather than to other targets. I didn’t know who had decided to raise the American flag and who had decided to take down the statue, or why. And I had little awareness of the media dynamics that turned the episode into a festive symbol of what appeared to be the war’s finale. In reality, the war was just getting under way. Many thousands of people would be killed or injured before the Bush Administration acknowledged that it faced not just “pockets of dead-enders” in Iraq, as Rumsfeld insisted, but what grew to be a full-fledged insurgency. The toppling of Saddam’s statue turned out to be emblematic of primarily one thing: the fact that American troops had taken the center of Baghdad. That was significant, but everything else the toppling was said to represent during repeated replays on television—victory for America, the end of the war, joy throughout Iraq—was a disservice to the truth. Yet the skeptics were wrong in some ways, too, because the event was not planned in advance by the military. How did it happen?
Three days earlier, Marine Regimental Combat Team 7, under the command of Colonel Hummer, arrived at the Diyala Canal, which loops around eastern Baghdad. The center of the city was less than eight miles away, but the regiment did not have orders to seize it. The plan was to stay along the Diyala and send small units on quick raids into the city.
The task of planning the raids was given to two majors on the regiment’s staff, John Schaar and Andrew Milburn. Until Diyala, they had not even examined a map of the city, but they quickly concluded that the raids were a bad idea. “We did a little study and thought this was really stupid,” Schaar told me not long ago. Raiding units risked becoming trapped in the city, creating an Iraqi version of “Black Hawk Down.” Schaar and Milburn also concluded that Iraqi forces could not withstand a direct assault by the regiment; for nearly three weeks, the regiment had blasted through every Iraqi unit in its path.
They then divided central Baghdad into twenty-seven zones, with each battalion responsible for occupying four or five zones (several low-priority zones were unassigned). Schaar and Milburn had received from divisional headquarters a list of about thirty sensitive sites—a hodgepodge that comprised embassies, banks, detention centers, potential nuclear facilities, and hotels, including the Palestine. The most important targets were in four central zones across the Tigris River from the Republican Palace, which the Army had already seized. Schaar recently sent me a photograph of the twenty-seven-zone invasion map. The map has six thumbtacks marking key targets. One of them, in the central zones, was the Palestine Hotel.
According to Schaar, there was never any doubt about which battalion would be assigned the central zones. “Three-four”—McCoy’s battalion—“got tagged to that because they were the sharp guys,” he told me.
Bryan McCoy, who has a stocky build and a blunt Oklahoma manner, became known as the regiment’s toughest battalion leader. During the drive to Baghdad, McCoy mentioned Sherman’s famous dictum that war is cruelty. “My idea of a fair fight,” he said, “is clubbing baby harp seals.” When McCoy returned from Iraq, he disdained the well-equipped fitness center at the regiment’s training base, in California, and built a prisonlike gym that had no air-conditioning or fancy exercise machines, the better, he believed, to accustom his men to the rigors of battle; they weightlifted with sandbags.
The Marine Corps is the smallest branch of the U.S. military and the most precarious, because one of the key missions it fulfills—amphibious landings—does not require a separate branch. The Army knows how to conduct amphibious landings, and has done more of them in the past century than the Marines. Moreover, the future of warfare is not likely to revolve around landings on the shores of Tripoli. As McCoy remarked to me one day, “Our existence is always threatened.”
This circumstance makes the Corps particularly aware that it must be successful in the halls of Congress as well as on the fields of battle. For that reason, perhaps, marines tend to be friendlier toward the media than other branches of the military; they recognize the value of good stories and images. It is not surprising that the most famous war photograph in American history—the flag-raising at Iwo Jima—depicts marines.
McCoy, who has written a monograph on military leadership, “The Passion of Command,” understood the importance of the media. That was one reason he had agreed to let me and ten other unilateral journalists follow his battalion, which already had four embedded journalists. The reporters worked for, among others, the Times, Time, Newsweek, the Associated Press, and several photography agencies. McCoy occasionally joined us for coffee in the morning, giving us briefings about the battles along the way to Baghdad, and he made it clear to his men that we were to be welcomed. When he threw a grenade at an Iraqi position one day, a photographer was at his side, and the photograph was widely disseminated.
McCoy heard about the Palestine Hotel from the journalists in his battalion. One of the photographers, Gary Knight, of Newsweek, had mentioned it to him on several occasions, because a colleague was having a hard time there; Knight’s editors wanted McCoy to know that journalists at the hotel were in peril. “As we got closer to Baghdad, it got ramped up,” Knight recalled last year. “It was, like, ‘Can you try and persuade the marines to get to the Palestine Hotel?’ ”
The photographer Laurent Van der Stockt, working with me for the Times Magazine, also mentioned the Palestine to McCoy, often while sharing his stash of Cuban cigars with him. Van der Stockt would tell the Colonel what he was hearing from Remy Ourdan, with whom he spoke almost every day on his satellite phone. Ourdan had stayed at the Palestine throughout the invasion, hiding his phone behind a ceiling panel and using it surreptitiously at night or in the early morning, when he would crouch on his balcony and talk in whispers to his editors in Paris.
On the morning of April 9th, as McCoy was washing his socks, Van der Stockt wandered over while talking to Ourdan on the sat phone. Ourdan told Van der Stockt that Iraqi forces had abandoned the center of Baghdad. For the first time, there were no security forces at the Palestine or in the area around it.
“Colonel, my friend at the Palestine Hotel is saying there is nobody in front of us—the city is empty,” Van der Stockt said.
McCoy nodded but said the battalion wouldn’t get to the center so fast. The Army had met fierce resistance in the western part of the city. The next few hundred yards were of far greater importance to him than a hotel several miles away. Besides, marines do not take orders from French journalists
Van der Stockt told Ourdan that they wouldn’t be seeing each other that day.
“But tell the Colonel that Baghdad has fallen!” Ourdan said. “There is no more resistance. The city is open!”
The battalion moved out, and, to McCoy’s surprise, faced little opposition. Simon Robinson, a reporter for Time, was in the back of McCoy’s vehicle when the regiment’s commander, Colonel Hummer, ordered the battalion to the Palestine. Robinson vividly recalls the order, because it prompted him to lean forward to remind McCoy that reporters were there. When he did, he saw a satisfied expression spread over McCoy’s face.
“He was fully cognizant that he was about to move into an area where there were a lot of journalists and there were going to be opportunities,” Robinson told me.
In 1999, Marine General Charles Krulak wrote an influential article in which he coined the term “strategic corporal.” Krulak argued that, in an interconnected world, the actions of even a lowly corporal can have global consequences. “All future conflicts will be acted out before an international audience,” Krulak wrote. “In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well.”
At Firdos Square, it was a thirty-five-year-old gunnery sergeant, Leon Lambert, who bore out Krulak’s thesis. Lambert’s background was typical of that of many youths who enlist in the military. His father was a car mechanic with five children. Leon had to get a dishwashing job when he was twelve. One of his brothers joined the Army, another the Air Force. Lambert went for the Marines. By 2003, after almost sixteen years of service, he commanded an M-88 Hercules, a tow truck for tanks that is equipped with a crane.
At 4:30 P.M., as the M-88 rumbled into Firdos not far behind the lead tank, Lambert noticed the statue of Saddam. Installed a year earlier to celebrate the leader’s sixty-fifth birthday, it was the sort of totem that American troops had been destroying across Iraq. On the first day of the invasion, I had watched in the Iraqi border town of Safwan as a Humvee dragged down a billboard of Saddam. Erasing the symbols of regime power is what conquering armies have done for millennia.
Lambert radioed his commander, Captain Lewis, whose tank was carrying the Danish photographer.
“Hey, get a look at that statue,” Lambert said. “Why don’t we take it down?”
“No way,” Lewis responded. He didn’t want his men distracted.
There was no hostile fire, or even hostility, other than some shouts from American and West European “human shields,” who had remained in Baghdad to symbolically stand in the way of the invaders. The Iraqi forces had fled. Lewis’s tanks blocked the streets leading to Firdos while armored personnel carriers disgorged the infantry, which fanned out. Within minutes of the marines’ arrival, Firdos had been secured.
When McCoy’s Humvee stopped in front of the Palestine, he was surrounded by reporters. In addition to the journalists at the hotel, others who had followed U.S. troops to Baghdad began pulling up in their dusty S.U.V.s. One of the reporters, Newsweek’s Melinda Liu, introduced McCoy to the hotel’s manager, who nervously greeted his new boss and led him into the hotel. Striding inside, McCoy held his M-16 at the ready.
Outside, a handful of Iraqis had slipped into the square. Lambert got on the radio and told Lewis that the locals wanted to pull down the statue.
“If a sledgehammer and rope fell off the 88, would you mind?” Lambert asked.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Lewis replied. “But don’t use the 88.”
Higher authorities were unaware of these developments. McCoy, Hummer, Rumsfeld, President Bush—they hadn’t a clue about the chain of events that Lambert had triggered with a wink, a nod, and a sledgehammer.
One after another, Iraqis swung Lambert’s sledgehammer against the statue’s base. In a much photographed moment, a former weight lifter got into the action, but only a few inches of plaster fell away. The rope, thrown around the statue’s neck, was not sufficient to topple it, either.
“We watched them with the rope, and I knew that was never going to happen,” Lambert told me recently. “They were never going to get it down.”
At the Palestine, McCoy briefly talked with reporters in the manager’s office. Then he walked outside to Firdos Square and saw Lambert’s rope flopped around the statue’s neck as various Iraqis futilely wielded the sledgehammer. Cameras were everywhere. “A military operation was developing into a circus atmosphere,” McCoy recalled when I interviewed him last spring at his home in Tampa, where he serves at Central Command.
Other commanders had already concluded that toppling the dictator’s likeness might help get the point across and had tried it elsewhere. A few days into the war, British tanks mounted a raid into the heart of Basra, in the south of the country, where they destroyed a statue of Saddam. The Brits hoped the locals, seeing a strike against a symbol of regime power, would rise up against Saddam. As the British military spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, told reporters, “The purpose of that is psychological.” The statue was destroyed, but the event wasn’t filmed and drew little attention. Similarly, on April 7th, after Army soldiers seized the Republican Palace in Baghdad, their commander, Colonel David Perkins, asked his men to find a statue that could be destroyed. Once one was found—Saddam on horseback—a nearby tank was ordered to wait until an embedded team from Fox News got there. On cue, the tank fired a shell at the statue, blowing it up, but the event had little drama and did not get a lot of TV coverage. No Iraqis were present, and just a few Americans, and the surrounding landscape was featureless.
The situation at the Palestine was different. “I realized this was a big deal,” McCoy told me. “You’ve got all the press out there and everybody is liquored up on the moment. You have this Paris, 1944, feel. I remember thinking, The media is watching the Iraqis trying to topple this icon of Saddam Hussein. Let’s give them a hand.”
McCoy also considered the “buzzkill,” as he phrased it, of not helping. “Put your virtual-reality goggles on,” he continued. “What would that moment have been if we hadn’t? It would have been some B reel of Iraqis banging away at this thing and eventually losing interest and going home. There was a momentum, there was a feeling, this atmosphere of liberation. Like a kid trying to whack a piñata and he’s not going to get it with a blindfold on, so let’s move the piñata so he can knock it. That was the attitude—keep the momentum going.”
Captain Lewis, the tank commander, walked over to McCoy and asked whether the marines should finish the job for the Iraqis. McCoy asked if the Iraqis had requested help; Lewis told him they had. A marine asked whether the battalion was authorized to tear down statues; McCoy responded that it would not be a problem.
He got on the radio with Colonel Hummer, who had set up a regimental command post behind the partially destroyed Information Ministry, to update him on the events. Hummer did not have aerial reconnaissance from Firdos, or even a TV. While the rest of the world was watching the scene in the square, the colonel who authorized its climax was blind to the event.
Hummer, in a phone interview recently, explained what happened: “I get this call from Bryan and he says, ‘Hey, we’ve got these Iraqis over here with a bunch of ropes trying to pull down this very large statue of Saddam Hussein.’ And he said, ‘They’re asking us to pull it down.’ So I said, ‘O.K., go ahead.’ And I didn’t think much of it after that.”
Before signing off, Hummer instructed McCoy to make sure no one got killed by falling debris.
McCoy then issued a brief order to Lewis: “Do it.” He also told Lewis not to get anyone killed in the process.
The M-88, with its crane, was the perfect tool. Lambert, who had started everything by handing out the sledgehammer and the rope, was told to finish the job.
Before dawn on September 11, 2001, a twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant named Tim McLaughlin arrived at the Pentagon, where he was a general’s assistant. After taking care of some paperwork, he went down to the gym, changed into running clothes, and jogged across Memorial Bridge, along the Jefferson Memorial, until he heard a deep, soft thud. He rushed back to the Pentagon. As people streamed out of the building, McLaughlin made his way into it. The corridors were deserted and were filling with smoke; he could barely see his hand.
A few days later, as a personal token of appreciation for his service in the military, a congressional staffer who worked for Senator Charles Schumer and was a friend of the McLaughlin family presented McLaughlin with a flag bought at the Senate stationery store. Two years later, when McLaughlin was packing to leave for Iraq under McCoy’s command, he put the flag in his duffel.
During the invasion, McLaughlin tried to raise the flag several times. On the first attempt, he was preparing to hoist it on top of a building but realized that there was too much shooting going on. Another time, Lambert’s M-88 rolled over the flagpole that McLaughlin was about to use. McLaughlin’s efforts became an inside joke in his tank company. When McCoy ordered the toppling in Firdos Square, Captain Lewis told McLaughlin to fetch his flag for the mother of all flag pictures. Soon it was handed up to Corporal Edward Chin, who had climbed atop the M-88’s crane and was hooking a chain around the statue’s head.
“I remember thinking, What am I going to do?” Chin told me. “I didn’t want to just wave the flag.” At that moment, the wind blew the flag and it stuck to the statue’s head. “That worked for me. I later realized the flag was upside down. That is actually a symbol of distress.”
McCoy, too busy to keep an eye on the statue, wasn’t looking when the flag went up. People watching TV from their sofas in America saw it before he did. When he finally looked up, his first thought was Oh, shit! An American flag would seem like a symbol of occupation. He instantly ordered it taken down.
Around this time, McCoy’s superior, Colonel Hummer, got an urgent order from his commander, Major General James Mattis, who had apparently received an urgent order that Hummer assumes originated at the Pentagon.
Get the flag down. Now.
With the breeze keeping the flag in place, Chin had returned to his rigging work. As he was finishing up, he took the flag down of his own volition. It had been on display for just a minute and a half. There had not been time for the orders to reach him.
One of the battalion’s lieutenants, Casey Kuhlman, had also realized that the American flag would not be a welcome symbol for Iraqis and other Arabs. Kuhlman had acquired an Iraqi flag during the invasion. “I grabbed it and started going up to the statue,” he recalled. “And I didn’t get but ten or twenty metres when an older Iraqi man grabbed it from me and it sort of got passed through the crowd and then went up. I thought, My souvenir is gone. But this is a little bit better than a souvenir.”
His flag helped create one of the Firdos myths.
Staff Sergeant Brian Plesich, the leader of an Army psychological-operations team, arrived at Firdos after the sledgehammer-and-rope phase had begun. He saw the American flag go up and had the same reaction as Kuhlman: get an Iraqi flag up. Plesich, whom I interviewed last year, told his interpreter to find an Iraqi flag. The interpreter waded into the crowd, and soon an Iraqi flag was raised.
Plesich assumed that the Iraqi flag had got there because of his initiative, and in 2004 the Army published a report crediting him. The report was picked up by the news media (“ARMY STAGE-MANAGED FALL OF HUSSEIN STATUE,” the headline in the Los Angeles Times read) and circulated widely on the Web, fuelling the conspiracy notion that a psyops team masterminded not only the Iraqi flag but the entire toppling. Yet it was Kuhlman who was responsible for the flag. Plesich’s impact at Firdos was limited to using the loudspeakers on his Humvee to tell the crowd, once the statue had been rigged to fall, that until everyone moved back to a safe distance the main event would not take place.
