Three Little Words: WikiLeaks, Libya, Oil

‘Libya has some of the biggest and most proven oil reserves — 43.6 billion barrels — outside Saudi Arabia, and some of the best drilling prospects.’

So reported the Washington Post on June 11, in a rare mainstream article which, as we will see, revealed how WikiLeaks exposed the real motives behind the war on Libya.

So what happens when you search UK newspaper archives for the words ‘WikiLeaks’, ‘Libya’ and ‘oil’? We decided to take a look.

From the time prior to the start of Libya’s civil war on February 17, and of Nato’s war on Libya on March 19, we found a couple of comments of this kind in the Sunday Times: ‘Gadaffi’s children plunder the country’s oil revenues, run a kleptocracy and operate a reign of terror that has created simmering hatred and resentment among the people, according to the cables released by WikiLeaks.’ ((Michael Sheridan, ‘Libya froths at plundering by junior Gadaffis,’ February 6, 2011, Sunday Times.))

The Telegraph described political wrangling over the alleged Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi:

The documents, obtained by the WikiLeaks website and passed to this newspaper, provide the first comprehensive picture of the often desperate steps taken by Western governments to court the Libyan regime in the competition for valuable trade and oil contracts. ((Christopher Hope and Robert Winnett, ‘Ministers gave Libya legal advice on how to free Lockerbie bomber,’ The Daily Telegraph, February 1, 2011.))

From the time since Nato launched its war, we found this warning from Jackie Ashley in the Guardian:

…cast aside international law, and there is nothing but might is right, arms, oil and profits.

Well, you might say, but isn’t that where we are already? Not quite. Many of us may feel great cynicism about some of the west’s war-making and the strange coincidence of military intervention and oil and gas reserves. I do. ((Ashley, ‘Few would weep for Gaddafi, but targeting him is wrong: In war, international law is all we have. If we cast it aside there’ll be nothing left but might is right, arms, oil and profits,’ The Guardian, May 2, 2011.))

This hinted in the right direction, but no facts were cited in support of the argument, certainly none from the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables.

The Guardian‘s Alexander Chancellor managed to discover a leaked cable revealing that Libya ‘sometimes demands billion-dollar “signing bonuses” for contracts with western oil companies’. ((Chancellor, ‘The bonanza of kickbacks and corrupt deals between Libya and the west have helped Gaddafi cling on to power,’ The Guardian, March 25, 2011.))

Other cables offer more significant insights, but Chancellor made no mention of them.

George Monbiot’s March 15 Guardian article contained all three search terms – his sole mention of Libya in the past 12 months – but he was writing about Saudi Arabia: ‘We won’t trouble Saudi’s tyrants with calls to reform while we crave their oil.’ The article had nothing to say about the looming assault on Libya, just four days away. Monbiot has had nothing to say since.

Johann Hari wrote about the Libyan war in his sole article on the subject in the Independent on April 8, commenting:

Bill Richardson, the former US energy secretary who served as US ambassador to the UN, is probably right when he says: “There’s another interest, and that’s energy… Libya is among the 10 top oil producers in the world. You can almost say that the gas prices in the US going up have probably happened because of a stoppage of Libyan oil production… So this is not an insignificant country, and I think our involvement is justified”.

This was a rare affirmation of the role of oil as a motive, albeit one that emphasised the specious claim that the US concern is simply to keep the oil flowing (Hari did mention, vaguely, that results were intended to be ‘in our favour’). And again, Hari appeared to be innocent of any relevant information released by WikiLeaks. A lack of awareness which perhaps explains why he had ‘wrestled with’ the alleged moral case for intervention before rejecting it.

Soured Relations: Gaddafi And Big Oil

Remarkably, then, we found nothing in any article in any national UK newspaper reporting the freely-available facts revealed by WikiLeaks on Western oil interests in Libya. And nothing linking these facts to the current war.

