Book: Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

Previous: Twelve. “How High Can We Fly?”
Next: Fourteen. “Informed Influentials”



“Assisted Regime Change”


Theresa Whelan joined the Defense Intelligence Agency out of college in 1987. She served as a junior analyst of Africa as the cold war ended. During the George H. W. Bush administration, Whelan came to the attention of what was known to insiders as O.S.D.-Policy, a mixed civilian and uniformed staff that reported to the under secretary of defense for policy, and through that officeholder, to the secretary of defense. Whelan moved to O.S.D.-Policy’s Africa desk and served there through the tumult of the early 1990s—the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda. Later she worked on Balkans issues during the Kosovo conflict. When she returned as office director of the Pentagon’s Africa policy unit in 2001, she was a seasoned manager of the Defense Department’s overseas programs to train foreign militaries, to support international peacekeepers, to patrol ocean waters, and to covertly attack terrorists. A year after the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush promoted her again, naming her as the deputy assistant secretary of defense (or “Das-D,” in Washington’s vernacular) in charge of the Pentagon’s Africa policy.

On November 19, 2003, a warm and rainy day in the capital, Whelan rode after work across the Potomac to a hotel conference room to deliver a speech. The occasion was the annual meeting of the International Peace Operations Association, a trade association of private security companies that had determined that “peace operations” was a better branding strategy than “corporate mercenaries.” Many of the executives in the audience had an interest in whether Pentagon policy might encourage more contracts for private security firms, particularly in regions like Africa, given that America’s uniformed military was increasingly overtaxed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whelan spoke about the limitations of relying on contractors for military missions, but also about some of the advantages that private security firms offered in training armies in poor countries, such as the fact that corporate trainers could stay in the targeted nation for years at a time, building local expertise and long-lasting relationships.

She answered some questions after her formal remarks, received a round of applause, and then, “as often happens at those kinds of things,” she recalled, about fifty people gathered around her “shoving business cards in my face, chitchatting.” One man with a distinctly British accent caught her attention. He introduced himself as Greg Wales. He said he was an independent “security consultant” who worked with oil companies in West Africa, around the Gulf of Guinea. They talked about the region; Wales seemed knowledgeable.

“I’m going to be in town,” Wales said. “Would you be interested in sitting down and talking more?”

“Sure,” Whelan said. “Fine.” She met regularly with security firms that worked with American oil companies in Africa, or their consultants. It helped her keep up with details about politics and violence in countries where American intelligence and diplomatic reporting could be very limited.

Not too long afterward, Wales made an appointment to visit Whelan in her Pentagon office. She did not research his background. If she had, it might not have helped much; Wales was an elusive figure. He was an accountant by profession who had collaborated during the 1990s with private security and mercenary corporations active in diamond-rich regions of Africa.

During that autumn of 2003, Wales was involved, as it happened, in a conspiracy organized by British and South African military veterans to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. ExxonMobil Corporation was the largest oil company invested there. The conspirators intended to replace the current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, with whose government ExxonMobil had signed its contracts, with an exiled opposition leader, Severo Moto, who lived in Spain, the former colonial power in the country. Moto had gone so far as to sign his own contract with the mercenaries, guaranteeing cash payments and future security contracts to be paid for by the country’s oil wealth, if the coup plan succeeded.

Greg Wales had spent much of 2003 planning for the operation. He had written a number of strategy documents. One of them, entitled “Assisted Regime Change,” had emphasized that it would be important to persuade all of the American oil companies active in Equatorial Guinea that their investments and profits would be protected after a change of government. “Foreign investors are to be reassured,” Wales wrote.

Wales was in charge of the coup’s political strategy, particularly in the United States. He traveled to Washington and telephoned the D.C. offices of major oil companies doing business in Equatorial Guinea—as well as other companies that might be interested in moving in. He was vague, but he suggested that political changes might soon be in the offing in Equatorial Guinea.

He arrived alone for his meeting at the Pentagon. Whelan invited a Defense Department aide to sit in. As Whelan recalled it, the discussion touched generally on the rising importance of oil production in West Africa and the security challenges that seemed to come alongside. They talked about Angola, a major oil producer recovering from a long civil war, as well as the insurgency- and crime-wracked oil-producing regions of the Niger Delta, in Nigeria—“just the whole enchilada,” Whelan recalled.