By the time it was over and the sun was setting at Firdos Square, Sergeant Lambert and his M-88 crew had become so famous that even Katie Couric wanted an interview. Lambert had to hide from the spectacle he had unleashed.
“God’s honest truth,” Lambert told me. “We went inside the 88, we locked the hatches, and the only time we would come out was when we were directed to.”
The Palestine was built in the early nineteen-eighties for tourists, who were then visiting Iraq in large numbers, and it was run by the Méridien hotel chain. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, in 1990, and was slapped with international sanctions, the Méridien got rid of its outlaw franchise. The Palestine, with more than three hundred rooms and seventeen floors, stayed open under state control but was outclassed by the Al Rasheed Hotel, which stood on the other side of the Tigris and was surrounded by government ministries and Presidential palaces. For years, the Al Rasheed was favored by foreign journalists who wanted to be close to the action, but they moved out just before the invasion, to get away from the bombs that would presumably destroy the government district. When the Shock and Awe campaign began, a couple of hundred reporters watched from their balconies at the Palestine.
Like everyone else, Pentagon officials viewed TV reports from Baghdad which often noted that the Palestine was the point of broadcast. It was at the hotel that the Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, known as Baghdad Bob, held many of his extravagant press conferences.
During the aerial bombardment of Baghdad, the Palestine was not hit, and, once ground troops had moved into the city, most commanders in Baghdad were made aware of the Palestine’s do-not-bomb status. But the commanders failed to convey the information to the soldiers in every unit, and this caused the casualties that contributed to the dispatch of McCoy’s battalion to Firdos Square.
On April 8th, the day before McCoy’s battalion arrived at Firdos, an Army tank that was on the Al Jumhuriya Bridge, over the Tigris, fired a shell at the Palestine, killing two journalists and injuring three others. The tank’s crew mistakenly thought that a camera aimed at them from a balcony was a spotting device for Iraqi forces. Journalists at the Palestine were outraged; some thought it was a deliberate attack on the media. Subsequent investigations by the military and reporters found that although key officers on the ground, including brigade and battalion commanders, knew that the Palestine should not be fired on, they did not know the hotel’s precise location, because, as McCoy was to learn, it wasn’t marked on their maps. The tank’s crew did not know that journalists were in the building.
The killings increased media pressure on the Pentagon to insure the hotel’s safety; calls and e-mails to Pentagon officials reached a furious pitch, and at a Pentagon press conference a few hours after the attack the Palestine was a major topic. The media demanded that the Pentagon see to it that no further harm came to the journalists at the Palestine.
Some journalists considered the hotel to be a death trap. When the photographer Seamus Conlan came across American troops in the hours before McCoy’s battalion showed up, he asked for a rescue mission. “I was sure that today was going to be the day that we got killed by Saddam’s enraged and retreating militiamen,” Conlan later wrote. “A Marine officer assured me that every journalist in Baghdad was telling him the same thing.”
The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush Administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The W.M.D. myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth.
Because the world’s media were based at the Palestine, television networks had the equipment to go live the moment the marines arrived there. It was certainly a legitimate and dramatic story—proof that Baghdad was falling under American control. But problems with the coverage at Firdos soon emerged, including the duration, which was non-stop, the tone, which was celebratory, and the uncritical obsession with the toppling.
One of the first TV reporters to broadcast from Firdos was David Chater, a correspondent for Sky News, the British satellite channel whose feed from Baghdad was carried by Fox News. (Both channels are owned by News Corp.) Before the marines arrived, Chater had believed, as many journalists did, that his life was at risk from American shells, Iraqi thugs, and looting mobs.
“That’s an amazing sight, isn’t it?” Chater said as the tanks rolled in. “A great relief, a great sight for all the journalists here. . . . The Americans waving to us now—fantastic, fantastic to see they’re here at last.” Moments later, outside the Palestine, Chater smiled broadly and told one marine, “Bloody good to see you.” Noticing an American flag in another marine’s hands, Chater cheerily said, “Get that flag going!”
Another correspondent, John Burns, of the Times, had similar feelings. Representing the most prominent American publication, Burns had a particularly hard time with the security thugs who had menaced many journalists at the Palestine. His gratitude toward the marines was explicit. “They were my liberators, too,” he later wrote. “They seemed like ministering angels to me.”
The happy relief felt by some journalists on the ground was compounded by editors and anchors back home. Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war. It was an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.
Wilson Surratt was the senior executive producer in charge of CNN’s control room in Atlanta that morning. The room, dominated by almost fifty screens that showed incoming feeds from CNN crews and affiliated networks, was filled with not just the usual complement of producers but also with executives who wanted to be at the nerve center of the network during one of the biggest stories of their lives. Surratt had been told by the newsroom that marines were expected to arrive at Firdos any moment, so he kept his eyes on two monitors that showed the still empty square.
“The climax, at the time, was going to be the troops coming into Firdos Square,” Surratt told me. “We didn’t really anticipate that Hussein was going to be captured. There wasn’t going to be a surrender. So what we were looking for was some sort of culminating event.”
On that day, Baghdad was violent and chaotic. The city was already being looted by swarms of people using trucks, taxis, horses, and wheelbarrows to cart away whatever they could from government buildings and banks, museums, and even hospitals. There continued to be armed opposition to the American advance. One of CNN’s embedded correspondents, Martin Savidge, was reporting from a Marine unit that was taking fire in the city. Savidge was ready to go on the air, under fire, at the exact moment that Surratt noticed the tanks entering Firdos Square. Surratt vividly recalls that moment, because he shouted out in the control room, “There they are!”
He immediately switched the network’s coverage to Firdos, and it stayed there almost non-stop until the statue came down, more than two hours later. I asked Surratt whether, by focussing on Firdos rather than on Savidge and the chaos of Baghdad, he had made the right call.
“What were we supposed to do?” Surratt replied. “Not show what was going on in the square? We did the responsible thing. We were careful to say it was not the end. At some point, you’ve got to trust the viewer to understand what they’re seeing.”
The powerful pictures from Firdos were combined with powerful words. On CNN, the anchor Bill Hemmer said, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself.” On Fox, the anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.” One of his colleagues said, “The important story of the day is this historic shot you are looking at, a noose around the neck of Saddam, put there by the people of Baghdad.”
A visual echo chamber developed: rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV. CNN, which did not have a reporter at the Palestine, because its team had been expelled when the invasion began, was desperate to get one of its embedded correspondents there. Walter Rodgers, whose Army unit was on the other side of the Tigris, was ordered by his editors to disembed and drive across town to the Palestine. Rodgers reminded his editors that combat continued and that his vehicle, moving on its own, would likely be hit by American or Iraqi forces. This said much about the coverage that day: Rodgers could not provide reports of the war’s end because the war had not ended. But he understood the imperatives that kept CNN’s attention pinned on Firdos Square. “Pictures are the mother’s milk of television, and it was a hell of a picture,” he said recently.
Live television loves suspense, especially if it is paired with great visuals. The networks almost never broke away from Firdos Square. The event lived on in replays, too. A 2005 study of CNN’s and Fox’s coverage, conducted by a research team from George Washington University and titled “As Goes the Statue, So Goes the War,” found that between 11 A.M. and 8 P.M. that day Fox replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes, and CNN every 7.5 minutes. The networks also showed the toppling in house ads; it became a branding device. They continually used the word “historic” to describe the statue’s demise.
Anne Garrels, NPR’s reporter in Baghdad at the time, has said that her editors requested, after her first dispatch about marines rolling into Firdos, that she emphasize the celebratory angle, because the television coverage was more upbeat. In an oral history that was published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Garrels recalled telling her editors that they were getting the story wrong: “There are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves. . . . Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous.”
Gary Knight, the photographer who followed McCoy’s battalion to Baghdad, had a similar problem, as he talked with one of his editors on his satellite phone. The editor, watching the event on TV, asked why Knight wasn’t taking pictures. Knight replied that few Iraqis were involved and the ones who were seemed to be doing so for the benefit of the legions of photographers; it was a show. The editor told him to get off the phone and start taking pictures.
Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that “a jubilant crowd roared its approval” as onlookers shouted, “We are free! Thank you, President Bush!” According to Collier, the original version was considerably more tempered. “That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work,” he said recently. “They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”
British journalists felt the same pressure. Lindsey Hilsum, the Baghdad reporter for Britain’s Channel 4 News, was instructed by her editors to increase her coverage of Firdos even though she believed the event was trivial. She told the authors of a study titled “Shoot First and Ask Questions Later” that the toppling was a small part of a nine-minute story that she transmitted to London on April 9th; in her view, it was “a small, symbolic event for American television.” As she put it, “In London, where they had been watching, they said, ‘No, you have to make that section much larger.’ ”
Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and generations of journalists have followed his maxim. But the opposite can also be true: the farther away you are, the better you can see. At Firdos Square, the farther from the statue you were, the more you could understand.
Very few Iraqis were there. If you were at the square, or if you watch the footage, you can see, on the rare occasions long shots were used, that the square was mostly empty. You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines. Because of the lo-fi quality of the video and the shifting composition of the crowd, it’s hard to give a precise number, but perhaps a quarter to a half consisted of journalists or marines. The crowd’s size—journalists, marines, and Iraqis—does not seem to have exceeded several hundred at its largest, and was much smaller for most of the two hours. The Iraqis who were photogenically enthusiastic—sledgehammering the statue, jumping on it after the toppling—were just an excitable subset of all Iraqis there. “I saw a lot of people watching with their arms crossed, not at all celebrating,” Collier noted.
Closeups filled the screen with the frenzied core of the small crowd and created an illusion of wall-to-wall enthusiasm throughout Baghdad. It was an illusion that reflected only the media’s yearning for exciting visuals, and brings to mind a famous study carried out more than half a century ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, who had just been relieved of his command by President Truman, visited Chicago for a parade and a speech that were expected to attract enormous public support. The study, conducted by the sociologists Kurt and Gladys Lang, found that the Chicago events, as experienced by people who attended them, were largely passionless. But for television viewers the events were dramatic and inspiring, owing to the cropped framing of what they saw.
The Lang study illuminates another distortion that occurred in Baghdad: the extent to which listless crowds lit up when cameras were turned on. In Chicago, the Lang researchers saw crowds shift to the places that cameras pointed toward; people were taking their cues from the lenses. “The cheering, waving, and shouting was often but a response to the aiming of the camera,” the study noted.
Just after 5 P.M. local time, Fox News showed about a dozen Iraqis walking into the empty square; these were the first civilians on the site. They were followed and surrounded by an increasing number of journalists; within a minute of the Iraqis arriving at the statue’s base, journalists appear to nearly outnumber them. In the first act of iconoclasm, two plaques on the statue’s base were torn off by the Iraqis and hoisted in front of the photographers and the cameramen, in much the same way that a prizefighter raises a championship belt above his head as pictures are snapped.
Would the Iraqis have done the same thing if the cameras hadn’t been there? At key moments throughout the toppling, the level of Iraqi enthusiasm appeared to ebb and flow according to the number and interest of photographers who had gathered. For instance, when Lambert’s sledgehammer made its first appearance, photographers clustered around as one Iraqi after another took a few shots at the base. Not long afterward, many photographers and cameramen drifted off; they had got their pictures. The sledgehammering of the statue soon ceased, too.
An hour after the first Iraqis entered the square, the toppling was at a standstill, because the rope and the sledgehammer were useless. Neither Iraqis nor journalists cared any longer. Many of the Iraqis had moved into the street and gathered around the Humvee that carried Staff Sergeant Plesich and his psychological-operations team, because loudspeakers on Plesich’s Humvee were broadcasting in Arabic. These were the first words in Arabic that the Iraqis had heard from their occupiers, and the Iraqis were indeed cheering.
But the area around the base of the statue was virtually empty. Though TV anchors talked excitedly about the statue, Iraqis at the square were no longer paying attention to it. Then Lambert’s M-88, having received a green light from Colonel McCoy, lumbered into view, entering from the left of the television screen. On Fox, journalists can be seen hurrying toward the M-88 and the deserted statue. Iraqis do the same, like bees returning to a hive. By the time the M-88 reached the statue’s base, the crowd of Iraqis, journalists, and marines had reassembled for the next act. As the Lang study noted of the MacArthur celebrations, “The event televised was no longer the same event as it would have been if television had not been there.”
The journalists themselves, meanwhile, were barely photographed at all. The dramatic shots posted on Web sites that day and featured in newspapers the next morning contained almost no hint of the army of journalists at the square and their likely influence on events. One of the most photographed moments occurred when the statue fell and several dozen Iraqis rushed forward to bash the toppled head; there were nearly as many journalists in the melee, and perhaps more, but the framing of photographs all but eliminated them from view.
“It’s one thing if you don’t want a photographer in the picture and there’s one photographer in a crowd of a thousand,” Gary Knight, who now directs the Program for Narrative and Documentary Studies, at Tufts University, told me. “But when you’ve got three hundred journalists sitting on vehicles, sitting on tanks, it’s really important contextually to include that information. Most of the imagery that was published didn’t have that context, and so it was misleading.”
At the square, I found the reality, whatever it was, hard to grasp. Some Iraqis were cheering, I later learned, not for America but for a slain cleric, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whose son Moqtada would soon lead a Shia revolt against American occupation. I met an apparently delighted Iraqi who spoke English, and he told me that his name was Samir and that he felt “free at last.” About an hour later, after the statue came down, Samir was cornered by a group of men who accused him of being a spy for Saddam and were shouting, “Kill him!” A marine had to intervene to save his life.
The subsequent years of civil war, which have killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people, have revealed the events at Firdos to be an illusional intermission between invasion and insurgency. For instance, one of the stars of the spectacle—the weight lifter who sledgehammered the statue—was Khadim al-Jubouri, a motorcycle mechanic who had worked for Saddam’s son Uday but had fallen out of favor and spent time in prison. When he heard that American troops had arrived, al-Jubouri went to Firdos Square. As anniversaries of the event come around, he gets interviewed by journalists. In 2007, he told the Washington Post that, since the toppling, seven relatives and friends had been killed, kidnapped, or forced to flee their homes. Al-Jubouri was happy when the sledgehammer was in his hands, but since then his life had deteriorated. “I really regret bringing down the statue,” he told the Guardian. “Every day is worse than the previous day.”
Among the handful of studies of Firdos Square, the most incisive was George Washington University’s, led by Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs. It concluded that the coverage had “profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America.” According to the study, the saturation coverage of Firdos Square fuelled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less. “Whereas battle stories imply a war is going on, statues falling—especially when placed in the context of truly climactic images from recent history—imply the war is over,” the study noted.
The study examined CNN, Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC from March 20th to April 20th, cataloguing the footage used each day, what the footage showed, and what was said by anchors and reporters. The study focussed particular attention on Fox and CNN, because they broadcast non-stop news. It found that, in the week after the statue was toppled, war stories from Iraq decreased by seventy per cent on Fox, sixty-six per cent on ABC, fifty-eight per cent on NBC, thirty-nine per cent on CBS, and twenty-six per cent on CNN, even though, in that same week, thirteen U.S. soldiers were killed and looting was rampant.
The George Washington University study and other examinations of Firdos—like “Ugly War, Pretty Package,” a book by the Boston University associate professor Deborah Jaramillo—suggest that the bullishness of the post-Firdos era stemmed, at least in part, from the myth created at the square. Without the erroneous finality of the statue falling, this argument goes, the notion of “Mission Accomplished” would have been more difficult to assert; the Bush Administration would have had a harder time dismissing an insurgency that, for a fatal interlude, it all but ignored. Conventional wisdom blames the failure in Iraq on the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has been heavily criticized for its inept management of the occupation. But if the C.P.A. inherited a war rather than a victory, the story of what went wrong after Firdos needs to be revised.
