Slick oil

Coming to a screen near you, the shocking, true tale of how innocent American drivers got greased!

Published May 2, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"Black Gold," a new conspiracy movie by Oliver Stone, pits the malevolent forces of Big Oil against the oppressed American drivers -- especially of "utility sports vehicles," those beloved '90s status symbols owned mostly by young professionals, who use them to trek boldly through the corporate canyons of urban America, cell phones to ear.

The movie exposes a truly ingenious plot in which Shell, Chevron, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon and the rest of the oil cartel secretly bring about one of the worst winters on record in the eastern United States and Europe -- thereby driving up the demand for heating and other fuel. At the same time, the petroleum barons covertly persuade dictator Saddam Hussein to scotch a United Nations-brokered deal to bring billions of barrels of Iraqi oil back on the world market -- which of course would have driven prices down and replenished declining inventories.

Having already subliminally persuaded American consumers to buy ever more gas-guzzling autos, the conspirators -- just for insurance -- stage massive fires at two giant West Coast oil refineries, further adding to the tightening of supplies. The temporary dislocation caused by California's transition to cleaner-burning gasoline turns out to be just another of the clever manipulations staged by the treacherous tycoons.

But before Big Oil gets to rub its hands too gleefully over its ill-gotten treasure, political antagonists Bill Clinton and Bob Dole put aside their differences in order to jointly combat this gigantic rip-off.

President Clinton bravely appoints a Justice Department task force to investigate "collusion" among the oil companies. The movie politely omits the fact that his own energy experts have told him the price rises were the result of genuine market forces, are temporary and do not endanger the economy. But hey, this is Hollywood!

Bob Dole and the Republicans, meanwhile, get to play it both ways. Conveniently forgetting that they are meant to be the champions of both an unfettered free market and lower deficits, they clamor for the elimination of the 4.3 cent gas tax in order to artificially lower prices, a move that would add $30 billion to the budget deficit. In an amusing cameo appearance, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas suggests making up the shortfall by further slashing the benefits of welfare recipients -- most of whom don't have cars to begin with!

Without giving away the movie's ending, suffice it to say that the American consumers triumph, blithely filling their Pathfinders with the cheapest gas in the world -- cheaper in real terms than it was in 1940. Van pools, diamond lanes and gas-efficient autos are forgotten, while oil imports from the Middle East skyrocket.

Could be plenty of material here for a sequel: "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

Never say never again

New evidence suggests early U.S. knowledge of Serb atrocities


The phrase "never again" has at least two meanings. To Jews, it means never again will they go quietly into the cattle cars, disbelieving to the last the fate about to befall them. To the victorious democracies, it was supposed to mean that never again would the West stand idly by while a whole nation or race was being systematically exterminated on its continent -- as the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department did despite the evidence as early as 1942 that the Nazis were committing genocide against Europe's Jews, and as allied aircraft did when they flew over the rail lines leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau without firing a single round.

Elie Wiesel used the phrase "never again" in public with President Clinton, and his moral hectoring had something to do with prompting the U.S. to take a more interventionist stance after the Bosnian bodies began to pile up in Srebenica and other so-called "safe areas" in 1995. More important, as journalists Charles Lane and Thom Shanker point out in the May 9 issue of The New York Review of Books, it was U.S. satellite photos showing freshly turned mass graves in a Srebenica field that finally forced the U.S. and Europe into deciding that they could stomach Serbian atrocities no longer. What might have happened, how many lives might have been saved, would the West have intervened more forcefully, had evidence of the Serb's genocidal intentions been made available by US intelligence much earlier?

Lane, an editor with The New Republic, and Shanker, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, show, in sickening detail, what the CIA and other U.S. intelligence gathering agencies did know.

  • They knew in 1992 that the Serbs were carrying out mass murder of civilians in Brcko. "A U.S. intelligence satellite orbiting over the former Yugoslavia photographed part of the slaughter," Lane and Shanker write. War crimes investigators were shown the photographs a year later, but were forbidden to make them public, or even to copy them. "Endangers intelligence sources and methods," they were told.

  • By December 1992, in the wake of exposés of Serb-run concentration camps by the BBC, Newsday and others, the CIA "had a very comprehensive list of camps, with descriptions, places, information on inmates, conditions, maps," a State Department official told Lane and Shanker. Most of it was kept secret from the International Committee of the Red Cross for three months after it was gathered.

  • Beginning in 1993, the CIA conducted a full-scale investigation of ethnic cleansing, drawing on aerial photographs as well as refugee accounts. The report, completed in 1994, "placed the blame for 90 percent" of the atrocities squarely on Serb forces, and strongly suggested that the campaign had been planned by top Serb leaders in both Bosnia and Serbia proper." The report was not made public until August 1995 in the wake of the fall of Srebenica, and then only in a much-abridged form.

  • The head of the United Nations Commission of Experts on War Crimes was persistently denied access to satellite and U-2 images, communications intercepts and intelligence on Serbian paramilitary groups. Even after the official United Nations War Crimes Tribunal began its work in November 1993, U.S. intelligence agencies were barely more forthcoming with information. It took the Tribunal's chief prosecutor, Sir Richard Goldstone, "months" in 1994 to reach an agreement on declassification methods with U.S. agencies -- and much of what was left after the agencies' blue pencils was virtually useless.

  • Did U.S. intelligence know beforehand about the Serbs' intended massacre in Srebenica? A Berlin newspaper and then Newsday claimed that the NSA had intercepted such communications. The Dutch, whose soldiers stationed in the "safe area" were pilloried for failing to protect the inhabitants, believed the U.S. knew more than it was letting on. The number of qualifications used in official denials about the allegations of U.S. foreknowledge was described by one former senior intelligence official as "shaving the baloney pretty thin." It is also possible, given the CIA's propensity for ignoring what is right in front of its face, that the raw intelligence about the Serbs' intentions was simply dismissed. It is equally possible that the U.S. is still not coming clean with just how much it knows of the Srebenica massacre. As Lane and Shanker ask, "Are there 'live' video pictures of the slaughter, taken by Predator drones (unmanned U.S. spy crafts that continually fly over the former Yugoslavia)?"

The Europeans have their own intelligence agencies, of course, and their performance -- and that of their governments -- is no better. The Clinton administration did at least move, however belatedly. Yet it is still a sorry story, one that leaves a permanent stain on the United States in general, and the Bush and Clinton administrations in particular. As Lane and Shanker point out, they rarely "made the documentation of ethnic cleansing a high priority 'task' for the US intelligence agencies. Still less did they demand that the agencies tell the world all they knew."

Not much comfort for those left wandering, nor for those lying under the killing fields of Bosnia -- or to the rest of us who believed urgently that such disgraceful history would not be repeated.

Quotes of the day
The sound of money

"We thought this is a new way that our financial institutions can get more bang for their buck...and for us to make a few bucks, and for Muzak to make a few bucks."

-- James Martin, president of Tyme, a network of automated teller machines, announcing a plan to have the background-music supplier transmit audio ads to ATM users.

"I'm not sure I want to be sung to at the ATM machine."

-- Patti Stanley, spokeswoman for Marshall & Isley, a member of the Tyme network, based in Milwaukee.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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