They also addressed Equatorial Guinea. “He made a comment that he thought that Equatorial Guinea was probably not the most stable place in the world,” she remembered. Wales described himself as being in the security and air transport business in Africa. “He said that his colleagues were reporting to him that there were a lot of well-heeled Equato- Guineans . . . that were sort of prepaying or prescheduling flights out of the country in the event of some sort of problem. . . . So that was his one piece of intelligence—if you want to call it that—that the leadership in Equatorial Guinea was nervous, and it appeared that family members were making their plans for a getaway, just in case.”

That the elite in Equatorial Guinea might be nervous and prebooking flights as a hedge against a coup did not strike her as particularly noteworthy. The country was like a small, unprotected, oil-endowed bank sitting in a bad neighborhood, just waiting to be robbed. During the 1970s, Frederick Forsyth had written his novel The Dogs of War, about a mercenary-led coup in a small African country, while staying at a hotel above Malabo’s harbor; Forsyth himself later became entangled in a stillborn coup attempt against Equatorial Guinea’s dictator. Coup plots seemed to blow through the country like its tropical storms. Leaders of Obiang’s fractured and repressed political opposition were regularly accused by the dictator of fomenting his overthrow. Periodically, the president arrested his own relatives for plotting a move on his palace. In 2002, Obiang had detained and tried dozens of alleged plotters on treason charges. The poor standards of the trial were one reason why the State Department had so far refused Obiang’s pleading for a license to hire M.P.R.I., the Virginia-based security firm, to train his police and military. The United States had earlier approved an M.P.R.I. license for maritime defense on the grounds that the Equatorial Guinean coast guard posed little threat to the country’s citizens and might defend offshore oil platforms owned by ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess. Yet the Bush administration judged that training Obiang’s land forces to shore up his dictatorship could not be justified until the government improved its human rights performance.

Theresa Whelan interpreted Greg Wales’s purpose in visiting her as typical of the hustling, networking world of profit-making consultants in the global security field. “He wanted to make sure that he could say that he had a contact, that he had access to the Pentagon for some purpose in the future, whatever that might be. But I didn’t think that he had a particular agenda, other than making it clear to us that he was a potentially valuable interlocutor,” Whelan concluded. “It was the equivalent of a sales call or a marketing meeting. For our trouble in listening to him, we would get another perspective on the ebb and flow of the political situation in the region.”

After Wales departed, Whelan made no record of the conversation and distributed no memos or e-mails to Pentagon colleagues, she said. It did not occur to her to do so because the entire encounter had been “pretty unremarkable.”

It is not known how Wales assessed the conversation, but it is clear that there was nothing routine about his thinking about the Pentagon’s possible role in his coup plan. His fellow conspirators had the impression that winter, based in part on what Wales told them after traveling to Washington, that the United States might actively support their efforts to seize power—or at least that the Bush administration might not object. It is not clear why such an impression might have developed among the coup planners. Contemporary memos show that Wales and his colleagues knew they faced a risk of alienating the United States, particularly if major oil companies such as ExxonMobil concluded that the change of regime would jeopardize their investments. Threatening American oil interests in Equatorial Guinea, Wales wrote, might be “what gets the Marines coming in.”

Simon Mann served as Greg Wales’s principal military partner in the plot under way that summer to overthrow Obiang. He was a lean and poised man in late middle age, a descendant of English cricket captains, who had grown into a formidably successful adventurer. After graduation from Eton, the elite preparatory school, he joined the Special Air Service, Britain’s principal special forces unit. Later he founded Executive Outcomes and Sandline International, part of a network of corporations that provided mercenary military services to African governments in exchange for diamond mining and other business concessions. During the 1990s, Executive Outcomes won contracts with Angola, to battle a formerly anti-Communist rebel movement, and with Sierra Leone, to keep anti-government rebel marauders away from that West African country’s diamond mines. Mann grew wealthy, bought an estate in the English countryside, another in London, and married, apparently intending to settle down. He and his younger wife started a family, but in 2003, when he turned fifty-one, Mann became restless. Eli Calil, a Nigerian-born Lebanese oil trader with extensive contacts in Africa, and Severo Moto, the Equato-Guinean opposition leader in Madrid, recruited him early that year, Mann later said in a Malabo courtroom. “I agreed to do this for the money, yes, but also because I believed it was right,” he said.