In a way, statue topplings are the banana peels of history that we often slip on. In 1991, when pro-democracy forces led by Boris Yeltsin stood up to a coup by Soviet hard-liners in Moscow, a crowd outside K.G.B. headquarters forced the removal of a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who had led the K.G.B.’s notorious predecessor, the Cheka. The statue was lifted off its pedestal by a crane; its demise seemed to symbolize the end of Soviet-era oppression. Yet within a decade a K.G.B. functionary, Vladimir Putin, became Russia’s President, and former K.G.B. officials now hold key political and economic positions.
Throughout the nineteen-nineties, Svetlana Boym, a Soviet-born professor of comparative literature at Harvard, visited the Moscow park where Dzerzhinsky’s statue was left on its side, neglected and stained with urine. But over the years, as the power of the security state revived, the statue became the object of fond attention; eventually, Dzerzhinsky was raised to his feet and placed on a pedestal in the park. By studying a statue at not just a dramatic moment but during the course of its existence—construction, toppling, preservation—one can sometimes trace a nation’s political evolution, but it takes patience. In “The Future of Nostalgia,” Boym’s book on history and memory, she described Soviet-era monuments serving as “messengers of power . . . onto which anxieties and anger were projected.” The Princeton architectural historian Lucia Allais, who has examined the destruction of monuments during the Second World War, mentioned to me one of the most famous topplings ever—of the statue of King Louis XV in Paris, in 1792, during the French Revolution. The action was portrayed by its authors as a liberation from the power of the monarchy, but they put in its spot a symbol of a new sort of power: the guillotine. These monumental destructions “are usually acts of monumental replacement, which hide continuities of power . . . behind the image of rupture,” Allais wrote to me in an e-mail.
Not long ago, Tim McLaughlin, the officer whose flag was placed on the statue at Firdos, unpacked a wooden trunk that stored his military gear after he left the Marines to attend law school. We were at his childhood home, in Laconia, New Hampshire. McLaughlin is tall and large, but his head seems small for his frame, like a child’s on a grownup’s body. He majored in Russian at Holy Cross, and his favorite story, by Chekhov, is about a widowed carriage driver who can find no one to share his sorrows with; at the end of a cold night, the driver pours out his heartache to his loyal horse.
In the trunk, McLaughlin found a copy of the U.S. Constitution that was on his Pentagon desk on September 11, 2001; it was stained with ash from the fire. He pulled out a sealed envelope that had a Marine Corps insignia on the front. Inside was a letter to his parents, to be opened in the event of his death during the invasion. It was a reminder of the dread that gripped the McLaughlin household in those days.
McLaughlin had kept a list of notable events during the invasion. One day’s entry said, “Killed lots of people.” Another day: “Drove through house.” Yet another: “Lunch w/ villagers.”
He opened a diary from which silty grains of sand sprinkled out. On one page, exhausted from fighting and lack of sleep, he had written “disoriented” or “disorienting” four times.
The flag that McLaughlin carried to Iraq lay on the bed, folded in the military manner, crisp and tight. It was returned to him after it was taken down from the statue at Firdos Square; his parents had fetched it from a safe-deposit box at the local bank for my benefit.
“It’s just a flag,” McLaughlin said, unfolding it. “A whole lot of fuss has been made over it, but it’s not the most important thing to me.”
The diaries explain why:
Company volley into buildings. Killed 4 soldiers trying to run away. . . .
My position is good to cut off back door exit. Kill dismounts in grove (3-7?) then 1 swimming across canal. 2 just about in canal. . . .
Covered canal w/.50 cal—killed 2 more.
McLaughlin also wrote of shooting at a fast-moving car that he considered suspicious. After his bullets killed the driver, McLaughlin realized that an innocent man had perished. A few days later, wishing to avoid the same mistake, McLaughlin didn’t fire when he spotted a group of suspicious Iraqis just ahead of the battalion. Moments later, the Iraqis got off the first shots in an ambush that killed a marine.
The war icons that McLaughlin cares about are not made of metal. They are made of flesh and blood. ♦
Correction: This story, when published, incorrectly stated that Jan Grarup, a Danish photographer, was on the turret of the first American tank into Firdos Square. The photographer was Markus Matzel, a German.
(The Wall Street Journal publishes a column every week in which an author lists the five best books on a particular subject. This is my list on oil.)
1. The History of the Standard Oil Company
By Ida M. Tarbell
McClure, Phillips, 1904
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. was the colossus of petroleum until Ida Tarbell’s seminal investigation hastened its court-ordered breakup a century ago. Tarbell’s work has lost none of its relevance as a Rosetta Stone for understanding the oil business and the character of the industrial titan who created it. Tarbell’s writing, though a deep critique of Standard’s monopolistic practices, includes a touch of grudging respect for the determination possessed by Rockefeller and the company he built. “This huge bulk, blackened by commercial sin, has always been strong in all great business qualities,” she wrote. “If it has played its great game with contemptuous indifference to fair play, and to nice legal points of view, it has played it with consummate ability, daring and address.”
2. The Seven Sisters
By Anthony Sampson
This is one of those forgotten classics that should not have been forgotten. “The Seven Sisters” reveals the political clout wielded by the largest Western oil companies back in the 1970s, when they dominated the industry. The book includes a telling moment from the era of the Arab oil embargo when the American companies that controlled Saudi Arabia’s petroleum cut off the flow to the U.S.—their own country. If you want to know whether BP’s zeal for profits in the Gulf of Mexico was an anomaly of selfishness in the history of the industry, just read a few pages of Anthony Samson’s meticulously reported book. His mining of the historical record includes a memorable reference to Sen. Frank Church’s comment at a 1974 inquiry into the power of the oil industry: “We are dealing with corporate entities which have many of the characteristics of nations.”
3. The Bottom Billion
By Paul Collier
Oil is an amazing product of nature, though not always in ways we expect. Its discovery, for instance, can do more harm than good to the countries where it is found. In what is known as the resource curse, some countries become poorer, not richer, as the influx of oil revenues deadens other economic growth and encourages corruption. Oil riches also tend to fire the imagination of aspiring dictators. Paul Collier explores the paradox of oil’s baleful effects in revelatory detail in “The Bottom Billion.” Collier, an Oxford professor and former World Bank official who blessedly writes like neither an academic nor a banker, doesn’t restrict his argument to oil—plentiful supplies of gold, iron and other natural resources all can have deleterious effects on national development. Collier proposes a rescue of countries where the “bottom billion” reside, calling on the Group of Eight industrialized nations to institute preferential trade policies, do a better job of policing corruption and even consider military intervention.
4. Cities of Salt
By Abdelrahman Munif
Random House, 1987
If a reader desires a fictional account of oil’s discovery in Texas, there is “Giant,” the Edna Ferber novel turned into a classic movie starring Rock Hudson and James Dean. But what is the “Giant” of Arabia? It is called “Cities of Salt,” by Abdelrahman Munif, and it is justifiably regarded as one of the finest Arab novels of the 20th century. It tells the story of a fictional emirate (meant to be Saudi Arabia) that has just discovered oil and is being pushed into the modern world, losing part of its essence in the process. Far better than any nonfiction account, “Cities of Salt,” the first volume of a five-part epic, deftly explains the social and cultural upheavals in Middle Eastern countries that, with the discovery of oil, were catapulted from the nomadic to the modern. The novel was banned in Saudi Arabia, where the House of Saud did not want its subjects to read about a royal family corrupted by petroleum.
5. A Month and a Day
By Ken Saro-Wiwa
The spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought to American shores the sort of environmental disaster that many Nigerians have been living with for nearly a half-century. Their oil region, the Niger Delta, has endured years of leaks as well as warfare pitting local tribes against a corrupt government allied with multinational oil companies. The Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa famously led an environmental-justice movement in the 1990s, and his account of his imprisonment, “A Month and a Day,” presents a searing portrait of the ecological and political travesties that led him to put his life on the line (and he would lose it—the government executed him in 1995). Saro-Wiwa describes his Ogoni homeland as “a blighted countryside . . . full of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons; a land in which wildlife is unknown; a land of polluted streams and creeks, of rivers without fish.” After reading this book, you will find it hard to buy a gallon of gas without thinking of the misery at the other end of the pipeline.
—Mr. Maass’s “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil” has just been published in paperback by Vintage.
How does an icon get made? Back in the fifth century, the process was quite simple: A monk or artisan would depict Jesus or Mary or one of the saints. The creators and subjects of icons were clearly defined. It’s not that way today.
To the people who oppose it, a mosque near ground zero would symbolize an Islamic triumph at the hallowed ground where around 2,750 people were killed by Islamic terrorists on 9/11. But is that what it would truly signify? The backers of the project have noted that the mosque will actually be a community center, in which a prayer hall will be but one feature (there will also be a swimming pool). The imam who will preside over it is from the moderate mainstream of Islam, and the facility will not be at ground zero but a couple of blocks away.
Many others see it as a provocation. The upshot is that in a city with more than its share of famous buildings, one that doesn’t even exist has already become iconic. It is a modern alchemy of symbols in which the act of destruction doubles as an act of creation. The thing is, the opponents of the community center appear to have failed to understand the double-edged consequences of the preemptive iconoclasm they are trying to achieve.
W.J.T. Mitchell, a visual theorist at the University of Chicago, has noted that monuments and images can gain power by being attacked. The World Trade Center is an example—a pair of ungainly and unloved office buildings acquired a tragic halo once they were destroyed. Mitchell describes it as “not merely the destruction of a pair of buildings, but also the production of an iconic moment. The spectacle of destruction itself became an image that was indelibly engraved on millions of people’s memories.” Of course, the meaning of the image depends on who is gazing upon it: The burning towers are symbols of victory for Islamic extremists.
A similar dynamic occurred in Afghanistan when the Buddhas at Bamiyan were blown up in 2001, turning them into global symbols of Taliban extremism—though in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban proudly disseminated images of the desecration. Previously, only religious scholars had paid much attention to the Buddhas, chiseled into the side of a cliff.
The hydraulic of disruption-sanctification was also present in the artistic domain in 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. Afterward, more people reportedly went to see the empty spot where it had hung than had visited to see the masterpiece when it was there. The painting, stolen by an Italian who had worked at the Louvre, was recovered two years later, and, as Darian Leader wrote in Stealing the Mona Lisa, “Its elevation would be permanently established only by its disappearance. It had to vanish to become a symbol.”
And let us not forget the old Pennsylvania Station, torn down in the mid-sixties to make way for offices and a new Madison Square Garden. The station was topped by 22 5,700-pound marble eagles; its waiting room had been inspired by the baths of Caracalla. As an editorial in the New York Times lamented back then, “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” The building’s demolition helped create the preservation movement.
The lesson, for those who would wish to destroy a worthy item that is embedded with religious, cultural, or political value, is that they’re playing a dangerous game. The politicians and pundits who oppose the Muslim community center are spinning an everyday civic project into a story of the expansion of Islam’s power. The irony is that by trying to destroy the project, these opponents are making it all the more meaningful.
Shortly after the Marines rolled into Baghdad and tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein, I visited the Ministry of Oil. American troops surrounded the sand-colored building, protecting it like a strategic jewel. But not far away, looters were relieving the National Museum of its actual jewels. Baghdad had become a carnival of looting. A few dozen Iraqis who worked at the Oil Ministry were gathered outside the American cordon, and one of them, noting the protection afforded his workplace and the lack of protection everywhere else, remarked to me, “It is all about oil.”
The issue he raised is central to figuring out what we truly pay for a gallon of gas. The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reminded Americans that the price at the pump is only a down payment; an honest calculation must include the contamination of our waters, land, and air. Yet the calculation remains incomplete if we don’t consider other factors too, especially what might be the largest externalized cost of all: the military one. To what extent is oil linked to the wars we fight and the more than half-trillion dollars we spend on our military every year? We are in an era of massive deficits, so it pays to know what we are paying for and how much it costs.
The debate often hovers at a sandbox level of did-so/did-not. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, insisted the invasion of Iraq had “nothing to do with oil.” But even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, rejected that line. “It is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows,” Greenspan wrote in his memoir. “The Iraq war is largely about oil.” If it is even partly true that we invade for oil and maintain a navy and army for oil, how much is that costing? This is one of the tricky things about oil, the hidden costs, and one of the reasons we are addicted to the substance—we don’t acknowledge its full price.
If we wish to know, we can. An innovative approach comes from Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University who in April published a peer-reviewed study on the cost of keeping aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from 1976 to 2007. Because carriers patrol the gulf for the explicit mission of securing oil shipments, Stern was on solid ground in attributing that cost to oil. He had found an excellent metric. He combed through the Defense Department’s data—which is not easy to do because the Pentagon does not disaggregate its expenditures by region or mission—and came up with a total, over three decades, of $7.3 trillion. Yes, trillion.
And that’s just a partial accounting of peacetime spending. It’s far trickier to figure out the extent to which America’s wars are linked to oil and then put a price tag on it. But let’s assume that Rumsfeld, in an off-the-record moment of retirement candor, might be persuaded to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq was somewhat related to oil. A 2008 study by Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University budget expert Linda Bilmes put the cost of that war—everything spent up to that point and likely to be spent in the years ahead—at a minimum of $3 trillion (and probably much more). Again, trillion.
Of course we would have to wait a long time before finding a PowerPoint presentation in the Pentagon or White House (no matter the party in power) on defense spending for oil. Just as cuts to Social Security are a third rail, an accounting of oil-related military spending is nearly unheard of in the halls of power. For politicians and generals, it is a slippery slope: Speak too loudly on the subject, and they risk undercutting the we-only-want-to-make-the-world-a-better-place notion of U.S. foreign policy. It’s easier to let the debate idle at vague rhetoric rather than hard numbers.
You would have to go back nearly 20 years to get anything on the subject from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. government that in 1991 estimated that between 1980 and 1990 the United States spent a total of $366 billion to defend oil supplies in the Middle East. The GAO report was just a snapshot of one region in a limited time frame a long time ago when America was not fighting a major war there or elsewhere. The study would have been a good start if it had been followed by other studies that went deeper and further, but that didn’t happen (see Hot Potato, Department of).
So it has fallen to a cottage industry of out-of-government experts like Stiglitz and Stern to examine metrics that measure oil’s connections to not just war but corruption and poverty. These experts include Paul Collier of Oxford University, who wrote The Bottom Billion, as well as Michael Ross at UCLA, Michael Watts at UC Berkeley, Ian Gary at Oxfam, and Sarah Wykes, formerly with the NGO Global Witness. Their areas of expertise—economics, geography, political science, corruption—as well as the metrics on which they focus, are similar to the unconventional backgrounds and ideas of the experts whom Gen. David Petraeus called on to rethink the metrics and practice of counterinsurgency.
Oil has yet to find its Petraeus; it remains a badly quantified problem. The abstraction of global warming, the pity of oil-soaked pelicans, even battlefield deaths in Iraq—these have not occasioned real changes in our addiction to all things petroleum. The United States consumes more gasoline today than on the day Iraq was invaded and the day of the BP accident. If I had a dollar for every time a politician said, as President Barack Obama did in his Oval Office energy speech in June, “The time to embrace a clean energy future is now,” I could build a wind farm. An honest accounting would do a lot more than tired platitudes because it would force us to confront the hidden costs that we don’t see at the pump. And after all, the best way to get the attention of consumers is through their pocketbooks.
I needed to fill up the gas tank of a rental van a few days ago. The first station that came into view was a BP on 110th Street in Manhattan. I had to make a quick decision—should I buy gas from a company responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history?
I laughed at the idea—of course I shouldn’t. BP is now public enemy No. 1. But at the last second, I pulled into the station.
For nearly a decade I have chronicled oil’s impact on the countries that produce it. I journeyed through Ecuador, where Chevron (CVX) faces a multibillion-dollar lawsuit for a legacy of contamination that environmentalists there regard as the Chernobyl of oil. I stood outside the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad in 2003 and heard Iraqis bemoan the wars that oil had brought to their homeland. In Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, I have seen the beyond-the-pump costs of oil extraction.