By contrast, in his June 11 article for the Washington Post, Steven Mufson focused intensely on WikiLeaks exposés in regard to Libyan oil. In November 2007, a leaked State Department cable reported ‘growing evidence of Libyan resource nationalism’. In his 2006 speech marking the founding of his regime, Gaddafi had said: ‘Oil companies are controlled by foreigners who have made millions from them. Now, Libyans must take their place to profit from this money.’

Gaddafi’s son made similar comments in 2007. As (honest) students of history will know, these are exactly the kind of words that make US generals sit up and listen. The stakes for the West were, and are, high: companies such as ConocoPhillips and Marathon have each invested about $700 million over the past six years.

Even more seriously, in late February 2008, a US State Department cable described how Gaddafi had ‘threatened to dramatically reduce Libya’s oil production and/or expel… U.S. oil and gas companies’. The Post explained how, in early 2008, US Senator Frank R. Lautenberg had enraged the Libyan leader by adding an amendment to a bill that made it easier for families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing to ‘go after Libya’s commercial assets’.

The Libyan equivalent of the deputy foreign minister told US officials that the Lautenberg amendment was ‘destroying everything the two sides have built since 2003,’ according to a State Department cable. In 2008, Libyan oil minister Shokri Ghanem warned an Exxon Mobil executive that Libya might ‘significantly curtail’ its oil production to ‘penalize the US,’ according to another cable.

The Post concluded: ‘even before armed conflict drove the U.S. companies out of Libya this year, their relations with Gaddafi had soured. The Libyan leader demanded tough contract terms. He sought big bonus payments up front. Moreover, upset that he was not getting more U.S. government respect and recognition for his earlier concessions, he pressured the oil companies to influence U.S. policies’.

Similarly, compare the chasm in rational analysis separating the mainstream UK media and the dissident Real News Network, hosted by Paul Jay. Last month, Jay interviewed Kevin G. Hall, the national economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Jay concluded with a summary of their conversation discussing oil shenanigans in Libya:

So you’ve got the Italian oil companies already at odds with the US over Iran. The Italian oil company is going to, through its deals with Gazprom, allow the Russians to take a big stake in Libyan oil. And then you have the French. As we head towards the Libyan war, the French Total have a small piece of the Libyan oil game, but I suppose they would like a bigger piece of it. And then you wind up having a French-American push to overthrow Gaddafi and essentially shove Gazprom out. I mean, I guess we’re not saying one and one necessarily equals two, but it sure – it makes one think about it.

Hall responded:

Yeah, it’s not necessarily causation, but there’s – you might suggest there’s correlation. And clearly this shows the degree to which oil is kind of the back story to so much that happens. As a matter of fact, we went through 251,000 [leaked] documents – or we have 250,000 documents that we’ve been pouring through. Of those, a full 10 percent of them, a full 10 percent of those documents, reference in some way, shape, or form oil. And I think that tells you how much part of, you know, the global security question, stability, prosperity – you know, take your choice, oil is fundamental.’ (Our emphasis)

Jay replied with a wry smile:

‘And we’ll do more of this. But those who had said it’s not all about oil, they ain’t reading WikiLeaks.’

Hall replied: ‘It is all about oil.’

In March, we drew attention to a cable released by WikiLeaks sent from the US embassy in Tripoli in November 2007. The cable communicated US concerns about the direction being taken by Libya’s leadership:

Libya needs to exploit its hydrocarbon resources to provide for its rapidly-growing, relatively young population. To do so, it requires extensive foreign investment and participation by credible IOCs [international oil companies]. Reformist elements in the Libyan government and the small but growing private sector recognize this reality. But those who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya’s extensive oil and gas reserves. Effective U.S. engagement on this issue should take the form of demonstrating the clear downsides to the GOL [government of Libya] of pursuing this approach, particularly with respect to attracting participation by credible international oil companies in the oil/gas sector and foreign direct investment. (our emphasis)

The US government has certainly been ‘demonstrating the clear downsides’ since March 19.