That spring, Mann learned, he and others involved in the coup planning said later, that Spanish prime minister José María Aznar supported the plan. Aznar, a former Franco supporter who had become a successful conservative politician, oversaw an aggressive foreign policy. On March 17, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, he appeared with George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair, and Portugese prime minister José Durão Barroso in the Azores to provide a show of solidarity for the American-led plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein. “We are committed on a day-to-day fight against new threats, such as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and tyrannic regimes that do not comply with international law,” Aznar declared. “They threaten all of us, and we must all act, consequently.”

“The Spanish PM has met Severo Moto three times,” Mann later wrote, and he indicated that Spain would take concrete steps to support Moto’s installation in power in Malabo if the mercenaries’ coup plan succeeded. “He has, I am told, informed SM that as soon as he is established in EG he will send 3000 Guardia Civil. I have been repeatedly told that the Spanish Govt will support the return of SM immediately and strongly. They will, however, deny that they are aware of any operations of this sort.” As Mann and his colleagues approached their launch date for the coup, Spain dispatched warships bearing marines to the Gulf of Guinea; they attempted to dock in Malabo, but were denied permission. The Spanish foreign minister was quoted as describing the naval deployment as a “mission of cooperation.”

Greg Wales’s travels to Washington—his awkward approach to Theresa Whelan at the Pentagon and his unsolicited telephoning of oil companies’ lobbying offices—suggested a strain of amateurism in the plot at odds with Mann’s record of corporate security success during the 1990s. The plan had several prongs. An undercover team led by a South African named Nick du Toit infiltrated Malabo in late 2003 in the guise of businessmen. They set up a firm called Triple Option and claimed to be interested in fishing. In fact they carried out reconnaissance and prepared to aid the coup team when it landed at the airport. The main external raiding party would be made up of veteran soldiers from South Africa and Angola. They would streak into Malabo from southern Africa in a transport plane, seize the airport, and then roll toward the presidential palace to capture or kill Obiang. As Du Toit later described it, “The advance group and the arriving mercenaries would meet at Malabo’s airport and then drive to Obiang’s palace, kidnap the president, and then systematically kill all other [Equato-Guinean] ministers. Obiang would be exiled to Spain and a plane would arrive carrying Severo Moto and his supporters to form a new government.” Du Toit would be paid either $1 million or $5 million—there are documents reporting both numbers—if the coup succeeded.

Mark Thatcher, the son of Margaret Thatcher, the cold war–era conservative prime minister of Britain, lent the group funds, although he said later that he had been misled about the purpose of his loan and had no idea it was to be used in support of a coup d’état. Soldiers clued in on the plan in South Africa and Equatorial Guinea spoke so loosely about their plans that the British government picked up coup rumors simply by monitoring Africa’s radio services. When Obiang visited South Africa in December 2003, his hosts passed intelligence that he should be watchful. Angola’s government passed him warnings as well. The intelligence was accurate; the coup makers had moved toward a strike that winter.

Obiang traveled to the United States in February on one of his regular private visits—apart from his occasional medical treatment, he seemed to enjoy spending time in America—and he checked into the Four Seasons hotel in Washington, a modern brown-brick building on the southeastern edge of cobblestoned Georgetown. On a gray Monday afternoon, five executives arrived from Riggs, Obiang’s principal bank, whose branch across from the White House had first attracted the president’s attention as a place where he might store his oil wealth while deepening ties to American corridors of power. Equatorial Guinea’s deposits now totaled about $750 million, by far the largest of any of the bank’s clients.

Auditors from the regulatory Office of the Comptroller of the Currency were crawling all over Riggs that winter, however. A probe had been sparked by other accounts held at Riggs for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington and for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The regulators were now asking questions about Equatorial Guinea’s accounts. They had recently raised concerns about offshore transactions in the accounts controlled by Obiang. Riggs and its management could face fines or worse if they did not come up with convincing answers. At the Four Seasons, the bank’s delegation announced that it was particularly focused on several relatively modest wire transfers—totaling less than $1 million—to offshore companies that appeared to be linked to Simon Kareri, the Riggs account executive who serviced Obiang.

Obiang waved them off. The transactions were authorized to support the economic development of his country, he said vaguely. He refused to be drawn on specifics. When the bankers pressed, Obiang sent one of his sons, Gabriel, along with several aides, to go off and review the matter.

The two delegations bundled into cars and rolled over to Pennsylvania Avenue. Inside the columned Riggs branch, Gabriel looked over the records and explained that some of the transactions involving Kareri had been authorized, but at lesser amounts than had actually been transferred to the offshore accounts. This raised the possibility that someone, possibly Kareri, had been skimming money. The Riggs executives asked what the offshore companies receiving funds actually did. Gabriel was vague.