Yet I pulled into the BP station because of these travels. The unfortunate truth is that the reckless and destructive practices of BP are not an exception. Across the globe, firms of all stripes and structures—whether owned by governments or shareholders or billionaires—have despoiled environments and contributed to cultures of corruption and violence.
Penalizing BP and making sure spills do not occur off Louisiana again will do little to stop the tragedies occurring beyond our borders. If we vent our 15 minutes of indignation only at BP and if we protect only our coastlines, we will have failed to address the immense problem of which BP and the spill are merely symptoms. Remember that BP is only the 19th-largest oil and gas firm in the world, and the United States has less than 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.
The scenes of devastation in the Gulf of Mexico might be new to our eyes but not, for instance, to Nigerians, whose oil has been pumped into American gas tanks for decades. I traveled into the Niger Delta on a canoe and saw oil dripping from wellheads and natural gas burning in flares along the shores. A Shell processing facility drooled fluids into the water. Even when my canoe was not within sight of any oil facilities, I could smell crude; a sheen of it was on the water. From 1976 to 2001, there were, on average, more than five spills a week in Nigeria, according to government statistics—and unofficial estimates are far higher. The tragedy in Nigeria is quite literally drip-drip; there’s not a gusher as dramatic as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, but over the years far more oil is believed to have been spilled there.
Please don’t get me wrong. BP merits every criminal and civil sanction the Justice Department can inflict upon it. And of course government regulators and industry lobbyists are too close in America—I hope the Obama administration fulfills its pledge to change that. But petro-incest is far worse where corrupt or poor governments are the regulators and extractors of oil—look at Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq, among others. It’s good to tidy up our regulatory backyard, but what about backyards further afield, where most of the world’s oil comes from and where most of the damage is occurring?
The truth is that we care mightily when BP wreaks havoc in the Gulf of Mexico, but we pay scant attention when Shell harms Nigeria, when Chevron pollutes Ecuador, when PDVSA stains Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, when Suncor extracts oil from tar sands in Canada. It’s understandable that as we watch the live webfeed of the gusher, we want to know what BP officials knew and when they knew it, and we want to know why the Obama administration didn’t react sooner. But if we don’t broaden the horizons of our questions, we run the risk of reinforcing a fairy tale that says we can have our oil and our environment, too. The worst outcome of the mess in the Gulf would be the perpetuation of the conceit that error and greed can be regulated out of the worldwide oil industry.
In other words, we need to change the oil-centric paradigm of our times. It is broken. We must deal with BP, but we must also channel the power of our anger toward reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Smaller cars, less driving, more carpools, public transportation, better home insulation, smaller homes, less meat, more renewable energy—these are the sorts of useful things we can do. It little matters whether we fill our tanks at BP or Exxon stations. What matters is that we visit gas stations less often.
The following excerpt from “Crude World” was published by TheBigMoney.com.
I liked most oil executives I have met. They were hardworking men with a thrill for the deal, a fear of failure, and a moral compass that occasionally responded to the force of self-preservation; the compass did not always point in a moral direction. They were flawed, but that meant they were like the rest of us, using masks and shields in their real-world dealings. They might be one thing at the office, perhaps believing in the institution that employed them, perhaps not believing; and they might be something quite different outside the office.
Gabriel Nguema, the son of one of the world’s worst dictators, Teodoro Obiang, had a reasonable perspective on the oilmen who marched through his office at the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Energy in Equatorial Guinea. “Somebody in a company told me that when you work in this company you take your brain out and you put this box in,” Nguema said. “Once you return to your house you put your brain back in. So you don’t follow your feeling of what people need, you just follow what the company tells you.”
Nguema was on to something, though he didn’t attempt a broader application of his observation. Oilmen had the same business DNA as executives in other industries. Buy low, sell high, keep your job. The main difference arose from the unusual conditions in which oilmen competed. If you want to alter the behavior of an executive who usually follows the highest ethical standards, just give him a briefcase and tell him that his job depends on his winning an oil contract in a country that is not Norway. In this scenario, an executive from Apple would not be dispatched to Boston to sell MacBooks to an eager client whose accounts are examined by the IRS and the SEC. Instead, he would be sent to Baku to win drilling rights to one of the fields that were up for grabs in the 1990s. The man from Apple would find himself in the crazy Skinner box that was Azerbaijan in the 1990s. It is impossible to understand oilmen if you do not understand the box.
In Azerbaijan, Western oilmen were competing for an initial round of contracts that involved paying at least $7 billion to develop offshore fields in the Caspian Sea from which a million barrels of oil would be extracted on a daily basis by 2010. Combined with contracts for other fields and a transnational pipeline, the total value of the contracts would reach tens of billions of dollars; the revenues from the oil would be substantially higher. The competition for the Caspian basin was billed as the last great oil rush of the modern era, though it would not be the first time a fortune had been made in Baku. In the late 1800s, France’s Rothschild family and Sweden’s Nobel brothers built their financial empires from the oil of Azerbaijan, which at the outset of the 20th century produced half the world’s petroleum. As the Soviet Union fell apart nearly a century later, the door reopened to foreign companies whose technology could extract crude that was beyond the reach of Soviet expertise. A crack team of behavioral psychologists could not have concocted a better environment for bringing out the worst in their human subjects.
The experiment in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, was centered at the Intourist Hotel, which by the 1990s had not been burdened with much maintenance since its construction in the 1930s. The Intourist was the only place foreign oil executives were allowed to stay as they wined, dined, and negotiated with ministers, middlemen, and warlords who might possess the power to issue exploration contracts. The hotel, a five-story brute, was located on the aptly named Neftchiler Prospekt—Oilmen’s Avenue. Tantalizingly, hotel residents could see, from their balconies, the derelict rigs that dotted the waterfront, visual cues to the huge fields that were farther offshore.
The oilmen did not have the Intourist to themselves. The hotel also played host to mercenaries from America and Afghanistan who were fighting in Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia. In the early 1990s, this was the unfinished business of the Soviet collapse. And among the guests were diplomats, spies, and journalists reconnoitering this newest and shakiest of nations. When the American, British, Turkish, and Russian governments initially set up their embassies in Azerbaijan, all were located in the Intourist Hotel. (Because space was so tight, the British Embassy began its operations in the offices of British Petroleum.) Everyone was trying to figure out what everyone else was doing, who was meeting whom, what was being said, who was telling the truth, who was working a con, and who was spending time with the perfumed women of the evening in the basement tavern that some guests referred to as Ho Bar. There was an unseen witness to everything said—the Azeri security services, a thriving vestige of the KGB, which had wired the hotel from top to bottom. Going outside was one way to avoid listening devices, but at times it was too perilous to try that, because crime and political instability made the streets dangerous at night and, occasionally, during the day, too.
The representatives of BP, Amoco, Pennzoil, Unocal, and lesser outfits squeezed into this squalid box. Because the hotel’s services varied from sporadic to absent, the oilmen imported, on their corporate jets, things like breakfast cereals, printer paper, and bottles of Johnnie Walker, so that they could enjoy a shot or four at the end of the day and not wonder whether it had been diluted with antifreeze by the waiters at Ho Bar. Phone lines were assumed to be tapped by the Azeri KGB or rival oilmen who wanted to know who their competitors were talking to and what they were saying.
I visited Baku a few years ago and talked to oilmen who recalled the Intourist with an I-was-there horror—a visceral badge worn by survivors of momentous events. “We knew that all our rooms and all of our phones and all of our cars were bugged,” one told me. “We would have a conversation in a car and within 24 hours a friend would come up and tell us exactly what we said. We would do silly things, too—we’d say we needed to meet one of the heads of a political party but we couldn’t find him, and we’d just announce it in an empty room.” Because the walls were bugged, the announcement was heard by the hotel’s eavesdroppers. “And 20 minutes later, the manager of the hotel would say, ‘Would you like to meet with so-and-so?’ ”
Sensitive documents could not be left in the rooms; everything of competitive interest was carried in locked briefcases or protected by guards standing outside the living quarters of executives when they had meetings elsewhere. No one could be trusted, including the ministers and bureaucrats who represented the government of the moment, until Heydar Aliyev consolidated his hold on power in the mid-1990s,
Azerbaijan endured a dismal reign of warfare, petty violence, utter poverty, and a succession of leaders who were no better than Mafia chiefs. How do you negotiate in such circumstances? One of the representatives of the government was a shady Slovak businessman who was never seen without a pistol strapped to his waist—and who once pointed the gun at the head of an executive he was negotiating with. Confidential bids leaked out almost the moment they were presented to the government, because there was always a midlevel bureaucrat who augmented his meager salary by showing company X’s offer to company Y. “You make a supposedly confidential proposal and the next thing you know it has been shopped out by someone,” an executive told me. “It’s several Rolaids a day, every day.” Contracts would be signed one day, bottles of champagne would be opened in celebration—and within days the contracts would be declared null and a signing ceremony would be held with another company.
Many executives I spoke with outlined the maddening pressures weighing upon them yet denied any personal unethical activity. Their competitors, they added quickly, were breaking the rules all the time. Apparently all oilmen in Baku were breaking the rules except the ones who were telling me that everyone was breaking the rules. What I knew for sure was that an Apple salesman would fail unless he adapted his sales tactics to the horrible box that awaited him at the doors of the Intourist Hotel.
Across the globe, oil is invoked as an agent of destiny. Oil will make you rich, oil will make you poor, oil will bring war, oil will deliver peace, oil will shape our world as much as the glaciers did in the Ice Age.
Oil is not a machine that can be disassembled or schematized for comprehension. It is a liquid. How do you coax secrets from a liquid? To know a person, you talk to him. To know a country, you visit it. To know a religion, you study sacred texts. Oil defies these norms of interrogation. It is a commodity that is extracted, refined, shipped, and poured into gas tanks with few people seeing it. It has no voice, body, army, or dogma of its own. It is invisible most of the time, but like gravity, it influences everything.
Over the course of eight years, I tried to solve this puzzle by talking with people who worked in the industry, visiting people who were touched by its operations, and taking a look not only at oil fields but the battlefields they have spawned. I met with oilmen in Houston, princes in Riyadh, lobbyists in Washington, roughnecks in Baku, warlords in the Niger Delta, leftists in Caracas, billionaires in Moscow, environmentalists in Quito, generals in Baghdad, traders in Manhattan, wildcatters in Midland, and diplomats in London. If you have conversations with people such as these, the topics you discuss include not just politics and economics but history, geology, geography, chemistry, engineering, physics, climatology, ecology, accounting, law, corruption, culture, psychology, anthropology, greed, envy, disease, ego, and fear. The world of oil is an intellectual as much as a physical space, and my years of journeying took me through a crude world that is as dark and amazing as the liquid that casts a spell on all of us.
The canoe that carried me into the Niger Delta had an outboard engine that conked out several times before reaching Tombia, which was then the latest target in Nigeria’s long-running oil war. Tombia was a shambles, half its homes burned or bombed beyond repair. A dozen survivors came to the creek, and their manner was not warm. They were young men, fighters, some with soiled bandages. Fingers and hands were missing; limbs were swathed in pus-caked gauze. Government forces had attacked Tombia in the brutal way they usually do, with helicopter gunships strafing anything that moved and speedboats disgorging soldiers who shot their way through town. A dozen people were reported killed, and most of the town’s population was too frightened to return—but in any event, there was not much to return to.
The leader of these survivors, whose nickname was Prince, angrily pointed out the town’s destruction with the stump of what used to be his right hand. Even the Lutheran cathedral, St. Stephen’s, was destroyed. Its timid pastor, living in a shack and shivering from malaria or fear of the bitter youths who now ruled this wasteland, said it had been constructed by British missionaries in 1915. A sign by the church declared in English, “Tombia is dedicated to God. Jesus the King over the land. Holy ghost in charge.”
A boy who looked 12 years old and was blind in one eye stood in front of a house that had burned to its concrete foundation. His older brother had been killed, he said, and the town was now dead and his river was dead too, tainted by oil. Because of the pollution, he could not possibly catch enough fish to nourish himself and his dead brother’s family. He was angry and hopeless; the result was listlessness. The government, the Army, Royal Dutch/Shell, the warlords, the writer who would leave in a few minutes—they would not help. His only hope was, it seemed, the Holy Ghost.
I returned to the canoe and it was not long, just an hour or so, before I reached Oro Sangama. Its defining feature was apprehended on first inhalation—a heavy odor of sewage that had fused with humidity to form a fecal mist. It existed because Sangama’s residents relieved themselves in a creek just a few steps from their homes; the creek was dead, or nearly so, as was the sickly jungle around it.
Oro Sangama had another peculiar feature: There was a steady roar around it, like the sound of a giant flamethrower. Across the fetid creek stood a natural gas plant operated by Shell. The village was in the shadow of its largest flare, which shot into the air a plume of fire. As darkness fell, Sangama became illuminated by the flare’s reddish glow and remained lit in this fashion until the sun rose in the morning. The Martian light was deadly rather than helpful because the flare spews into the air a cocktail of toxic substances.
Soon I was greeted by King Tom Mercy, leader of the local Ijaw community. He wore a T-shirt and a frown. “This is where the oil and gas comes out,” he said. “They could give us water, give us light, give us scholarships, give us jobs. We would not quarrel with anyone again. We have tried everything, used lawyers and dialogue, and we see there is no way. The next thing is violence. We don’t care if everyone dies; we will burn it.”
Aboard his canoe the next day, we moved through mangrove creeks in which there was no screeching of monkeys, no hippos or crocodiles in the water, no butterflies floating in the air. Between the war and the pollution, this was both a dead zone and a killing zone. At some spots, the shoreline was shaved of vegetation and fenced off, to protect flares and pits that burned off excess oil and gas. The earth in these places was, quite literally, on fire.
This journey required, for comprehension, the imagination of a science fiction devotee. We passed a small island known as Little Russia. The origin of its name was not clear, but the island served a distinct purpose—it was where prostitutes lived, servicing the needs of soldiers and oil workers. On its shore, young women stood in the shade of shacks fronted with empty beer bottles and off-kilter picnic tables. The girls waved.
The smell of oil was strong, even when wells or flares were not visible. Where did it come from? I looked down and saw a film of oil on the river. At a flow station where fluids dripped into the water from a tangle of metal pipes that had the appearance of industrial art, a Shell sign said, “Keep Nigeria Safe and Clean.” The canoe stopped in front of six wellheads coated in oil that fell, drop by drop, into the water. If a match was thrown into the river, we would be engulfed in flames.
“How can we expect to catch fish?” King Tom asked.
His anger was no performance.
“Let’s go,” he ordered.
We soon passed a patrol boat with unsmiling soldiers.
“You see how we live.”
One evening I joined more than a thousand oil executives in a Houston ballroom that was large enough for a jumbo jet or two. The pinstriped diners were served plates of mixed salad, grilled salmon, and chocolate mousse by overworked waiters whose service was as gentle as cowboys heaving bales of hay to livestock. This was the gala evening of an annual oil conference at the Westin hotel. Drawn from across the globe, the men and just a few women in the chandeliered cavern constituted an oilpalooza.
The attraction on this February evening in 2003 was a chemical engineer from South Dakota. Since 1963 he had worked for just one company, eventually becoming its chairman and chief executive. He made everyone else in his hard-bitten industry seem gentle. He was gruff even to members of Congress and scoffed at global warming long after scientists proved it. Greenpeace called him the “Darth Vader of global warming.” He was superficially unappealing too, with a misshapen lip, an ample belly, and a set of jowls that cartoonists would judge absurd. But in the oil industry you do not need to be pretty or kind to succeed, and this oilman had succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining. Lee Raymond had turned ExxonMobil into the largest and most profitable corporation in the United States. He was rewarded with an astounding $686 million in compensation during his 13-year tenure as chief executive, which breaks down to about $144,000 a day, or more than $6,000 for every hour he worked, slept, ate, or golfed.
