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The Cheney myth (continued)

FOLLOWING THE recent vice-presidential debate, FactCheck.org tut-tutted John Edwards for charging that Halliburton, while Cheney was CEO, "did business with Libya and Iran, two sworn enemies of the United States." According to FactCheck, Edwards was right about Iran but wrong about Libya. "In 1995, before Cheney joined the company," said the FactCheckers, "Halliburton pled guilty to criminal charges that it violated the U.S. ban on exports to Libya and said it would pay $3.81 million in fines. Those violations dated back to 1987 and 1990."

But FactCheck didn’t dig deep enough. Not that it should have been all that difficult: evidence to the contrary is clearly laid out in Dan Briody’s book. Libya had been under sanctions since 1986 after its dictator, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, was implicated in several terrorist attacks, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That didn’t stop Brown & Root from working for Libya on a $25 billion job called the Great Man-Made River Project, work that continued at least until 1997, two years into the Cheney regime at Halliburton. Not even fears expressed by engineers that the project was intended as a military installation, possibly for the storage of poison gas, was enough to stop work on it.

Cheney, for his part, has long opposed sanctions as ineffective and impediments to business. While at Halliburton he criticized sanctions against Iran, Libya, and Iraq, just as he had voted not to impose sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government when he was an ultra-right-wing Republican congressman from Wyoming in the 1970s and ’80s. Yet Cheney has always claimed to make a personal exception for Iraq. During the 2000 campaign he said, "Iraq’s different," and that he had a "firm policy" against Halliburton’s doing business with that country. In fact, though, Halliburton traded extensively with Iraq during Cheney’s years as CEO — a bizarre situation given that he sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime when he was secretary of defense, and, according to former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill and others, went right back to seeking Saddam’s demise almost from the moment he was sworn in as vice-president.

In June 2001, the Washington Post published a front-page story beneath the provocative headline FIRM’S IRAQ DEALS GREATER THAN CHENEY HAS SAID. The article reported that oil-industry officials and "confidential United Nations records" indicated that "Halliburton held stakes in two firms that signed contracts to sell more than $73 million in oil production equipment and spare parts to Iraq while Cheney was chairman and chief executive officer." Cheney declined to respond to an inquiry from the Post. But an official at one of the Halliburton subsidiaries involved in the Iraq work told the Post that the attitude within Halliburton was that the company would do business with Iraq as long as it was allowed by the US government — which it was, through the United Nations oil-for-food program. The official added that, based on his understanding of how Halliburton operated, he assumed that Cheney must have been aware of what was going on.

If the dealings with Iraq were the most offensive thing Cheney presided over at Halliburton, the weirdest is a still-unfolding investigation involving charges of massive bribery in Nigeria. Since last year, officials in France, Nigeria, and the United States have been investigating allegations that an international consortium of companies in four countries — including Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary — paid $180 million in bribes to the government of the late Sani Abacha, a brutal military dictator, to win the right to build a liquefied-natural-gas facility valued at $4 billion to $6 billion. The French judge investigating the alleged scandal, Renaud van Ruymbeke, has even suggested that he may summon Cheney to France to be questioned about what, if anything, he knew about the payments — and possibly to face legal charges (see "Dick Cheney’s Nigerian Nightmare," News and Features, February 27).

There is no evidence at the moment that Cheney had any personal knowledge of the bribes, if that’s what they were. In fact, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal on September 29, the bribes may have begun as early as 1994. That’s not only a year before Cheney became CEO, but it’s also four years before Halliburton acquired the company that was allegedly paying those bribes — M.W. Kellogg — and made it the "K" in KBR. But neither is there any evidence that Cheney’s curiosity was aroused by the odd dealings taking place within his company. Last June, the Journal reported, Halliburton fired a company official named Albert "Jack" Stanley, who had supposedly taken $5 million in "improper" payments from Jeffrey Tesler, a British lawyer who received $132 million from the four-company consortium and who is suspected of having acted as the middleman in the bribery scheme. Cheney, it turns out, had named Stanley to a top position at Halliburton in 1998. The Journal also reported that payments to Tesler continued throughout Cheney’s tenure at Halliburton, coming to a halt only in early 2004.

BUT IF CHENEY presided over a culture of greed and corruption at Halliburton, well, what of it? If he left the company in better shape than he found it, that’s what he was hired for, right? Isn’t that what an evil genius is supposed to do?

Perhaps — but that’s not how it went for Halliburton. Certainly Halliburton was very, very good for Dick Cheney — $44 million worth, with more to come, his lie to Tim Russert notwithstanding. But the question of whether Dick Cheney was good for Halliburton has a decidedly different answer.

By far the most dramatic example of his ineptness lies in the fallout from Cheney’s 1998 quail-hunting trip with William Bradford, the CEO of Dresser Industries. Bradford was looking for someone to buy his company; Cheney was interested. When Halliburton moved ahead and acquired Dresser, it doubled the size of the company, a coup for Cheney. But he had overlooked one little detail: it seemed that Dresser brought with it liability in more than 60,000 asbestos-exposure cases, something that Halliburton did not inform its shareholders about until months after the merger had been completed. Then again, it seems likely that the evil genius hadn’t known about the asbestos cases. As John Nichols writes in Dick, "The official spin has it that Cheney is a meticulous detail man who reads through mounds of briefing papers and never stops asking questions. In fact, he is famously lax when it comes to research and has a history of deciding what he wants to do and then forcing the facts to conform to his whims about everything from politics to business to imaginary connections between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The acquisition of Dresser Industries was a classic example of Cheney’s ‘decide first, analyze later’ approach."

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Issue Date: October 22 - 28, 2004
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