The bankers warned him that if he could not provide specific, verifiable descriptions of what the money sent offshore had been used for, Riggs might have to end its entire relationship with Equatorial Guinea, notwithstanding the great financial pain it would cause the bank. In the post–September 11 world it was unacceptable for American banks to host accounts making international wire transfers to unknown front companies, they explained. Nobody was suggesting that Equatorial Guinea was financing terrorists, but the rules were inviolable.

Gabriel declined to explain. The transfers were “authorized by the government to pay for services,” he said.

That afternoon, Riggs’s risk management committee met to terminate the bank’s relationship with Obiang. The bank’s executives announced that $40 million in Obiang’s accounts—an amount equal to the balance of his outstanding loans—would be frozen, pending resolution of the debts. The rest of his funds—about $700 million altogether—would be released in the form of cashier’s checks, which authorized individuals, including the president himself, would be free to pick up at the branch across from the White House, so they could hand carry the checks to another bank of their choice for deposit.

The Dodson family sold airplanes and parts from hangars and warehouses outside of Kansas City. One way they acquired inventory was by monitoring sales of surplus U.S. government airplanes by the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for federal buildings and property. In 2003, Dodson Aviation, Inc., purchased a 727-100 jet that had been put up for sale on a Web site called They spruced the plane up and listed it for resale. About six months passed before an English firm, Logo Logistics, contacted them about a purchase. “Normal business guys in suits” turned up in Kansas to inspect the aircraft, as J. R. Dodson recalled it. They had foreign accents.

The Dodsons handled sales through an escrow firm in Oklahoma City—typically, the buyers transferred cash into an escrow account, and when the conditions of the sale were met, the escrow firm released the funds to the Dodsons. The deal for the 727 closed on March 3, 2004; the Dodsons did not know the origins of the cash, only that it had arrived to the satisfaction of the escrow agent.

Colleagues of Simon Mann arrived in Kansas and flew the plane to South Africa. They landed at a small airport outside of Pretoria, where Mann and about five dozen mercenaries boarded in darkness.

From Spain, Severo Moto flew to the Canary Islands. Greg Wales and other conspirators joined him there at the Steigenberger hotel. On March 7, they boarded a leased Beechcraft King Air and lifted off for Africa, intending to rendezvous in the air with Mann’s American-purchased jet. In Malabo, Du Toit’s local recruits prepositioned cars and other vehicles at the airport, so the arriving armed mercenaries would have transport into town. Moto and Wales would circle so as to land in Malabo an hour after the coup plotters arrived and seized the capital. Moto had even written a speech in advance promising to transform Equatorial Guinea into the “star of Africa.”

En route, Mann and his crew flew to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where he intended to pick up weapons and fuel before flying on toward Equatorial Guinea.

They never left the Harare tarmac. Zimbabwe police stormed the plane and arrested all of its passengers; they had been tipped off by South African intelligence. Mann managed to get a phone call through to Du Toit in Malabo to let him know that “problems had arisen.” Mann and his mercenaries were taken to prison and, according to Mann, beaten and tortured into making confessions.

In Malabo, Obiang’s security forces arrested Du Toit and many others who had worked with him. They paraded the South African before diplomats and television cameras. He confessed that his purpose was to “carry out a coup against the Obiang regime” and to bring in Severo Moto from Spain “as the country’s new leader.”

“The terrorists who have been arrested will go through a fair trial,” Obiang declared to his people. If convicted, however, “because Equatorial Guinea has not abolished the death penalty, we won’t forgive them. If we have to kill them, we will kill them.” He urged his countrymen to watch out for other conspiracies, to “eliminate these terrorists. . . . Whoever presents themselves as a mercenary, there will be no need to let the President know. They must be liquidated—they must be killed because they are devils.”

Obiang might be accustomed to coup plots, but this one was enough to make any insecure, oil-endowed dictator’s head spin. Its external tentacles ran around the world. Spain seemed to be involved—Obiang required little proof to conclude that Madrid was out to get him, but here the evidence looked substantial. There was circumstantial evidence to suggest that the United States might also have been covertly involved—the American origins of the plane carrying the mercenaries was one suggestive indicator, and the common statements of Bush and Aznar about ridding the world of dictators suggested the potential for secret collusion between them. Yet, hadn’t he, Obiang, been generous again and again to ExxonMobil and the other American oil corporations gorging on Equatorial Guinea’s oil? Weren’t his contract terms among the most generous to American oil firms in Africa, or indeed the world?