But Raymond was nearly unknown outside the environmental lobby that despised him, the financial industry that swooned over him, and the oil industry that feared him (Exxon’s executive suite was known as “the God Pod”). Think of the tycoons who are part of the contemporary lexicon—Gates, Murdoch, Buffett, Jobs—and realize that absent from their ranks is the man who oversaw one of the most profitable multinationals of the 20th century. I wanted to see him on this evening because he was not just at the highest echelon of his industry’s ruling class, but seemed its epitome.
After the mousse plates were cleared, Raymond lumbered onto the ballroom stage. The crowd offered a round of applause that was more akin to a handshake than a hug. In this industry, there was no need to feign love; grudging respect would do. His speech was an industrial mission statement. His listeners, who included ministers, princes, and CEOs, were reminded of how vital their work was, how underappreciated they were, how they must labor harder than ever, how the future will be grander than the already-blessed present. A video screen enlarged Raymond’s presence to superhuman proportions. It was part Tony Robbins, part Billy Graham, with a whiff of a mumbling Leonid Brezhnev.
Invoking a sacred industrial purpose, Raymond recited his version of the inspirational commandments of the oil world:
“We all have a tremendous opportunity and a responsibility to improve the quality of life the world over. Virtually nothing is made without our energy and our products.
“Our industry’s best years lie ahead, surpassing even the greatest achievements of the century gone by.
“We condemn the violation of human rights in any form and believe our stand on human rights sets a positive example for countries where we operate.”
The audience’s reaction was ritualized, less a genuine wave of applause than an obligatory simulation. I was reminded that in this brutal business, it was best to save your enthusiasm for crushing a rival rather than congratulating him.
Venezuela, which has the world’s seventh-largest oil reserves, is a classic example of what economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “a rich country with poor people.” Caracas, the capital, is surrounded by coils of barrios; voters from these impoverished areas are the electoral base for President Hugo Chávez, who promises to create true prosperity from the oil riches. I stopped by Miraflores, the presidential palace, to see how Chávez was performing the trick that eluded so many of his predecessors.
The Miraflores event was part of the great game of our times—the superpower search for steady supplies of energy. China, which didn’t import much petroleum until 2000 yet is now the second-largest importer after the United States, was doing whatever it could to win the friends and resources it needed. To woo Caracas, China had just agreed to help launch a communications satellite on favorable terms. In a conference hall at the palace, Chávez was getting ready to break this news to the world. Onstage, several executives from the China Great Wall Industry Corporation sat beside the stout Venezuelan president.
After the Chinese and Venezuelan anthems were sung, Chávez launched into a speech of the sort that is his trademark—a presidential stream of consciousness. He congratulated the Chinese for being clever at math and saluted their women for being so beautiful. He thanked the Chinese government for training Venezuelans in satellite technology, saying they were teaching Venezuela “how to fly.” As a visual aid, he flapped his arms like wings. He added that the Chinese had learned to fly under “the great Mao Zedong,” and because Chávez drew inspiration from Mao’s one-party, one-truth pedigree, he smiled broadly and exhorted, “Long live the Chinese revolution!”
The Chinese businessmen, as rigorously mercantilist these days as John Rockefeller was in his time, gazed at Chávez. They didn’t seem to know whether the desired response was sardonic smiles or clenched fists, but their expressions veered toward the safe harbor of nodding approval. One of them adjusted the volume on his translation headset as Chávez said, “We don’t want to earn money out of this. We’re not capitalists. This is about the survival of our country and the destruction of capitalism. Capitalists are generating death!”
Yet capitalists are still buying oil from Venezuela, and lots of it; most of Venezuela’s oil exports go to the United States. A president can flap his arms in Caracas and hold his nose at the United Nations and promise to remake his nation, but reality is crude in many ways. There is a saying that Venezuela does not have good or bad presidents, just presidents who serve at times of high or low oil prices. Chávez, running for president in 1998 as the main political parties all but collapsed from decrepitude, had the great luck of being elected when oil sold for $12 a barrel. As his presidency began, prices started climbing, on their way to more than $140 by 2008. Venezuelans had seen this before—presidents who became popular by increasing public spending and who became unpopular when the oil boom ebbed. Chávez’s announcement at Miraflores—indeed, his entire presidency—had the feel of what Venezuelan scholar Fernando Coronil described as a state limited to “magic performances, not miracles.”
Magic can obscure reality but not make it disappear.
When our paths crossed, Mohammed Ibrahim Abdul Aziz was 20 years old. He seemed young for his age—his sparse facial hair gave him the look of a teenager. He had studied at King Saud University in Riyadh but had not been inspired by his teachers and had not been hopeful of finding work after graduation. The paradoxes of Saudi Arabia include the fact that it has oceans of oil but not an economy that offers jobs its citizens want. This is one of the problems of the oil industry: It generates lots of cash but very little work. Mohammed dropped out of school and like many Saudi youths spent his spare time cruising the Internet. When I asked which fundamentalist Web sites he’d visited, Mohammed couldn’t remember precisely because there were so many, all extolling the glory of doing battle against infidels.
I met Mohammed in Samarra, Iraq, where he had gone to fight Americans in 2005. He had been captured a few days before our encounter, and he had certainly seen better days. He was wearing a green frock covered in mud and his eyes were bloodshot. He had been interrogated almost nonstop. A soiled bandage was wrapped around his head; he said he was injured when the car he was traveling in, with two members of his insurgent cell, was attacked by Iraqi soldiers. It was just as probable that he had been roughed up but did not want to say so. We talked in an office in a library that had been converted to a detention center. A desk in our midst had bloodstains down its side. From parts of the detention center I was not allowed to visit, I could hear prisoners screaming and retching.
Mohammed’s career as a holy warrior had lasted a few weeks. He had no skills to offer the insurgency because he had never fired a weapon or built a bomb, did not know his way around Iraq, and could not even blend into a crowd because his Saudi accent gave him away. When he realized his insurgent cell was led by a man who seemed more interested in stealing cars than killing Americans, he wanted out. His capture came as a relief, which is why he had not been tortured to the edge of death—he was more than happy to tell everything he knew.
“I made a mistake,” Mohammed said. “I just hope I will be allowed to go back to Riyadh. I want to leave.”
He would not be going home soon. A U.S. military advisor, dressed in jeans and with a pistol strapped to his thigh, was monitoring my talk with Mohammed. The Iraqi who interpreted, also with a pistol on his hip, was an overweight police official. The Saudi, the American, and the Iraqi in this room were in a deep mess, as were their homelands. There were many reasons, and a core one was evoked when Mohammed ventured a guess as to why Iraq had been invaded.
“The Americans want to control Iraq’s resources,” he said. “They came here for oil.”
I hate Skittles. I perfected this dislike while covering the invasion of Iraq, because the gummy pills of sugar and fruit were included in the MREs fed to soldiers, Marines, and journalists who were racing to Baghdad in 2003. On the continuum of foods I can’t stand, they are surpassed only by lima beans. But the cameo of a red pack of Skittles in the opening scene of David Simon’s new HBO miniseries, “Generation Kill,” was a welcome sight, because it signaled that the program was going to be faithful to the smallest detail of the invasion I had witnessed.
Premiering last Sunday and running through Aug. 24, “Generation Kill” also gets the not-so-sugary things right. The program’s obsession with the hyper-real extends to the pitch-perfect sound of a Humvee idling and the baggy cut of the Marines’ chemical-warfare suits, which made these 21st-century warriors seem to be wearing hand-me-down uniforms. The dialogue is un-Hollywoodized, too—the unfiltered use of foul language and military acronyms made me think I was listening to a replay of what I heard five years ago.
Yet the highest achievement of the miniseries is the way it unveils the disordered workings of the American military and the inevitable destruction of all objects in its path, including civilians whose only offense is to tend their sheep or drive down a road. With its $550 billion budget and 1.5 million troops, the military might seem a mechanized colossus of precision-guided violence, give or take a few bad apples and errant artillery shells. But if you have served in the military or written about it from the inside, you know that on the unit level it is filled with men and women of vastly different motivations and skills. The Marines in “Generation Kill” are intelligent and dimwitted, panicked, sensitive, racist, comic, homicidal, brave. It is a wonder when things go according to plan. “You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps?” says one of the characters. “You get your brains back.”
Even in liberal circles, it has become a convention to blame the Bush administration for bad execution of a good idea (i.e., invading a large Middle Eastern nation). “Generation Kill” offers a reality-based counternarrative to the critique that was embedded in, for example, “No End in Sight.” That documentary excoriated Washington for messing up, through poor planning and wishful thinking, an invasion and occupation that, the documentary implied, might have worked. “Generation Kill,” which is faithfully based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, who was embedded with the Marine reconnaissance battalion featured in the miniseries and who wrote some of the episodes, certainly provides abundant evidence of inept preparation. There are not enough batteries for night optics, maps are late in arriving, the Humvees are not armored, and no one in the battalion, aside from its disheveled interpreter, speaks more than a word or two of Arabic. Yet those types of shortcomings, as well as the ineptitude of some members of the unit—a vital supply truck is hastily abandoned in battle, commanders are obsessed with facial hair, a captain orders his men to go the wrong way on a road—are rooted in systemic faults that predate the election of George Bush in 2000. The Bush team was incompetent and naïve—the critics are right about that—but the military had more than enough built-in deficiencies to undermine even a well-planned conquest of Iraq. Snafu, which is a military acronym that stands for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up,” did not come out of Iraq; its origins are generally traced to World War II.
“Generation Kill” is the opposite of a lecture—the paragraph you just read contains more politics than you’ll get in the entire series. “Generation Kill” doesn’t insist that the military—George Bush’s, Bill Clinton’s, Barack Obama’s, or John McCain’s—can only get things half-right on its good days. Instead, it presents the untouched messiness and ambiguity of killing in modern warfare. You can draw your own conclusions. One of the first combat scenes in the series occurs when a Marine sniper takes out two Fedayeen; the head of one of them explodes like a watermelon. Returning to his Humvee, the sniper is congratulated by his buddies, but you can see, as the camera lingers on his face after the high-fiving, that he looks as though he will be sick. This is not an anti-war varnish. The Marine battalion that I followed to Baghdad had a veteran sniper who clocked dozens of kills during the invasion; he was proud of his work, but I never saw him celebrate.
It wasn’t until later episodes that I realized this miniseries is so realistic it should be used as an educational tool for troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not give much away, particularly to readers of Wright’s book, in mentioning that the Marines of “Generation Kill” set up checkpoints on roads that are used by civilians as well as fighters who are not in uniform. The consequences are not attractive, and these gut-wrenching scenes illustrate the tactics and guesswork that lead to tragedy—not only for the civilians who are in the wrong place at the wrong time but for the Marines who must live with the awfulness of their lethal mistakes. The battalion I was with killed a number of civilians after storming across a bridge, and afterward, a lance corporal surveying the carnage angrily told me, “How can you tell who’s who? I don’t think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people didn’t die.” Shooting at approaching Iraqis without knowing for sure whom you are shooting at—this practice began in March 2003 and continues today, because it’s unavoidable with an imperfect military and a confusing battle space. In “Generation Kill,” one of the Marines, after a buddy unintentionally kills civilians in a military version of a drive-by shooting, mentions the far greater carnage of American bombs dropped on innocent villages and says, “So fucking what? It’s war, dawg.”
I was eager to watch this series because David Simon and Ed Burns, who co-produced it, were the wise men behind “The Wire”; I wanted to see what these masters of urban narratives would do with a military story. Here the miniseries is revelatory, because it shows a similarity between the emotional hydraulics of a military unit in Iraq and a drug gang in Baltimore. As in “The Wire,” the Marines who are the focus of “Generation Kill” are crude young toughs who have a hard-to-decipher patois of their own. (By the end of the series, you still might not know the meaning of ROE, MSR, RCT, POG, and AO.) Their chain of command is led by an intelligent lieutenant and a veteran sergeant known as “Iceman”; if you put together the characteristics of these two warriors, you have Marlo Stanfield, the coolly analytic gang leader of “The Wire.” Just as a drug gang can be more sophisticated than we thought, a Marine battalion can be less perfect than we wish.
A pop quiz: Who is the worst dictator in Africa?
a) Robert Mugabe
b) Robert Mugabe
c) Robert Mugabe
d) None of the above
The answer seems obvious. Thanks to extensive coverage in the news media and abundant criticism by Western governments, everyone knows that Zimbabwe’s leader is trying to hang onto power by crushing his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who would roll to victory in the final round of elections on June 27 if his followers were not being killed, beaten, jailed, or harassed by state thugs. Even President George W. Bush described Mugabe’s rule as a “nightmare.”
But Mugabe may not be Africa’s worst. That prize arguably goes to Teodoro Obiang, the ruler of Equatorial Guinea whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre. Years of violent apprenticeship in a genocidal regime led by a crazy uncle? Check. Power grab in a coup against the murderous uncle? Check. Execution of now-deposed uncle by firing squad? Check. Proclamation of self as “the liberator” of the nation? Check. Govern for decades in a way that prompts human rights groups to accuse your regime of murder, torture, and corruption? Check, check, and check.
Obiang, who seized power in 1979, had promised to be kinder and gentler than his predecessor, but in the 1990s, even the U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea received a death threat from a regime insider, the ambassador has said, and had to be evacuated. Not long after that, offshore oil was discovered, but the first wave of revenues—about $700 million—was transferred into secret accounts under Obiang’s personal control. The latest chapter, written in the last month, may be the least surprising, because Obiang’s ruling party won 99 of the 100 seats in legislative elections. A government press release, hailing Obiang as the “Militant Brother Founding President of the PDGE,” carried the headline, “Democracy at Its Peak in Equatorial Guinea.”
If you haven’t heard any of this, don’t worry; as far as I can tell, the only American journalist who has reported on Obiang’s electoral theft is Ken Silverstein, who writes for Harper’s and has for many years poured out a primal scream of investigative reports into Obiang’s misrule. Other than Silverstein’s recent postings and several wire-service stories that were not picked up in America, there has been a vacuum of coverage about a suppression of democracy in Africa that is more complete than what Mugabe is trying to get away with. True, Equatorial Guinea is a small country with a population of less than 1 million, its economy is expanding in an oil boom, and Obiang’s “victory” did not require the obvious and crude violence of Mugabe’s ongoing terror. But Obiang’s enforcers don’t need to club people on the streets. His would-be opponents are too frightened to openly demonstrate against him. His is the Switzerland of dictatorships—so effective at enforcing obedience that the spectacle of unrest is invisible.
The reality of the regime’s brutishness nearly hit me over the head as I was being expelled from the country while researching a book on oil in 2004. I had already been chilled by the docility of the people—unlike other countries in the Third World, no one approached me as I walked the streets. (The only place where I had felt a similar pattern of fear was North Korea.) After I had been in Equatorial Guinea for a bit more than a week, the minister of information, Alfonso Nsue Mokuy, summoned me to the patio of the Bahia Hotel, where Frederick Forsyth had written The Dogs of War, and told me I was an anti-Obiang agitator or a spy—he wasn’t sure which. I would be on the next plane out of the country, he said. One of his aides escorted me to the airport, and soon after we arrived, the minister showed up and rifled through my bags, seizing memory chips and notes, accusing me of being a spy (he had concluded I was not an agitator), and threatening to take me downtown for a real Obiang-style interrogation.
To understand what happened next, and to understand a crucial reason why we hear little about Obiang, you need to know that since oil was found in the country’s waters in the Gulf of Guinea, ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Chevron, and other firms have invested more than $10 billion to extract the treasure, transforming Equatorial Guinea into the third-largest energy exporter in sub-Saharan Africa. But the first wave of revenues seemed to disappear—the people of Equatorial Guinea remained as poor, ill-housed, uneducated, and unhealthy as ever. Rather than putting the money into a transparent government account and using the proceeds for social services, Obiang hoarded it in accounts he personally controlled at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. An investigation by the SEC led to millions of dollars in money-laundering fines against Riggs, but Obiang was not charged. In fact, things only got sweeter. In 2006, he was invited to Washington and met Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called him a “good friend.”
