Book Review - The Halliburton Agenda, by Dan Briody


Another sub-title for this book could well be 'a study in state monopoly capitalism.' The previous book of the author focused on the Carlyle Group, the spectacularly well-heeled firm that includes former President George H.W. Bush, his crony James Baker and a veritable rogues’ gallery of washed-up politicians and businessmen of questionable integrity who blatantly trade upon their inside knowledge of government for private gain in yet another textbook example of state monopoly capitalism.

Yet, their money-grubbing pales in comparison – and chutzpah – to Halliburton, a firm formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, a firm that is frequently in the headlines in light of the lucrative contracts they have been awarded by Cheney’s government in the theater of war that is Iraq.

The story begins in Texas where a predecessor firm of Halliburton, Brown & Root, was catapulted into prominence – and obscene profitability - because of a tight relationship with former Senator, then Vice President and President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Large scale construction and oil services were the two pillars on which this giant company was built. Routinely the government handed out handsome 'cost plus' contracts, e.g. building the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, to this corporation. 'Cost plus' means that the contractor could recoup all expenses plus a guaranteed profit based on a pre-negotiated percentage. This eliminates risk for the contractor and erodes the necessity to eliminate wasteful billing which, says the author, is 'great for the contractor, not so great for the taxpayer.' 'Basically, it’s a blank check from the government….when your profit is a percentage of the cost, the more you spend, the more you make.'

Brown & Root reaped a bonanza of wasteful contracts during the war in Vietnam, which – coincidentally – Johnson prosecuted as vigorously as Cheney has done in Iraq. By 1967 this firm was the largest employer in South Vietnam. Yet even then there was an obvious downside to relying so heavily upon the private sector to perform the clear government function of waging war: motivated by the lust for profit their employees were 'manipulating currency and selling goods on the black market,' among other transgressions.

Johnson was so helpful to this company that the author argues that actually he was 'working for Brown & Root, not the people of his district or the state.' Something similar used to be said about another leading Democratic Party politician, the late Henry 'Scoop' Jackson of Washington, who was referred to as the 'Senator from Boeing.' Obviously today we are in dire need of deeper examinations of the ramified ties between various sectors of state monopoly capitalism and leading political figures and parties, along the lines of the work at hand.

Brown & Root was also viciously anti-union. At one time, for example, progressive formations e.g. the National Maritime Union, played a pivotal role in Texas politics but after Brown & Root and their confederates pushed through anti-union legislation in the 1940s, the political complexion of what is now the second largest state began to change to the point where it has now become a reliable Republican redoubt and, not coincidentally, the home of both the current President and Vice-President.

But as profitable as it had been, when Dick Cheney left the Pentagon in the 1990s to become head of Halliburton, this company was catapulted to a new level of profitability. A staunch conservative, while a member of Congress Cheney avidly opposed imposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa while pushing aggressively for sanctions against socialist Cuba. Before leaving the Pentagon, which he headed during the administration of George H.W. Bush, he accelerated the privatization of core military functions in a way that – coincidentally – aided the company he was about to lead. 'They made $109.7 million in Somalia…$6.3 million from Operation Support Hope in Rwanda…..Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti netted the company $150.' Halliburton was 'becoming another unit in the US Army' and reaping millions from war and misery, providing a perverse incentive for an increase in such pestilences. 'From 1995 to 2000, Brown & Root' – now part of Halliburton—'billed the government for more than $2 billion in services. The company did everything from build the [military] camps to deliver the mail, with 24-hour food service and laundering. It provided firefighting services, fuel delivery, sewage construction, hazardous material disposal, and the maintenance and delivery of equipment.' War in the Balkans was the 'driving force' for Halliburton’s increased profitability and heightened profile. 'Halliburton’s government business doubled while Cheney was CEO.'

Yet Cheney also left this firm with a basket of problems after he was elected Vice-President and this may have given him incentive to steer contracts in Halliburton’s direction in order to lessen the pain inflicted on his firm. He pushed through a merger with Dresser Industries, a profoundly disastrous maneuver, given the backbreaking liability for asbestos related lawsuits that this company carried. Coincidentally – that word again – Dresser was 'the company that gave George H.W. Bush his first job.' After Cheney left Halliburton a 'grand jury investigation into over-billing and a Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] investigation into Halliburton’s accounting practices while Cheney was CEO' ensued. That is not all. The company was accused of bribing a 'Nigerian tax authority in exchange for contracts to build a liquefied natural gas plant.' A French magistrate 'was looking into the possibility of bringing charges against Dick Cheney for complicity in the bribery case and allegations that $243 million in secret commissions were paid from the late 1990s to 2002….the United States Justice Department and the SEC are looking into accusations that Halliburton made $180 million in illegal payments to win other contracts in Nigeria.'

This points up another festering problem with Halliburton. The French investigation of Cheney’s alleged malfeasance has complicated Washington’s already deteriorating relations with Paris, while Halliburton’s chicanery has contributed mightily to a culture of corruption in West Africa.

After Cheney left, Halliburton stock plummeted precipitously and given the millions of stock options that he still holds, this jeopardized his own personal fortune, not to mention the fortunes of his fellow executives with whom he had become quite close.

Though the author does not stress this, his study reveals a critical fault line within state monopoly capitalism. For when Halliburton began to feed ravenously at the government trough, other firms in the same business became angrily resentful, which helped to fuel congressional investigations and adverse publicity. For example, during the Reagan years, Bechtel was the government contractor of choice, as suggested by the prominent role in his administration played by two of their former executives – former Secretary of State George Schulz and former Pentagon chief, Caspar Weinberger. 'The rapid rise' of Brown & Root, for example, 'brought on a fit of jealousy' from their 'biggest rival, Bechtel of San Francisco.'

In any event, the author merits our thanks for producing an informative and enlightening book.

The Halliburton Agenda: The Politics of Oil and Money By Dan Briody New York, John Wiley, 2004.

» Find more of the online edition.