Simon Kareri, the Riggs account executive, who would soon be indicted for his dealings with Equatorial Guinea’s deposits and wire transfers, told Obiang that he suspected the Bush administration had been involved, according to an associate of Kareri’s. The coup attempt explained all the pressure Obiang had faced over his Washington bank accounts, Kareri argued. How else could the events at the bank that winter be explained? The closure of Obiang’s accounts just as the plot was moving toward execution suggested that the Bush administration had created conditions in which the Malabo regime would lose control over Obiang’s $750 million in deposits just as Moto seized power, Kareri speculated. Was it a coincidence that Obiang had been told to move his money and that fungible cashier’s checks were issued just as the coup attempt was being prepared?

At least one of Obiang’s Washington advisers believed that the Bush administration must have been involved, but the adviser could not turn up proof. Obiang was not entirely sure what to believe, but he could not in the end bring himself to conclude that the Americans had joined Spain in the conspiracy to oust him. About Spain’s culpability, he had no doubt. Bush, Blair, and Aznar “discussed the need to get rid of dictators,” he reflected later. “When you talk about something like dictators, you have to do an analysis: Which governments are dictators and which are not? Aznar took advantage of this . . . to advance the concept of bringing down the ‘dictatorship’ of Equatorial Guinea.” Obiang doubted that the Bush administration knew about the plot in advance because “the American companies are the ones with the primary investments here.” Spain was “jealous of American success here. . . . The mercenaries and Spanish companies were going to take over. For that reason, I can’t say the Americans were involved. They would lose business to the Spanish and the British.”

The Bush administration’s attitude toward Obiang’s government nonetheless mystified him. More than $5 billion of investments by American oil companies were at risk in his country. The Mann coup made clear just how diverse, creative, and determined were the potential jackals circling tiny Equatorial Guinea, waiting for a chance to snatch its riches. Yet Obiang had been asking for security assistance from the United States, to protect the wealth of its oil corporations, and all he had been given was an M.P.R.I. license to train a coast guard. What good would a coast guard do if mercenaries or a neighboring military invaded Malabo and voided ExxonMobil’s contracts? The oil-endowed autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates had poor human rights records and hardly a whiff of democracy, yet they were treated in Washington as important strategic partners and received billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated defense systems—jet fighters, missile interceptors, the works. Why not Equatorial Guinea?

Obiang paid a handful of lobbyists to represent him in Washington. They advised him about political reforms and image management, but they had not resolved the basic problem, as he saw it, that he lacked sufficient access to the Bush administration. The oil companies operating in Equatorial Guinea told Obiang that he needed to upgrade his Washington presence. They could support his cause, but they could not conduct his lobbying for him. If ExxonMobil’s Washington office, or those of Hess and Marathon, “oiled” Obiang’s efforts to win favor from the Bush administration by becoming too directly involved in Malabo’s rehabilitation, it would only discredit Equatorial Guinea further. Obiang reached out to two of the most successful lobbying firms in Bush’s Washington: Barbour Griffith & Rogers and Cassidy & Associates.

Richard Burt, a former New York Times reporter who had served as the American ambassador to West Germany during the Reagan administration, helped to manage the Obiang account under contract for Barbour Griffith. At Cassidy, one of Obiang’s aides called Amos Hochstein, a young former Capitol Hill aide. Intrigued, Hochstein used Google to research Equatorial Guinea; the search returns were not particularly encouraging.

He traveled to New York to meet with Obiang’s prime minister, Miguel Borico, at The Pierre hotel. The president was in a mood for fresh thinking, the prime minister reported. Obiang had been “embarking on an American strategy,” as his oil wealth grew, to protect and align himself with the world’s most formidable oil-consuming superpower, and yet “he wasn’t getting anywhere,” one of Obiang’s advisers recalled.

“You’re in deep trouble,” the Cassidy lobbyist told them. Hochstein was a liberal Democrat. He was uncomfortable with the account, but his firm had decided to go forward. “I’m not going to lobby for you. What I can do is help you understand what you need to do to change your relationship with the United States government. I’ll try to be the translator between you and the American government.” Cassidy accepted Obiang as its client for a retainer of more than $1 million a year, a handsome sum in the Washington lobbying arena.