It’s no secret why Rice is BFF with Obiang—he controls oil that Washington wants access to. The stance is indefensible even on pragmatic grounds. King Abdullah is a “good friend,” too, but the Saudi monarch controls more than 260 billion barrels of oil; the morals-for-oil transaction is plausible if it nets us a lot of gas, albeit at $4 a gallon. Obiang controls 1.1 billion barrels of oil—a global pittance. We shouldn’t bow to him, and we don’t even need to. I learned that at the airport.
The minister was shouting and began to slap my arms as I moved, too slowly for his satisfaction, to unpack my bag. He was serious about taking me downtown. To hold him off, I told him the U.S. government would be angry if I were to be arrested. I was counting on the insecurity of Obiang’s regime. There had just been a bizarre and failed coup plot involving Mark Thatcher, the buffoonish son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I had noticed, while attending a presidential speech and parade, that Obiang’s key bodyguards were Moroccan mercenaries rather than compatriots, whom he apparently could not trust. Although U.S. power is diminished by the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains fearsome to an autocrat whose air force consists of less than a dozen planes apparently piloted by Eastern Europeans. So, my bluff succeeded. The minister ceased harassing me.
For the usual and shameful reasons, the White House does not use its clout to condemn Obiang as it condemns Mugabe—there has not been a word of censure from Washington about Obiang’s 99-for-100 triumph in May’s elections. Yet that’s only part of the reason Americans hear little about him. There isn’t a gag order on America’s media, after all. There is, however, a famous dictator trying to crush a peaceful uprising in a far larger country with a historical narrative that we’re familiar with and fascinated by—in a dramatic fashion, Zimbabwe has gone from white rule to independence to destitution. Mugabe’s government admits to an inflation rate of 150,000 percent, but that’s the optimistic view, because unofficial estimates are a calculator-busting 1 million percent. This drama casts an unfortunate spell, because Obiang is not just a worse tyrant, he is a better story. The U.S. government is not propping up Mugabe, but with billions invested by American companies in Equatorial Guinea, it is propping up Obiang. The Equatorial Guinean minister who owns the building that houses the U.S. Embassy in Malabo has even been accused of torture by human rights organizations. Instead of seeking an indictment against the man, the U.S. government is putting rent money in his pocket. (A lot of rent money, actually—$17,500 a month.)
You haven’t heard that before? The tragedy is that you might not hear of it again.
James Giffen likes to share the wealth. His generosity to friends is said to have included $180,000 for jewelry, $30,000 for fur coats, a luxury speedboat, two snowmobiles and lots of cash. Overall, according to prosecutors in New York, Giffen gave more than $78 million to senior officials in Kazakhstan, for which he was indicted on federal bribery charges in 2003. What makes his case most remarkable, however, is not the startling amount of supposed corruption. Nor is it Giffens unindicted co-conspirator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan.
What truly sets Giffen apart is that he has claimed in his defense that he was an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency. As a close adviser to President Nazarbayev, who in the 1990s agreed to a series of large oil contracts with American firms, Giffen says he was moonlighting for the American government as, basically, our man in Astana. Giffens lawyers have called him a patriot who helped ensure that Kazakhstans reserves of oil and natural gas would be controlled by American rather than Chinese or Russian companies. And they have noted an oddity — after their client was indicted on charges that could land him in jail for the rest of his life, his supposed partner in bribery, President Nazarbayev, was welcomed not only at the White House but also at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport.
The case raises a number of questions, including this one: in an era of scarce oil, can America afford to punish anyone who cuts corners to win deals for American firms? In 2003, when oil sold for less than $30 a barrel, it was possible to believe we could have our anticorruption statutes and our cheap gasoline. Four years later, with oil going for $95 a barrel, its not so clear. The British government, citing-national security concerns, has called off an investigation into bribery of influential Saudis. Delays in Giffens case suggest that some federal agencies may be more concerned with protecting secrets than with seeing the prosecution go forward. Much of the pretrial evidence has been sealed, but what is known is that Giffens lawyers have asked for sensitive documents that they contend will show official approval of their clients activities.
As an instrument of resource control, bribery has been the recourse of corporate executives and government officials the world over. In the 1970s, after American firms admitted to spending hundreds of millions of dollars bribing foreign officials, Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to put an end to these antics. For many years, the F.C.P.A. was not aggressively enforced and many companies outsourced bribery to middlemen or joint-venture partners. But as the corporate social-responsibility movement grew its baby teeth, the Justice Department began to show more interest in corporate bribery overseas. About 60 F.C.P.A. cases are now being investigated or prosecuted. Belatedly, American oil firms are being asked to, well, refine themselves.
Is it too late? The F.C.P.A. was passed when these firms were colossi in the energy world. Today, Congress and Exxon Mobil cannot set global norms on their own. They have to deal with a range of masters, competitors and rogues including Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hu Jintao, Gazprom, Lukoil, Sinopec and Eni. Desperate buyers — and this category now includes the United States — must compete against one another as they try to fulfill the wishes and needs of the autocratic sellers of petroleum.
I saw this firsthand when President Chávez signed an accord in Caracas with a Chinese company that would launch a satellite for Venezuela. Chávez delivered a lengthy and rambling speech, during which he flapped his arms in the air like a loon and raved about the beauty of Chinese women, the greatness of Chairman Mao and the evils of free enterprise, warning that capitalists are generating death. The Chinese on the stage, who seemed unlikely to share all of their hosts notions, slightly nodded their heads in the quiet approval that was required.
By lending support to the particularly dubious regime in Sudan, China clearly puts its energy needs above moral concerns. But the American government cannot avoid the contradictions of needing oil but wanting to get it, or at least be seen to get it, in moral ways. This predicament has been evident for a long time in our dealings with dictatorships in, for instance, Saudi Arabia and Angola. The Giffen case is a timely iteration as we fret on the threshold of $100-a-barrel petroleum. The choice is simple: Make painful but necessary changes to reduce our addiction to oil, or sink deeper into our moral sludge.
The Front for the Defense of the Amazon, like any progressive group whose name includes front and defense, is a no-frills outfit with ample supplies of devotion and very little clout. Its opponents are, in size and power, what elephants are to gnats. They include Chevron Corporation, the United States government, the armed forces of Ecuador, and the insatiable global demand for oil. (This is a partial list.)
The Frente, as it’s known, is based in Lago Agrio, a gritty oil town of 35,000 in northeastern Ecuador’s humid, jungly Oriente region, in a second-floor warren outfitted with furniture the Salvation Army might reject. As a gnat, the Frente measures success in humble terms René Descartes would understand: We survive, therefore we are. But something funny is happening on the way to the glorious defeats that would seem to be its destiny. The group has a fighting chance of winning a landmark environmental-damage lawsuit against Chevron, one that could cost the conglomerate an estimated $6 billion in cleanup expenses. The suit was brought by 48 Oriente inhabitants on behalf of 30,000 fellow residents of the oil-rich region—members of the Cofán, Secoya, and other tribes, as well as settlers who arrived in recent decades. The plaintiffs allege that, between 1964 and 1992, Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into an area the size of Rhode Island—a brew that allegedly included 18 million gallons of oil, nearly twice the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
According to the suit, Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco (the first plaintiff listed is Maria Aguinda, a Quechua Indian), the pollution has poisoned the earth, rivers, and air, causing miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer rates three times the national average. Cows and chickens have reportedly dropped dead; fish have gone belly up. Mothers and children walking on the oil-soaked dirt roads, the plaintiffs say, have to wash their feet in gasoline just to remove the gunk.
This isn’t the first time a multinational has been accused of egregious misconduct in the Third World, but it is the first time a class-action-style environmental lawsuit this large has gone so far. Originally filed in a New York federal district court in 1993, the suit went through nearly a decade of pre-trial maneuverings that came to a halt in 2002, when a federal appeals court ruled that it had to be heard in Ecuador rather than the U.S.
At first, that looked like the end. Nobody thought Ecuador would hear the case; trials this complicated had never been held there, and the government in Quito was still relatively friendly to U.S. business interests. But in Ecuador, as in many developing countries in Latin America, such governments have been replaced by a new generation of left-leaning nationalist regimes. With popular sentiment shifting, proceedings opened in Lago Agrio’s superior court in October 2003, less than six months after the suit was filed. Now, finally, resolution is in sight. The verdict—which will be decided by a single judge rather than a jury—is expected sometime next year.
On a muggy morning in October 2005 in the Frente’s ramshackle offices, one big reason for the group’s improbable success was standing in front of me. The chief American legal adviser in the case, Steven Donziger, was turning the office into a political stage by doing what he does best—plotting, joking, shouting, defaming, and, in general, behaving like Don Quixote with a Harvard law degree. At 45, Donziger is an imposing figure, with a six-foot-four physique and a face like George Clooney crossed with an Easter Island head. He was fulminating against Chevron for blocking a judicial inspection of the Guanta processing station, outside Lago Agrio, one of 122 allegedly toxic sites originally slated to be inspected in the case.
Under Ecuadorean law, the judge personally investigates evidence. In this dispute, that means making dozens of field inspections, which entail a traveling circus of lawyers, security guards, witnesses, journalists, and separate teams of experts for the judge, plaintiffs, and defendant—all jawing and sample-taking outdoors in whatever weather conditions prevail. The night before the Guanta inspection, Judge Efraín Novillo Guzmán had declared a postponement after Chevron’s representatives said they’d been warned of potential violence by locals angry about the pollution. The delay seemed like a good idea for the oil company, in part because the Frente had lured a busload of Ecuadorean journalists out to Lago Agrio, a six-hour drive from Quito over narrow mountain roads. With no inspection, there would be nothing to write about.
But Donziger is savvy enough to spin a sunny day into a hurricane. He worked the phones in nonstop interviews, accusing Chevron’s lawyers of everything from cowardice to genocide. When he went live with Paco Velasco—Ecuador’s most popular radio talk-show host and, like Donziger, a fountain of addictive outrage—it was a meeting of like-minded vocal cords.
“Texaco doesn’t respect the life of Ecuadoreans!” Donziger fumed in gringo-accented Spanish. “They are against the people. They are lying. People have died and people will continue dying because of the pollution!”
Donziger was on a roll and he knew it. When the interview ended, he turned to an Ecuadorean activist and said, “That was good, wasn’t it?”
In the next room, several young Ecuadoreans were making posters: TEXACO IS COWARDLY AND RACIST! TEXACO IS AFRAID! Down the hall, plans got under way for a day of protest; several dozen indigenous women, looking sullen but photogenic, would wave the posters in front of city hall. Meanwhile, Donziger was firing up the crew of journalists for a gonzo tour of the Guanta site, official inspection be damned.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible to pity a multinational oil conglomerate that has gotten its way worldwide since 1911, one that made $14 billion in profits in 2006 alone. But watching Donziger stir things up, I almost felt sorry for Chevron.
It doesn’t take long to reach the thin air of the Andes from Quito, because you are already in the thin air of the Andes. Ecuador’s capital is more than 9,000 feet above sea level, and if you drive east, toward Papallacta Pass, you enter a series of valleys whose stark grandeur makes you feel like you’re inside an Ansel Adams photograph, albeit one that features the occasional llama.
Eventually, the road descends in ill-mannered serpentines toward Sucumbíos province, its capital of Lago Agrio, and the Amazon basin. As the terrain flattens, the scenery changes and the Andean cloudforest morphs into a steamy infection of stores, cattle, farms, and people. Curving along the highway is a thick pipeline filled with crude oil. It’s used as an elevated walkway by children and adults who don’t want to get stuck in the black mud below. They walk, literally and magically, on a path of oil.
This is the Trans-Ecuadorean Pipeline System, known by its Spanish initials, SOTE. More than 300 miles long, SOTE was built in the early 1970s; in 2004 it gained a twin, the Heavy Crude Pipeline (OCP), which doubled the country’s capacity to transport oil over the Andes to the Pacific port of Esmeraldas, and from there to the United States. Ecuador now produces nearly 500,000 barrels a day. Every 24 hours, 300,000 of those are shipped to El Norte, making it Latin America’s third-largest oil supplier to the U.S., behind Mexico and Venezuela.
Feeding this aorta is a web of smaller pipelines spread over the humid flatlands. The feeder pipes aren’t buried or routed away from roads and people, as they would be in a wealthier nation. They rest on rickety pylons one or two feet high and just a few feet, or sometimes inches, from the road. If you swerve into one to avoid a pothole or lose control of your vehicle because you are drunk, you will create an oil spill. It happens all the time.
Thirty-five years ago, none of this existed. The road from Quito didn’t extend beyond the Andes, and because there was no road, the 20th century hadn’t penetrated the Oriente. It was a tangled expanse of jungle inhabited by indigenous Indians—Cofán, Huaorani, Secoya, Siona, and Quechua—numbering up to 20,000 or so at most. The territory was largely left alone until Texaco was granted the Oriente concession in 1964 and found oil in 1967.
What happened next is an old story. To extract and ship the dark product, hundreds of miles of roads were built, along with hundreds of wells, processing stations, and waste pits. A Wild West–style boomtown sprung up in the 1970s, replete with bars, prostitutes, and fistfights. Officially called Nueva Loja, the town quickly became known by its nickname, Lago Agrio—Spanish for “Sour Lake,” the name of the Texas town where Texaco was founded in the early 1900s. Settlers poured in. To prevent neighboring Colombia from snatching the sparsely populated Oriente and to relieve overpopulation elsewhere in Ecuador, the government offered free land to anyone who’d clear the thick jungle and start farming. Their numbers already decimated over the centuries by Western diseases such as smallpox, the Cofán and other tribes were pushed farther into the disappearing jungle. Today, perhaps 1,000 Cofán remain.
On paper at least, Ecuador’s government was the controlling authority in this enterprise. Texaco entered a joint-venture accord with a newly created state company called CEPE (now known as Petroecuador) to co-manage the extraction. But the Ecuadoreans had little expertise in oil drilling. When crude began to flow, the country’s oil industry, steered by Texaco, all but regulated itself.
Texaco took out 1.5 billion barrels over a 20-year span, bringing the company profits that nobody seems to agree on. The San Francisco–based environmental group Amazon Watch, which works with the Frente to publicize the damage in the Oriente, claims Texaco netted more than $30 billion in profits. Chevron insists that the joint venture grossed $25 billion but that only $490 million went to the American company after royalties and taxes. Whatever the numbers, Ecuador’s national government embarked on an unchecked spending spree that far exceeded its revenues. By the end of the 1990s, the country was saddled with $16 billion in debt; about 70 percent of Ecuadorean children still live below the poverty line, according to UNICEF.
The long regulatory leash didn’t work out so well. To industry critics, Ecuador is Exhibit A of what happens when an oil company operates unfettered in a remote corner of the world. During oil extraction, water is often pumped deep into underground reservoirs to force out the crude, and when it comes up, so does “formation water”—a cocktail of leftover oil, metals, and water that can include benzene, chromium-6, and mercury. The plaintiffs charge that, instead of reinjecting this wastewater deep underground or removing the contaminants—standard practices now, and often done back then as well—Texaco dumped it into tributaries of the Amazon and hundreds of unlined pits. Without naming specific sources, the suit alleges that “close to 83 percent of the population has suffered diseases attributable to contamination ... the more affected population is that of children under 14 years of age.”
To buttress the suit’s accusations, Donziger and others point to a number of studies, beginning with Amazon Crude, a 1991 environmental overview compiled by City University of New York law professor Judith Kimerling and published by the Natural Resources Defense Council; and the 1999 “Yana Curi” (“Black Gold”) report, conducted by two Spanish medical researchers in cooperation with the Department of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene at the University of London. That study focused on the town of San Carlos, a hub of Oriente drilling activity, finding 2.3 times more cancers in men than the average in Quito, along with lymphoma rates in women that were 6.7 times higher than those in Quito. But San Carlos has a population of only 1,000, according to the study; that’s just a small sample of the Oriente’s 300,000 estimated residents.