US analyst Glenn Greenwald, asks:

Is there anyone – anywhere – who actually believes that these aren’t the driving considerations in why we’re waging this war in Libya? After almost three months of fighting and bombing – when we’re so far from the original justifications and commitments that they’re barely a distant memory – is there anyone who still believes that humanitarian concerns are what brought us and other Western powers to the war in Libya? Is there anything more obvious – as the world’s oil supplies rapidly diminish – than the fact that our prime objective is to remove Gaddafi and install a regime that is a far more reliable servant to Western oil interests, and that protecting civilians was the justifying pretext for this war, not the purpose?

‘The Urge To Help’

It does seem extraordinary that anyone could doubt that this is the case. But the fact is that the WikiLeaks cables cited above, the Washington Post’s facts, and Greenwald’s conclusions, have been almost completely blanked by the UK media system. Notice that they have been readily accessible to us, a tiny website supported by public donations.

As though reporting from a different planet, the BBC reported last week: ‘Nato is enforcing a UN resolution to protect civilians in Libya.’

Is this Absolute Truth? Holy writ? In fact, no. But it does reflect the mainstream political consensus and so the BBC feels content to offer it – by way of a service to democracy – as the only view in town. And yet, we need only reflect on three obvious facts: while UN Resolution 1973 did authorise a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians, Nato is now openly seeking regime change and rejecting all peace overtures out of hand. The UN did not authorise regime change.

An Observer leader entitled, ‘The west can’t let Gaddafi destroy his people,’ told the same tale in March:

‘the only response that matters now is a common position which brooks no more argument… to pledge, with the honest passion we affect to feel that, whether repulsed in time or not, this particular tyranny will not be allowed to stand’. ((Leading article, ‘Libya: The west can’t let Gaddafi destroy his people,’ The Observer, March 13, 2011.))

Like a cut and paste from Orwell, the paper insisted:

This is a regional uprising of young people seeking freedom, remember? Do you recall all the power of the tweet, as lauded only a fortnight ago?

The millions who began this revolution won’t be much impressed by a democracy defined only by inertia. They won’t thank the west – or China, India, Russia, the African Union – for letting this Arab spring die in a field of flowery promises.

The Guardian also focused on the ‘ethical’ motivation. In a February 24 leading article entitled, ‘Libya: The urge to help,’ the editors simultaneously mocked and reversed the truth:

‘It is hard to escape the conclusion that European leaders are advocating these moves in part because they want to be seen by their electorates at home to be doing something, and in part because they want to be seen by people in the Middle East as being on the right side in the Arab democratic revolution. They may hope that a dramatic line on Libya will go some way toward effacing the memory of the dithering and equivocation with which they greeted its earlier manifestations in Tunisia and Egypt, France being particularly guilty in this regard.’

Compared to the analysis discussed above this reads like a bed-time story for children. The deceptive words ‘dithering and equivocation’ refer to the West’s iron-willed resolve to protect tyrannical clients and to thwart democratic revolution in the region while appearing (the key word) to be ‘on the right side’.

The conclusion: ‘a no-fly zone should become an option. Lord Owen was therefore right to say that military preparations should be made and the necessary diplomatic approaches, above all to the Russians and the Chinese, set in train to secure UN authority for such action’.

The Guardian‘s argument was shorn of the political, economic and historical facts that make a nonsense of the idea that Western military action ‘should become an option’. There may indeed have been a moral case for action by someone. But not by Western states with a bitter history of subjugating and killing people in Libya, and elsewhere in the region, for the sake of oil. But then it is a trademark of Guardian liberalism that Britain and its allies are forever Teflon-coated, forever untainted by the evident brutality of ‘our’ actions. This is the perennial, vital service the paper performs for the establishment.

We are asked to believe that the facts sampled in this alert are somehow unknown to the hard-headed corporate executives who write of ‘The urge to help’ and the ‘common position which brooks no more argument’. And yet, the Guardian was one of WikiLeaks’ major ‘media partners’ at the time the cables were published – it is well aware that ‘a full 10 percent of those documents, reference in some way, shape, or form oil’. Like the rest of the corporate media, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper knows but is not telling.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.