The question of whether the Bush administration had winked in advance at the Mann-led coup plot lingered, sowing distrust and uncertainty in the U.S.-Equato-Guinean oil partnership on which ExxonMobil depended. At an African counterterrorism conference for regional intelligence leaders held in Libya around this time, Obiang’s director of internal security approached Mel Gamble, the Africa division chief of the C.I.A., and accused him outright of sponsoring the Simon Mann–led coup plot against Obiang.

“It was a U.S. aircraft,” Obiang’s spy chief pointed out.

“Look, you can buy a lot of things in the United States,” Gamble answered. He denied that the United States had any involvement. “You can buy weapons from the U.S., too,” he said, but that didn’t mean that the Bush administration was involved or even aware.

Senior intelligence officers from Angola and Algeria overheard Gamble’s pleading. They joined the discussion and backed their American colleague: Just because African coup plotters bought equipment in the United States did not mean that the Bush administration knew what was going on. They knew this from their own experiences, they affirmed.

The Central Intelligence Agency had no station in Equatorial Guinea at the time of the Mann-led coup attempt. The agency covered the country out of a base in Lagos, Nigeria; operations officers there might make one or two trips to Malabo each year, to make contacts and survey the political landscape. Reporting on economic issues such as oil production had been cut back during the late 1990s. After September 11, terrorism became the C.I.A.’s overriding focus, and by 2003, the Africa division was doing all it could to stave off the transfer of its personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even at the Pentagon, which was developing new military-to-military and counterterrorism contacts in Africa’s oil-producing regions, Equatorial Guinea “just wasn’t up there” as a priority for American intelligence collection, said Theresa Whelan. “We had no access.”

Was it credible to think that neither the Central Intelligence Agency nor the Pentagon knew about the coup in advance? South Africa’s intelligence service plainly did, and Britain’s picked up advance word as well. Either the United States was so obsessed with terrorism and Iraq that it did not have the capacity to pick up not-so-top-secret reporting by allies, or it did know, and successfully buried its awareness after the coup failed.

The evidence from the plotters’ testimony, although tainted by the circumstances of their various incarcerations, does suggest that Prime Minister Aznar was involved, or at least was informed in advance. (Aznar, through his office, has denied that allegation.) If Aznar was involved, it is at least conceivable that he warned the Bush White House in advance about what to expect in Malabo, using a narrow, closely held intelligence or White House channel that did not reach the wider American security bureaucracy. Even that theoretical possibility seems doubtful, however. Tipping Bush in advance would risk soliciting the White House’s objection to the coup, not least because of American corporate oil investments in the targeted country.

The coup attempt did catalyze the Bush administration to move closer to Teodoro Obiang Nguema. The exchange between the C.I.A.’s Gamble and his Equato-Guinean counterpart at the Libyan intelligence conference suggested the flavor of the administration’s dilemma. Obviously, Obiang now had reason to doubt the United States—the Riggs scandal and the purchase of the coup plane from Kansas would have made anyone in his position nervous. The policy of cautious ambivalence that the administration had pursued toward Obiang’s regime, notwithstanding the enormous investments in the country by American-headquartered corporations, now had to be reexamined. Among other things, if the Bush administration did not reach out quickly to Obiang, he might assume the worst about the events in March and reassess his commitment to ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess.

On June 18, 2004, the administration delivered to Obiang what he had been seeking since Bush’s inauguration—a high-level meeting to discuss “in depth,” as Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, the enduring ties between the United States and Equatorial Guinea. Obiang arrived at 2 p.m. at the State Department in Foggy Bottom. He ascended a special elevator and sat down with Powell in the secretary’s outer office. The White House’s senior director for African affairs, Cindy Courville, joined the meeting, along with several other senior American diplomats. Obiang was thrilled: “I feel as if I am meeting with President Bush himself,” he declared.

Obiang tried to explain to Powell and his aides the “complicated” situation his country faced because of its rough neighborhood and its distinctive status as the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. He said Equatorial Guinea had been very poor in the past, but now enjoyed the benefits of being an oil producer. He wanted to move toward democracy, he explained. He also wanted the Bush administration’s help in “protecting U.S. investments in oil and natural gas” in his country. He pointed out that he had applied years earlier for a license to pay American trainers to increase the skills of Equatorial Guinea’s national police and armed forces, but so far he had been refused. He asked Powell to reconsider. He wanted to “modernize” his “military and security forces.” He wanted M.P.R.I., an American company, to take this mission on. Powell agreed to review the request.

The secretary mentioned that he had “heard about” Equatorial Guinea’s “recent banking problems.”

