Trading with the Enemy

Houston oil companies maintain their profitable ties to Libya, in roundabout ways

And don't bother asking how much these contracts are worth, either.
The question draws a quick "we aren't saying" from Brown & Root's Ken Beedle in London. Brown & Root's parent company, Halliburton, is now run by Dick Cheney, who, after a career in the House, took over as George Bush's hawkish Secretary of Defense in 1989, three years after the Reagan administration got the ball rolling on the Libyan trade embargo.

Under Reagan, U.S. Navy and Air Force jets coordinated an air strike on the Libyan capital of Tripoli in a savage effort to kill the Libyan leader. Qaddafi's adopted daughter and more than a dozen others were killed in the air strike. The assault came just months after a terrorist bombing of a popular West German nightclub, which killed three people and left more than 200 others injured. That attack, said the Reagan administration, was inspired, supplied and supported by Qaddafi's government.

Cheney warned in one 1990 speech that the Soviet Union still maintained sophisticated weapons in the North African country.

These days, Cheney, now based in Halliburton's Dallas headquarters, has interests other than pounding Republican war drums, especially now that he's in charge of Halliburton's bottom line. Last fall, Cheney was in Houston on a new mission. In front of a dinner hosted by the Oil Industry International Exploration and Production Forum, Cheney lambasted U.S. trade sanctions. Without mentioning Libya specifically, Cheney criticized government embargoes, saying they created "friction" with America's allies. Cheney said there was a "failure at the federal level to recognize the strategic asset of the oil and gas business."

Not all of Halliburton's many subsidiaries immediately stopped doing business with Libya after sanctions were imposed. Two years ago, the company shelled out a record $3.8 million in fines after it admitted that Halliburton Geophysical Services in Houston -- which was later sold -- illegally shipped materials to Libya through two of Halliburton's subsidiaries in Italy and Germany, not just once, but on 68 separate occasions. One of those 68 shipments, made back in the late '80s, included a neutron pulse generator. Used in the oil business to detect cracks in pipes far beneath the earth's surface, neutron pulse generators can also be rigged, according to officials in the Commerce Department handling the case, to trigger nuclear weapons.

The case, and the government investigation around it, set off shock waves in Halliburton's Houston office. "All the officers of the company were told never to even say 'Libya,' " says one former executive. From then on, the "L" word, he says, was blacklisted from any corporate communication as paranoia over the federal investigation -- and rumors that government investigators were monitoring conversations -- ran rampant. Even today, the "L" word isn't a favorite subject of conversation. When a journalist mentions the "L" word in Houston, he gets pointed to Brown & Root Ltd. In London.

Not that prosecutors are any more forthcoming with the "L" word. While the U.S. Attorney's office hasn't been shy about calling press conferences and touting arrests and indictments in other cases, the feds these days have been curiously reticent about discussing the Libyan cases. Asked for an update on publicly filed cases, Assistant U.S. Attorney Berry just says, "Unfortunately, I can't." And Judy Turner, spokesperson for U.S. Customs, reserves a monosyllabic stance to not answering questions about the probe, though she confirms that it is continuing.

Free from American supervision, pending any action on Customs' supervision, the multinationals face little, if any, discouragement from their host countries. Congress's effort to toughen the sanctions on Libya over the past two years, advertised to the public as an attempt to pull back European companies, has had no apparent impact of any kind on the other side of the Atlantic. European countries have not only failed to adopt America's containment strategy, several have been anxiously competing to get any business they can.

Even long-standing Washington resolve has recently begun to show cracks in its rigid facade. Over a week ago, the Clinton administration stirred a hornet's nest of controversy when it said it wouldn't use the U.S. laws to sanction three companies -- France's Total, Russia's Gazprom and Malaysia's Petronas -- for their role in a $2 billion Iranian gas deal.

Eighteen senators banded together to call on the president to avoid any similar weakness when it comes to Libya. Said the senators: "We believe the State Department needs to make an unequivocal statement to ensure that its decision regarding Iran will not be perceived as a green light for companies to invest in the Libyan sector."

But most European companies not only see a green light, they're already trafficking on a glutted pipeline of trade with Libya. "We haven't demonized them [the Libyans] in quite the same way America has," says Paul Beaver, an analyst with the respected Jane's Defense Weekly in London. While the British bow occasionally to U.S. pressure on Libya, says Beaver, British companies enjoy close relations with the Libyans, while the French and Germans have been aggressively pursuing every possible trade opportunity.

Bottom line: America's commercial fight against Qaddafi will be waged on one front, and only on American soil. U.S. officials say the Europeans have been reluctant to prosecute any cases. But in spite of the active assistance of multinationals and European suppliers, the insatiable appetite for huge quantities of construction and drilling equipment has Libyan agents beating the doors of local companies.

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