Though there’s a shortage of hard data, journalists regularly emerge from the Oriente with horror stories about sick people and livestock, and about polluted land, swamps, and rivers. In 2003, the Frente hired an American engineering consultant named David Russell to study the potential cost of a thorough cleanup. His Georgia-based firm, Global Environmental Operations, estimated a final price tag of $6 billion, a figure that Chevron disputes. Company spokesman Chris Gidez—a public-relations expert at Hill & Knowlton—calls this number “a wild claim.” Even Donziger is speculating when he says it could cost as much as $10 billion—or far less. The truth is, nobody knows for sure.
For Donziger, the more publicity the better, in both Ecuador and the U.S.; he does his best to arrange a good show. For the Guanta inspection, in addition to the Quito journalists, he’d brought in a separate busload of photo-ready Cofán Indians, all of them wearing colorful native frocks and the unhappy frowns of the dispossessed.
Our first stop was town hall, an ugly, four-story, glass-skinned structure. The judge’s chambers were on the top floor, inside a small, book-lined room never intended to be filled with lawyers, reporters, TV cameras, students, and Indians. Judge Novillo, a soft-spoken man who looks like he’s on the tired side of his fifties, reacted calmly to the invasion. The latest book by Gabriel García Márquez sat on his desk, and he got a real-life dose of magical realism when the mob barreled into his office, accusing him of postponing the inspection at the behest of a foreign company.
“Texaco organized this!” shouted a law student from Quito who wore a bandanna around his neck in the imagined style of Che Guevara. His class was on a field trip with their professor, Alejandro Ponce Víllacis, a 38-year-old lawyer who is one of the case’s most prominent faces in Ecuador.
“This order is from state security,” Novillo replied, flashing an official-looking piece of paper.
“Let us see it,” Ponce demanded.
“I cannot show it,” Novillo said.
Howls of outrage filled the chamber. Giving ground, Novillo began reading the order, which he said had come from the local special-forces base, Rayo-24 (“Lightning-24”).
“‘Military intelligence fears there could be a hostile situation,’” he read, but Ponce cut him off.
“The people have a right to know!” he shouted.
“You are not showing it!” the law student added.
The judge flashed the letter again, a bit longer this time. Not good enough. “This is a manipulation from Texaco!” someone shouted.
“We have been hurt by the pollution,” a short Indian woman wailed.
I heard a baby cry. With all the bodies packed into the room, the humidity reached 1,000 percent. For the judge, there was no escape. He was being forced into a sort of data striptease, with information revealed piece by piece to the panting crowd. Finally, he held out the letter for everyone to read.
Donziger is not a member of the bar in Ecuador. With the judge, as in court proceedings, he let his Ecuadorean colleagues do the talking: Pablo Fajardo Mendoza, a ferocious 32-year-old who got his degree from an extension school and has emerged as the case’s lead courtroom litigator; and Professor Ponce, whose father once defended Chevron. The Frente’s legal coordinator, 44-year-old Luis Yanza, plays a key role outside the courtroom, and, like the rest of his team, he’s patient. He laughed a little too hysterically when I asked if he’d ever thought the case would last more than a decade.
After the face-off with Novillo, the buses of Indians and lawyers and students and journalists rolled up to the army base on the outskirts of Lago Agrio. We stood outside the gate in a soaking drizzle, armed with cheap umbrellas. The special-forces commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Narvaez, soon emerged, wearing fatigues and a burgundy beret.
“I do not know about the existence of the letter,” he told the crowd. His statement met with disbelief; everyone had seen that the order was signed by Narvaez’s second in command.
“I am going to investigate it, and when I find the answer I will meet with you and tell you what is going on,” he said.
Donziger, Ponce, and Fajardo decided to try something new. “The Texaco staff stays here,” Donziger said to Narvaez. “There is an agreement.” This was cast as an accusation.
“There might be,” the lieutenant colonel responded uneasily.
Donziger had known for months that Chevron had built a villa at the base and agreed to give it to the military once the case ended. He hadn’t publicly opposed the deal—Chevron is not popular in Lago Agrio, and its lawyers would be safer on the base. But with a dozen soggy, news-hungry journalists recording the moment, the Frente’s lawyers suspected the time was right to accuse the military of colluding with gringos.
It turned out they were correct. The accusation made headlines, and a few weeks later the defense ministry canceled all military contracts with oil firms and ordered Chevron off the base.
Though the Oriente is clearly a disaster area, the scientific data is far from cut and dried, and Chevron denies almost every allegation that fell into its lap after its merger with Texaco.
In Quito, I interviewed Rodrigo Perez, the Chevron subsidiary’s chief legal adviser in Ecuador. Perez began working for Texaco in 1969, when he was a young man; he’s 69 now, with the comforting manner of a family doctor. The case has taken its toll. “I am tired,” Perez confessed during my 2005 visit. “I would love to go to the beach for a month or two and write.”
But the attacks have been relentless, and Perez wearily outlined Texaco’s position, as he’s done for years. Any damage caused by the company was not nearly as severe as the suit charges, he said. Even so, dumping wastewater was “common practice” in the bygone days of oil extraction, which means Texaco wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. “If you filter it first,” Perez said, “in 200 meters you don’t have any way of knowing the water was dumped, because those are big rivers.” Poverty and the continuing operations of state-owned Petroecuador—a notorious polluter responsible for 117 spills in the first half of 2006 alone—are the real source of pollution and disease, the company insists. And the patchwork of medical studies don’t prove higher incidences of disease that can be traced, absolutely, to Texaco’s activities.
To get a firsthand look, I visited San Carlos and spoke with Oscar Ojeda, a doctor at the clinic there. He said the village has recorded what seems like an inordinate number of cancer cases, including leukemia, and he believes oil pollution is the cause. Throughout San Carlos, I smelled petroleum in the air, and Ojeda said he would never drink the water or swim in the rivers, as most local people continue to do. But even if a link could be proved between the village’s cancer rate and pollution, the legal and scientific question remains: Were the cancers caused by Texaco before 1992, or by Petroecuador in the years since?
Chevron has a second line of defense: In the mid-1990s, Texaco paid $40 million to remediate some sites in the Oriente; in keeping with the roughly 30-70 management split between the companies, Petro-ecuador would be responsible for remediating the others (which it hasn’t done). In return, in 1998, Ecuador’s government indemnified Texaco from further claims.
Donziger describes this cleanup as a fraud, alleging, for example, that Texaco merely poured dirt over waste pits rather than removing the waste and subsoil. In his always-turn-it-up-a-notch style, he helped persuade the Ecuadorean government to open an investigation into the remediation, adding new fire to a separate case. In a New York federal court, Chevron is seeking assurances from the Ecuadorean government, stemming from the indemnification, that Petroecuador will pay any damages awarded in Lago Agrio. That trial is scheduled to begin in March.
Though it stretches the imagination to think of Chevron as an innocent party, the company is clearly not the only possible culprit. Texaco operated most of the wells in the Oriente until 1992, but other American companies were present, such as Occidental Petroleum and Maxus Energy, though their operations were generally regarded as cleaner than Texaco’s. Pollution has not ceased since Texaco departed, thanks to the negligence of Petroecuador and a government in Quito that doesn’t fully enforce its own regulations. Furthermore, oil pollution isn’t the sole problem. Today, deforestation in the Oriente is so extensive that I could barely imagine, as I drove around, that the region was untouched rainforest only a few decades ago. Vast environmental crimes have certainly occurred, but who’s to blame? Chevron suggests looking elsewhere.
“Despite Petroecuador’s clear acknowledgement of responsibility and the substantial evidence of the company’s poor environmental record,” Chris Gidez wrote me in an e-mail, “plaintiff’s attorneys continue to solely target Chevron not because it is the proper target, but because it is the most convenient one and has the deepest pockets.”
Justice is rarely blind in Ecuador. Until recently, verdicts would never have favored the little guy with a grudge against well-connected gringos. But the nation’s newly elected president, Rafael Correa, joins Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and other ideological soul mates in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Chile. In Venezuela, Chávez has forced foreign oil companies to rewrite their joint-venture contracts, while Bolivia has just nationalized its oil-and-gas industry. In Ecuador, even before Correa was elected, the government imposed a windfall tax on foreign oil companies and terminated Occidental Petroleum’s lucrative exploration contract.
Most Ecuadoreans never visit the Oriente or Lago Agrio, which is regarded as a kind of lawless Love Canal. But frequent coverage in Quito’s newspapers has generated national interest in the case. An adviser for Chevron—who tracks public opinion in Ecuador and who asked to remain anonymous—told me that if the judge issues a verdict against the company, he’ll be treated as a hero. This adviser was exaggerating, but only somewhat, when he added that any judge ruling for Chevron would be “carried out on his back”—in a coffin.
Rabble rousing is a vintage Donziger tactic. He grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, his father a conservative businessman, his mother a teacher active in farm workers’ rights. Not surprisingly, the son combines no-nonsense efficiency with the zeal of an agitator.
After graduating from Washington, D.C.‘s American University in 1983, Donziger began his adult life as a freelance journalist in Nicaragua, covering the decade-long war between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed contras. He returned to America in 1987 and enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he participated in sit-ins against university policies he deemed insufficiently progressive. After graduation, he worked for two years as a public defender in D.C. and edited a 1996 book of essays, The Real War on Crime, that outlined inequities in the criminal-justice system. Because there is no lost cause he will not embrace, Donziger wrote a report on voter disenfranchisement after Al Gore came up short in the 2000 election.
Since 1993, Donziger has been a sole practitioner, spending much of his time on the Chevron case. He heard about it through a Harvard classmate named John Bonifaz. John’s father, Cristóbal Bonifaz, is an Amherst, Massachusetts, public-interest lawyer and native Ecuadorean whose grandfather was president of the country in the 1930s. Neither Bonifaz has shied away from grand quests—on behalf of several soldiers, military families, and U.S. congressmen, the pair sued President George W. Bush in 2003 for waging war in Iraq without a congressional declaration. But Cristóbal Bonifaz didn’t have the financing to take on an international case this big.
He enlisted the Philadelphia law firm of Kohn, Swift & Graf, which specializes in class-action suits brought under the Alien Torts Claims Act, a 1789 piracy law that was dusted off in the late 1970s as a way to sue U.S. individuals and companies for human-rights violations in foreign countries. According to a recent tally by Business Ethics magazine, 36 ATCA cases have been filed against corporations in the past 13 years, including a suit against ExxonMobil Corporation for abuses by Indonesian military forces protecting the company’s facilities there. In 2004, in one of the most prominent of these cases, Unocal—which itself has since been bought by Chevron—agreed to settle a suit in which it was accused of responsibility for human-rights abuses, including rape and murder, committed by Burmese troops guarding a pipeline project.
Aguinda v. Texaco, as the suit was then called, seemed like a ludicrous mission. In the early 1990s, multi-billion-dollar lawsuits for environmental damage in the Third World were extremely rare. But more and more, the same fiber-optic cables that allow call centers in Bangalore to oversee flower deliveries in Boston have allowed lawyers like Donziger and environmental organizations like Amazon Watch to link up with citizens’ movements in developing countries. What happens in Ecuador no longer stays in Ecuador, especially if you have access to a modem and a bullhorn. And while Donziger and the other attorneys stand to make a lot of money if they win—class-action lawyers typically take a third of any damages—Donziger says his team would likely take a much smaller percentage. He calls the case “hybrid pro bono”; when they signed on, a favorable verdict seemed unlikely, bordering on impossible.
Since 2003, Donziger has shuttled between his wife and child in New York and his work in Ecuador, where he’s on a first-name basis with the staffs of hotels that corporate visitors might recoil from. Donziger gets by on an annual stipend from Kohn, Swift & Graf and by doing part-time criminal-defense work, but his budget is limited. He won’t disclose the case’s costs, nor will Chevron, but Donziger clearly doesn’t have a blank check. Because of unpaid bills, he’s no longer welcome at Lago Agrio’s nicest hotel, where rooms go for $50 a night.
Donziger doesn’t give up easily; more than once I interrupted him mid-discourse because I didn’t have enough time or patience to hear all he wanted to say. In a one-on-one or a ten-on-one debate, he’d be a good bet to win. But even a legal mara-thoner can’t outlast a Fortune 500 corporation willing to litigate until its accusers run out of money, or appeal until oil is found on Mars. ExxonMobil, for instance, is still appealing a $4.5 billion penalty handed down in 1994 for the Valdez disaster. In December, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reduced the award by $2 billion.
Thus Donziger’s attachment to guerrilla PR. For the plaintiffs and their lawyers, victory means not just a verdict against Chevron but a payment by Chevron—and those are vastly different things. Donziger wants to keep the public pressure on, to make the company so miserable that it throws in the towel and settles.
“This case has to be won both in and out of the courtroom,” he told me. “If you had the case without the pressure, you would never get a result.”
Not all of Donziger’s allies agree. Cristóbal Bonifaz, who is now less involved in the case, laughed when I asked him about Donziger’s attention to the headlines.
“Chevron, of course, hates him,” Bonifaz said. “But my view is that you don’t win these cases on PR. If this involved a shoe being sold, you could win that on PR. But the problem with Chevron and any oil company is that they don’t give a damn. If I’m running out of gas, I’m pulling into a gas station. They sell a commodity.”
Chevron clearly doesn’t appreciate Don-ziger’s accusations. “Their strategy has been focused on trying to bully the company into a settlement,” Hill & Knowlton’s Chris Gidez said.
In Quito, another Chevron spokesman visiting from the company’s San Ramon, California, headquarters was more blunt. “In some places,” Jeff Moore told me, “they call it extortion.”
Last year, the company let loose with an unusually harsh statement, describing Donziger and Amazon Watch as “increasingly desperate as their case deteriorates” and accusing them of disseminating “misleading” and “deceptive” information and engaging in “outrageous and irresponsible behavior.”
Chevron seemed to be growing more frustrated as the bad publicity piled up. At its annual shareholders meeting last April in Houston, representatives from an investment fund called Trillium Asset Management offered a resolution (which failed to pass) demanding itemized accounts of the company’s spending in the Ecuador case. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has requested information as well. Meanwhile, Bonifaz has lined up nine more Ecuadorean plaintiffs—all suffering from cancer—to file a separate Oriente suit against Chevron in a San Francisco court.
This is attrition warfare: death by lawsuit. How much pain can Donziger inflict? And how much can Chevron take? Even mild-mannered Rodrigo Perez took umbrage at one of Donziger’s insinuations: that Chevron’s Ecuadorean lawyers are traitors to their nation.
“He’s not honest, and he lies,” Perez told me. “Of every five words he pronounces, three are lies. And he knows he’s lying.” Still, Perez admits that Donziger is a formidable opponent. “Has he done a good job, from the point of view of his clients? Maybe he has, because he’s a pusher and he works hard. But I don’t have any respect for him.”
Dispensing with Narvaez, the Frente’s mobile horde now reassembled at the Guanta oil-processing station, about 20 minutes outside Lago Agrio. The size of several city blocks, Guanta is set amid a wheezing jungle that should be placed on an environmental respirator.
We pulled up in a drizzle at about 11 in the morning, but Petroecuador guards wouldn’t let the group through the main gate. Because a security fence encloses only half the station, and because the guards seemed to care only about the gate, everyone simply slogged a few hundred yards through the waterlogged earth to an area that wasn’t fenced.
To our right was a pit the size of several Olympic pools, filled with an oozy mix of oil and water. Smart people placed handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses. Red and yellow flames leaped into the air from a set of elevated natural-gas flares; I stood about 50 yards away but was blasted by the heat as fumes stung my throat.
“If you don’t have a headache yet, you will soon,” Donziger warned. Ten minutes later, I did.