Obiang replied that the Riggs matter was “not very clear” to him. He explained the history of Equatorial Guinea’s deposits and dealings at the Washington bank. He had made these banking arrangements in part because “the U.S. oil companies stipulated they preferred to deposit oil payments into a U.S. bank.” Obiang said he had to personally approve every payment from the Equato-Guinean treasury, and therefore, he “did not understand the allegations that oil payments went to him personally.”

The logic of the president’s explanation was not obvious. All Powell could think of to say was that the United States “supported” Equatorial Guinea in its “efforts to resolve these banking problems.” The secretary added that he hoped Obiang would use his country’s oil “windfall” to help his people, and that he would “get it right” and not repeat the mistakes of other African oil producers. Powell added, “We are here to be a friend and not to preach or lecture.”

Amos Hochstein and his colleagues at the Cassidy lobbying firm saw the failed coup and the meeting with Powell as the opportunity their client needed to break out of Washington’s punishment box reserved for notorious African dictators. The American government coddled dictators in the Arab world, but authoritarians in Africa enjoyed less margin for error. The attitude of career foreign service officers at the State Department had long been, “This country doesn’t matter,” recalled one of Obiang’s advisers. “It’s a bunch of crooks running a dictatorship in the middle of nowhere.”

Hochstein approached the White House. He proposed that the National Security Council come up with a “road map” of governance changes that, if implemented by Obiang, could create conditions for an expansion of American security assistance to the Malabo regime. Cindy Courville, at the National Security Council, was assigned to work on Cassidy’s proposal. The Bush aides laid out steps Equatorial Guinea would have to take to win American favor: prisoner releases, followed by substantial public investments in health care and education.

The State Department prepared new “talking points” for meetings with Obiang’s ministers and representatives to outline concrete steps Equatorial Guinea could take on “human rights benchmarks” in order to win quick approval for the M.P.R.I. license to train the country’s still-notorious police and military. “As you know, this license was previously granted on a very limited basis, due largely to human rights concerns,” talking points written seven months after the coup attempt noted. “While we continue to have concerns, we recognize and applaud you for your leadership in making advances in this area. We are prepared to work with you and your Government to reach agreement on the conditions under which we could approve the license in its entirety.” The license would be “subject to a series of criteria and conditions” involving Equatorial Guinea’s human rights performance. State had already “discussed” the proposal with M.P.R.I., which had accepted it.

Separately, and even more quietly, the Bush administration encouraged Obiang to develop a commercial and security partnership with Israel, whose military and internal security specialists had developed a global business out of selling advisory, training, intelligence collection, electronic surveillance, and arms supplies to small, weak regimes in difficult places.

As he processed these offers and developments in the coup attempt’s aftermath, Obiang “made an intellectual decision that the U.S. was not involved,” an adviser recalled. “He needed to believe that.” He was prepared by late 2004 to entrust his security to the United States and to Israel.

Cassidy scheduled a meeting between Obiang and Mel Gamble of the C.I.A. Obiang’s evolving plan was to have M.P.R.I. and Israeli forces work with his military and national police, but he also wanted to propose that the C.I.A. train Equatorial Guinea’s intelligence service to help protect against future coup attempts that might endanger American oil companies. The Bush administration, for its part, set aside its qualms: The administration approved the expanded M.P.R.I. license to provide internal security training to Obiang’s regime.

Gamble met Obiang at The Pierre hotel in New York. Amos Hochstein, the Cassidy lobbyist, and an interpreter joined the meeting.

“Yes, I think we can do this,” Gamble told Obiang, referring to the plans to strengthen Obiang’s security forces. “But you’ve got two issues. One is human rights. Two is, how are you going to pay for this?”

Obiang answered that he understood the C.I.A. had enough money in its budget to pay for these sorts of intelligence training programs.

Gamble was not about to recommend to his superiors at Langley that the C.I.A. divert budget funds from its global campaign against Al Qaeda to shore up the oil assets of a small-time dictator, even if ExxonMobil and other American companies might benefit. Gamble spoke some Spanish, but he turned now to the interpreter. “Tell the president that we’re just a small service with a small budget compared to the money that he has in his bank account.”

“I’m not telling him that,” the interpreter said.

“Look, tell him, or I’ll say it to him in my broken Spanish.”

The interpreter started hesitantly. “My boss wants to say . . .”

Obiang laughed. “Okay.” He understood, he said.

