Joe Conason's Journal

Regarding Henry: Will he explain his job for Unocal when the oil giant was cozying up to the Taliban?

By Salon Staff
Published December 3, 2002 10:41PM (EST)

Oh, Henry
As a New Yorker who wants a full, fair and unsparing probe of 9/11, I'm not moving on just yet from the absurd appointment of Henry Kissinger to chair the new "independent commission." Neither is the New York Times editorial board, whose latest salvo described Kissinger's insouciance about his conflict of interests as "quaint."

Quaint must be the polite way to say stunningly arrogant. But the wily Kissinger is probably quite right to brush off the halfhearted gnawing of the press corps, whose appetite for scandal has diminished markedly since the advent of the Bush administration. They're already ignoring information about Kissinger that probably merits further exploration.

Two years ago, the appointment of an "independent" investigator with business ties to one of the president's most generous political contributors  who also happens to have made the president a multimillionaire -- would have drawn angry snarls. But the fact that Kissinger sits on the European board of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, the investment firm of Bush benefactor Thomas O. Hicks, is apparently just business as usual. Tight-lipped Henry doesn't even have to tell how much he's being paid.

Evidently Kissinger's long-standing connections with oil firms doing business in the Gulf region are of no concern, either. Two petroleum companies were mentioned in the Times the other day, but nobody dared ask the man whether he still works for them or any other oil-related businesses.

What about Unocal? In 1995, Kissinger showed up for the signing ceremony in New York that sealed Unocal's agreement to build a $2 billion, 1,000-mile pipeline from the gas fields of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. The torturous negotiations leading to that aborted deal -- including Kissinger's cameo -- are fully described in Chapter 12 of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia," by Ahmed Rashid, an authoritative journalist who now works for the Wall Street Journal. Unocal eventually withdrew from Turkmenistan, amid charges of bribery and influence-peddling. (Working for the rival bidder at the time was Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, director of the kingdom's intelligence agency.)

What makes that old story interesting again is the role of Unocal's partner, described in the Los Angeles Times in May 1998 as "a small and mysterious Saudi company called Delta Oil Co. Ltd." At the time, Unocal and Delta were cultivating the friendly leaders of the Taliban to win approval for their pipeline.

Incidentally, that L.A. Times story gave a detailed account of the pipeline fiasco and the nasty lawsuit that followed. Its author was James Risen -- now an investigative reporter at the New York Times.

In November 2001, the Washington Post examined the history of the Unocal pipeline in a story headlined "How Afghanistan Went Unlisted as Terrorist Sponsor." That story also mentioned Kissinger's role:

"Unocal appealed to the Taliban and received assurances that it would support a $4.5 billion project rivaling the trans-Alaska pipeline. The deal promised to be a boon for the Taliban, which could realize $100 million a year in transit fees.

"But Unocal also needed U.S. backing. To secure critical financing from agencies such as the World Bank, it needed the State Department to formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's government.

"Unocal hired former State Department insiders: former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, former special U.S. ambassador John J. Maresca and Robert Oakley, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

"Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former Reagan State Department adviser on Afghanistan, entered the picture as a consultant for a Boston group hired by Unocal. Khalilzad and Oakley had dual roles during this period because the State Department also sought their advice. Khalilzad is now one of President Bush's top advisers on Afghanistan."

Which makes me wonder whether Kissinger should be asking questions -- or answering them.
[2:30 p.m. PDT, Dec. 3, 2002]

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