The pit didn’t have a liner, which meant the gunk could seep, drop by drop and second by second, into the water table below. This is the technology, or lack of it, that Texaco had used decades before; although plastic liners were employed in many parts of the world, Texaco didn’t spend the money to do it that way, and Petroecuador wasn’t modernizing, either. There was a smaller pit across a dirt road and, a few dozen yards from it, a pond-size swamp. The swamp was black, filled with oil.
“Do we need to come here and look at this and have a debate?” Donziger asked. “I mean, honestly, why are we taking samples? In the United States, the EPA would say, ‘Visible standing petroleum. You are obligated to clean it up immediately.’”
This was just one allegedly toxic site among more than 350—including as many as 1,500 pits, the Frente alleges—spread around the Oriente. So far, the samples have yielded a bonanza of data that has been interpreted in opposite ways by experts on both sides. Of the 35 site results reported to the judge so far, Amazon Watch said last September, 100 percent have revealed “shocking” levels of pollution containing “life-threatening carcinogens.” At a site called Lago 2, the group states, the plaintiffs’ experts measured total petroleum hydrocarbons at 325,000 parts per million—3,250 times the legal limit in California and 325 times the limit in Ecuador.
Chevron counters that the Frente is cooking up phony science and testing samples at a substandard lab. “Many of their reports,” Gidez wrote me, “are so scientifically unsound they would never be allowed in a U.S. court.”
To get a better look, I met up with 33-year-old Donald Moncayo, secretary general of the Frente. Moncayo, whose father was a settler, remembers swimming in a local river that had veins of oil running through it. As a young man, he worked briefly in the oil industry as a roughneck but soon left for the ranks of environmental activists. He lives in a wood shack without running water or electricity; when I stopped by one afternoon, a very large pig was napping by the front door.
We bounced in my rented 4x4 over the red dirt roads that crisscross the feeble jungle around Lago Agrio and trundled past rickety homesteads made of salvaged wood slats. Our first stop was a dirt field the size of a soccer pitch that had, at its center, a rusted wellhead. Moncayo said the well was shut by Texaco in the early 1990s, and he led me to a grassy pond 50 yards away that was filled with brackish water in which I could see globs of oil. Oil that leaked into the ground long ago was resurfacing or being revealed as the ground cover eroded.
“Every so often, more oil comes out, and they put more dirt on it,” Moncayo said, referring to Petroecuador.
We drove another 15 minutes, parked at the end of a road, and walked through the jungle until we reached what looked like a swamp. This was another waste pit, filled with sludge. The remarkable thing was that there was no oil facility nearby; whatever well this oil came from had been closed long ago.
“What would happen in Texas if there was a spill like that?” Moncayo asked.
I said it would be cleaned up, quickly.
“We’ve been waiting 17 years,” he replied.
The wait may end soon. The remaining inspections are expected to happen this year, giving way to a period of damage assessment in which the court will analyze the results and figure out whether the pollution is significant and can be traced to Chevron. If so, a judge will decide on the scale of cleanup. Perhaps it will be Novillo, perhaps not; the chief judge’s position rotates every two years, with Judge Gérman Yáñez now presiding.
One morning, I met Emergildo Criollo, a leader of the Cofán Indians. A short man in his late thirties, he was dressed in city clothes. We drove from Lago Agrio for a half-hour, turned onto a dirt road that led into secondary jungle, and soon reached a tributary of the Río Aguarico. Behind the village of Dureno, we boarded a canoe with an outboard motor and glided through a maze of narrow canals covered by a canopy of vines and branches low enough to smack your head. We emerged onto the Aguarico itself, a dirt-brown waterway as wide as the Mississippi. After ten minutes, we got out and walked a half-mile to Criollo’s village, an assemblage of houses built upon stilts, with roofs of thatch and tin. Its population of about 350 makes it the largest Cofán community, according to Criollo. When I asked how long the village had existed, he smiled.
“It has been here forever,” he said.
At the start of the oil era, the gringos drilled wherever they pleased; the Cofán could not make their objections known, because they didn’t speak Spanish or English. Occasionally the river turned black and fish rose to the surface, belly up. Villagers began to die of new diseases that had the symptoms of cancer, though the Cofán didn’t know what cancer was.
Criollo waved at the jungle around us. The colonists—the settlers who cleared the jungle for ranches and coffee plantations—were even worse than the oilmen, he said.
“We didn’t have borders,” he explained. “Everything belonged to everyone. But the colonists converted it to private property. We cannot fish outside the borders of our community. We have to ask permission. Everything has an owner.”
The rest is familiar history for indigenous peoples from Alaska to Australia. The village was recently connected to an electrical grid. Kids watch TV. Food comes from Lago Agrio—rice and beans and chicken. Asked whether any of the youths know how to hunt, Criollo shrugged. “Once in a while they go into the rainforest,” he said.
As the sins of the past are weighed in Judge Novillo’s chambers, another drama is unfolding a few hundred miles south, in Ecuador’s last remaining swath of untouched Amazon jungle.
When I left Criollo, I drove south, as far as the frontier town of Puyo; as in the Oriente of a generation ago, there are no roads into this vast basin, a homeland of the Shuar and Achuar tribes. Consortiums of oil companies—Argentinian, Brazilian, Chinese—are lobbying to drill here. They promise that the rainforest and the Indians who live in it will prosper, gaining money and schools and hospitals while retaining their cultural identity, drinking their pure waters, and hunting in jungles that, thanks to newer, cleaner technologies, won’t be polluted.
It escapes no one’s notice that a generation ago these same promises were made when drilling began in the Oriente.
In a classic Mexican standoff, two men point guns at each other’s heads. Neither wants to shoot, but each knows the downside of not pulling the trigger first. It is an inherently gripping situation, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” offers one of the most memorable examples: in a climactic scene that takes place in a warehouse, three men aim guns at one another, with catastrophe (for macabre laughs) just a twitch away.
We can now thank North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, who is credited with directing several movies, for creating a Mexican standoff that outdoes Tarantino but is no postmodern parody; it takes place in the real world. Earlier this month, North Korea announced that it had exploded an atomic bomb, thus becoming the newest and scariest nuclear power in the world. This set off alarms in South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States; all have good reasons to fear North Korea and one another. We now have a Mexican standoff that involves a) as many as six participants, including b) countries that are threatening one another with c) nuclear weapons. Tarantino couldn’t invent it.
Yet something — someone — is missing from this semi-apocalyptic drama. Warming his hands over a fire in north Waziristan or wherever, Osama bin Laden, the embodiment of evil in our times, is no more a factor than John Dillinger. True, there are fears that North Korea might try to sell a nuke to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. But diplomats are just as concerned that Japan might choose to build a nuclear weapon or two, that South Korea would be tempted to do the same, that China, Russia and the United States will shove against one another and that in the Middle East, Iran will accelerate its nuclear program, leading Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Google “how to build the bomb.”
What’s happening, in other words, is an old-fashioned clash of nations and national interests, exacerbated, as often happens, by the imperatives of regime survival. The suspicions and alliances date back a century or more, though the weaponry, instead of muskets and catapults, is nuclear. After 9/11, we came to believe that the menace that mattered most was the wrath of religious terror, and our geopolitical lingua franca embraced a new vocabulary to define it — jihad, suicide bombers, asymmetric warfare, nonstate actors. Whatever happened to nationalism and the risky maneuverings of states? Nothing, actually. Kim Jong Il, entering from stage far-left, reminds us that new threats, like Islamic extremism, do not replace old ones.
The Korean peninsula is an ancient hothouse for nationalism and its offshoots; it is also a brilliant example of the uses, abuses and durability of national esteem. The peninsula is sandwiched between China and Japan, which are two of the great powers of modern and not-so-modern history; without their pride and willingness to sacrifice for a common goal, Koreans would speak Japanese or Chinese today. Defiantly, through a millennium or two of attack and occupation, they held on to their language and even their gene pool. When I lived in Seoul in the 1980’s, intermarriage, to a Japanese or an American or whomever, was rare and an occasion for scorn or, at best, pity. The taboos are lessening — earlier this year, the government lifted a ban against mixed-race Koreans serving in the military — but as a recent article in The Asia Times noted, “A foreigner, even another Asian, stands out.” More so on the other side of the DMZ: not long ago, a North Korean general chastised South Korea for even allowing intermarriage.
The Korean peninsula was divided into American and Russian zones after World War II — Japan had ruled Korea brutally for nearly a half-century — and was then reduced to cinders by the Korean War. The resurrection of North and South was stunning because they started from utter scratch and without a blueprint or Marshall Plan. Both governments drummed into their people that unless they worked hard and prepared to fight hard, they would be overrun and subjugated by their brother enemies. Each side wanted to prove itself as the true carrier of the Korean torch. The peninsula’s division and war was akin to the splitting of a highly charged nationalist atom that unleashed an explosion of directed energy.
The cross-border rivalry provided material not just for political experts but also for Freudian analysts. In addition to postwar spasms of violence — like several attempts by northern assassins to kill South Korea’s leaders — the one-upmanship reached the absurd. American soldiers at Panmunjom, the truce village, entertain visitors with a story of how, at the outset of armistice talks in the 1950’s, delegations from North and South brought in larger and larger national flags — each side wanted its totem to be the biggest. Eventually, the flags were too large to fit through the doors; physics rather than good sense forced them to agree to modest and identically sized flags.
My three-year sojourn in South Korea was punctuated with iterations of nationalist fervor, some of them charming. There was, in those days, a club that supported Koreans training for stunts that would get them into The Guinness Book of World Records; if memory serves, one hopeful was a man who walked up mountains on his hands. The club’s aim wasn’t just to help zealous citizens get into the holy book, but to have South Korea itself inscribed as the country with the most world records. This wasn’t entirely removed, in its linking of nationalist glory and athletic achievement, from East Germany’s effort to legitimize itself, and trump its brother state, by becoming an Olympic power, even if that required doping a generation of athletes (which it did).
Today, even though it has a highly advanced economy — more than 80 percent of South Koreans have broadband Internet access at home, the highest rate in the world — the country has a nearly provincial relationship to its local heroes, like Ban Ki-moon, the foreign minister who will be the next U.N. secretary general. The most famous South Korean of recent times was Hwang Woo Suk, a scientist who in 2004 and 2005 announced breakthroughs in cloning. At home, he was worshiped, a hybrid of Einstein and Madonna. The government awarded him the title Supreme Scientist and gave him millions of dollars. The embrace was so intense that when a television news program reported on unethical conduct in Hwang’s lab, the program’s sponsors withdrew their ads and the show was temporarily taken off the air. The reporting was accurate — Hwang faked his research. The awards were withdrawn, prosecutors charged him with embezzlement — yet even so, supporters staged rallies, and a Web site in his honor pleads, “Please come back, Dr. Hwang.”
In North Korea, nationalism has taken a different course and been put to different uses by a tyranny that exports counterfeit dollars and has been described, with amusing accuracy, as a “Soprano state,” after the Mafia family in the HBO series. But until the 1970’s, when it began to be hollowed out because of the inherent contradictions of command economics, North Korea was more industrialized and prosperous than South Korea. It has always, and proudly, had the upper hand in a key nationalistic category — foreign troops are not based on its soil. When I visited Pyongyang in 1989 (a long time ago, but North Korea’s cryonic rhetoric has changed little in half a century), officials I met were obsessed by two things: the threat posed by American troops on their doorstep and South Korea’s cowardly acceptance of these foreigners. It was not unlike, I now realize, the religious fervor with which Islamic conservatives criticized the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and the cowardly royal family that welcomed them (when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990).
The decades-long rotting of North Korea’s economy, and thus the erosion of its military power, was a key reason to develop nuclear weapons: nukes are a poor man’s defense, cheaper to build and maintain than an army, and a guarantee that you will not be invaded because the stakes are cataclysmic. North Korea’s million-man army is poorly equipped and poorly trained, and no match for the smaller but more sophisticated South Korean military, which is augmented by 28,000 G.I.‘s on the ground and additional U.S. forces that would come to South Korea’s aid if attacked. Nukes are also a great way, if you lead a small, hopelessly poor and violently repressed nation, to get the attention of the rest of the world; rather than being treated like Albania, North Korea will be treated like Albania with nukes. The government’s English-language announcement boasted that its test came “at a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation.” This nationalist, and deluded, phrase was in the first sentence.
Because nationalism is more of a collective belief than a particular policy, the positions adopted in its name can evolve, even rotate. Inter-Korean hostility subsided as a result of the “sunshine policy” initiated by former President Kim Dae-jung, who dropped the stance of utter hostility taken by the conservative generals who ruled South Korea from the 1960’s until the 1990’s. The same national pride that set North and South against each other can also create common ties. Now, instead of regarding the North as a violently psychotic regime, the southern attitude is more along the indulgent yet exasperated lines of “Oh, no, what’s our nutty brother done today?” Particularly among South Koreans with no memories of the Korean War — that’s now most of the country — yearnings for peace and good relations, as well as anti-Americanism, are stronger than the hostile anti-Communist intent of their fathers and grandfathers. And in the wake of Germany’s costly unification, policy makers in Seoul realize that the collapse of the North, which an older generation wished for, would create a high degree of political instability and an enormous financial burden that should perhaps be avoided. This helps explain why Seoul has limited its antinuclear criticism of the North, and why South Koreans aren’t rushing for bomb shelters quite yet.
One factor bringing the Koreas together is their shared enmity for Japan. North Korea’s tirades against Tokyo are nearly unprintable; the South Koreans are more polite but fervently resolute whenever their prestige is challenged by Japan. In the mid-1990’s, when FIFA, the international soccer organization, decided to hold the 2002 World Cup in Asia for the first time, the host-country finalists were South Korea and Japan. The competition was intense beyond belief; among other extravagances, Buddhist monks in Seoul prayed three times a day that their homeland would get the nod. In the end, recognizing that the humiliation of losing to an ancient rival would be too much for either side to bear, FIFA took the unusual step of splitting hosting duties between the two countries. Even then, naming the event was problematic; FIFA called it “World Cup 2002 KoreaJapan,” but when Japan printed its tickets, the geographic reference was deleted because Korea came first.
More than any other country, Japan feels threatened by North Korea’s nuclear capacities. The brutality of the Japanese occupation of parts of China and all of Korea has not been forgotten in the region nor fully apologized for. The sexual slavery of Korean women during World War II remains an issue the Japanese avoid rather than accept full responsibility for. Of course Japan is linked to China and South Korea in good ways — they are major trading partners, and Japan has been an important source of loans and investment. None want to go to war, and one triumph of the nation-state system is that it is not a suicide pact, though neither is it a foolproof way to keep the peace.
If this sounds familiar — history shaped by the rivalries, interests and missteps of nations rather than terrorists dashing from hideout to hideout — it should. It’s the way the world has been ordered and disordered since the emergence of the nation-state and even before, and it did not vanish on Sept. 11, 2001. If anything, traditional powers that kept to themselves in past years are asserting themselves in new ways. Because of an influx of funds for its oil and gas, the Russia of Vladimir Putin is far more aggressive than the shipwreck presided over by Boris Yeltsin. The fast growth of China’s economy has increased its appetites for not just greater political clout but also for resources with which to feed its bustling industries. And of course there is Iran, which has not forgotten its Persian history and would not mind recapturing, by becoming a nuclear state, the influence it once had.
In the 19th century, Britain and Russia struggled for control of Central Asia in what was called “the Great Game.” In the 21st century, the great game is far more complex, taking place across the globe between an expanding number of actors with a multiplicity of interests and a variety of weapons. Yet certain basic facts — war is an extension of politics, politics are often driven by a need for resources as well as collective feelings of pride or shame — remain much the same in the wake of Sept. 11. We are obliged to focus on Islamism and the terrorist threat it has produced, to study Arabic and the work of Sayyid Qutb, but we should not fail to consult Kennan, Clausewitz or Thucydides either.
A look at oil’s indelible impact on the countries that produce it and the people who possess it.
Dispatches from the war in Bosnia, published in 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
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