“Mr. President,” Gamble said, “we’re in business.”

The next time coup makers cast eyes on Equatorial Guinea and the property of ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Hess—as they would, soon enough—they would reckon with new defenses. Other authoritarian leaders might have grown frustrated with all the human rights talk in Washington and moved on to a security and oil partnership with China or France by now. Obiang, however, believed that he would be more secure with the United States than with any other global power. Cassidy helped keep him tethered to Washington; Amos Hochstein resigned from the account, but others at the firm continued to work the White House and the State Department to deepen security and economic ties as much as possible. Instinctively, with the aid of his checkbook, and in spite of his prolonged resistance to American ideas about how he should organize his government and protect the rights of Equato-Guinean citizens, Obiang had found American assistance to change his regime—for the purpose of reinforcing it.

Andrew Swiger had been rising rapidly through ExxonMobil’s management ranks when, soon after the coup attempt, he was selected by Lee Raymond and the Management Committee in Irving to explain the corporation’s dealings with Obiang to the United States Senate. Democratic staffers on the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had been looking into Riggs for more than a year; they had scheduled a hearing to review and publicize their findings.

Swiger had taken charge of Africa operations shortly after the Mobil merger. There was almost nothing about ExxonMobil’s relationship with the Obiang regime that the corporation wished to discuss in public, other than its charitable campaign to fight malaria. Asked occasionally about its ties to a government with such a poor human rights record, ExxonMobil spokesmen repetitively and briefly stated that the company followed the law and condemned human rights violations “wherever they may occur.” The Riggs bank scandal had exposed many of the details of ExxonMobil’s financial ties to Obiang—its rental of land from regime officials, its investments in businesses controlled by Obiang relatives, and its funding of scholarships for elite Equato-Guinean children selected by the president. The Justice Department opened an inquiry into whether the corporation might be operating in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (F.C.P.A.). Now Swiger would have to explain and defend ExxonMobil’s decisions.

Early on the morning of July 15, 2004, he arrived on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Constitution Avenue, just to the north of the Capitol dome. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota who chaired the investigations subcommittee, gaveled the hearing to order at 9:06 a.m.

Swiger read a prepared statement about ExxonMobil’s work in Equatorial Guinea. He explained why the corporation’s lawyers and executives had concluded after painstaking reviews that its investments in real estate and businesses in Malabo that were controlled by Obiang and his close relatives were legal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and proper as a matter of corporate responsibility. Essentially, the corporation’s defense was that it was exempt from some of the normal F.C.P.A. requirements because in Equatorial Guinea, there was no market for local services other than that provided by the Obiang family. This was indeed an established defense to F.C.P.A. allegations in such circumstances. Equatorial Guinea “has no law limiting or even defining conflict of interest. Most ministers continue to moonlight and conduct businesses that often conflate their public and private interests,” a State Department cable from Malabo reported. “There are no arm’s-length transactions here.”

“ExxonMobil is committed to being a good corporate citizen wherever we operate worldwide,” Swiger read out to the Senate committee. “We maintain the highest ethical standards, comply with all applicable laws and regulations and respect local and national cultures. These principles and practices apply to our operations in Equatorial Guinea. . . .

“The practical realities of doing business in developing countries are challenging. Equatorial Guinea, like many developing nations, has a limited number of local businesses and a small population of educated citizens. . . . In such countries it is sometimes necessary to do business with a government official or a close relative of a government official. But it is still expected that we do business ethically and comply with all U.S. and local laws.”

Carl Levin, the committee’s ranking Democrat, took up the questioning. He criticized ExxonMobil for failing to cooperate with the committee’s investigators. Amerada Hess and Marathon had been fully cooperative with the Senate committee’s probe, but ExxonMobil had stonewalled, he said.

Levin then asked Swiger whether improving the social and governance conditions in Equatorial Guinea was a condition of ExxonMobil’s decision to do business there.

“It is not, Senator,” Swiger said.

“Does it trouble you that you have a business partner like this dictator?”

“Business arrangements we have entered into have been entirely commercial, have been at market-based rates, arm’s length transactions, fully recorded on our books,” Swiger answered robotically. Then he seemed to improvise a little: “They are a function of completing the work that we’re there to do, which is to develop the country’s petroleum resources, and through that and our work in the community, make Equatorial Guinea a better place.”

“Make it what?”

“A better place.”

Previous: Twelve. “How High Can We Fly?”
Next: Fourteen. “Informed Influentials”