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Backstabbing for Beginners
My Crash Course in International Diplomacy
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- Trade Paperback (Media Tie-In) $16.99 $22.49 CAD
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“What made this episode in our collective history possible was not so much the lies we told one another, but the lies we told ourselves.”
A recent Brown University graduate, Michael Soussan was elated when he landed a position as a program coordinator for the United Nations’ Iraq Program. Little did he know that he would end up a whistleblower in what PBS NewsHour described as the “largest financial scandal in UN history.”
Breaking a conspiracy of silence that had prevailed for years, Soussan sparked an unprecedented corruption probe into the Oil-for-Food program that exposed a worldwide system of bribes, kickbacks, and blackmail involving ruthless power-players from around the globe.
At the crossroads of pressing humanitarian concerns, crisis diplomacy, and multibillion-dollar business interests, Soussan’s story highlights core flaws of our international system and exposes the frightening, corrupting power of the black elixir that fuels our world’s economy.
This book is dedicated to my father, André Soussan.
I wish I could say none of the events in this story ever happened. Unfortunately, they now form part of our collective history. Information pertaining to wrongdoing by particular individuals named herein is drawn from the publicly available findings of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the Oil-for-Food Program (www.iic-offp.org). It is important for the reader to understand that none of the persons referred to in this story should be considered guilty of criminal behavior unless they have been sentenced in a court of law.
Some names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of individuals who were not already in the public sphere. I took the liberty to describe the events and the attitudes that defined this critical era in world affairs without the pretense of cold objectivity. I was an emotional participant in this story. As I recall certain events from memory, I am also aware that others may disagree with details of how these unfolded. The characters who appear herein cannot be defined only by their mistakes, or by their portrayal in this or other written works. I too made mistakes, and had ample opportunity to change my mind about important issues throughout this story. And thus I hope that our collective misadventures, our moments of ridicule or tragedy, will not be judged too harshly, for we were merely ordinary, flawed individuals faced with extraordinary circumstances.
DELTA SHUTTLE, EN ROUTE FROM NEW YORK CITY
T0 WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 28, 2004
T0 WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 28, 2004
I never imagined it would come to this. Yet here I was, sitting on a plane headed for Washington, D.C., where I was scheduled to testify before Congress in less than two hours. I would be speaking about a rather strange affair. Margaret Warner, of the PBS NewsHour, described it as the “largest financial scandal in UN history.” Fred Barnes, of Fox News, went further, calling it the worst scandal in the history of mankind.
I fiddled with the ventilation knob. My armpits were drenched. I sat back, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. How the hell had I landed myself in this mess?
“Should be a nice day, huh?”
I opened my eyes and looked at my neighbor. I knew from the instant he sat down that he was a compulsive airplane conversationalist, and I had tried my best to avoid his eager gaze.
“Not a cloud in the sky,” he added, pointing out the window and encouraging me to check for myself.
“That’s right,” I said. “Should be a smooth flight.”
I reached inside my bag, withdrawing my iPod and the speech I was supposed to give in a couple of hours. I needed to go over my remarks one last time.
“So!” he said. “What brings you to D.C.?”
Did he not see I had plugged in my earphones?
“I have to . . . give this speech,” I said.
“At the House International Relations Committee.”
“Huh. . . . Are you like an expert or something?”
“No, not exactly. I used to work for the UN. I just need to focus on this for a bit, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course, of course. . . .”
I could feel his gaze over my shoulder as I tried to concentrate on my text. I took a deep breath and exhaled irritably.
“You feeling nervous?” he asked. He had a knowing grin on his chubby face.
“Yeah, a bit. But I’d feel much better if I could—”
“Have you seen the studies they did?”
“Who? What studies?”
“You know, about people’s fears? Apparently, public speaking ranks number one.”
“Yeah. You know what number two is?”
“Death! Ha ha ha ha!”
With that, he slipped out a copy of the New York Post and started flipping the pages noisily. I turned up the volume on my iPod and forced myself to concentrate. I was on the second page of my testimony when he poked me on the shoulder.
“Is that you?” he asked, pointing at an article in his tabloid. It had a big fat title:
U.N. BIG WILL TELL ALL ON OILY SCAM
“Oh,” I said. “No, that wouldn’t be me. Nobody would call me a ‘UN big’ . . . do you mind if I have a look, though?”
To my knowledge, no senior UN official had agreed to testify yet, so I was curious to know whom the article was talking about. As I read the story, by Niles Lathem, I had a shock:
WASHINGTON—Michael Soussan, a former program coordinator for the $100 billion fund, is expected to be the star witness of a House International Relations Committee hearing looking into Saddam’s gigantic $10.1 billion rip-off.
Committee sources said Soussan, now a New York-area writer, is expected to give the first, under oath, public account from an insider about how top U.N. officials were aware of Saddam’s oil smuggling and kickback schemes. . . .
I put the paper down and stared blankly into space.
“Do you know this guy?” asked my neighbor.
“Um . . . yeah.”
“Sounds like he’s ready to spill the beans.”
“Yeah. . . . Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.”
As soon as I got up, a stewardess came running.
“Sir, please return to your seat. The pilot has put the seat belt sign on.”
“But I really need to go, I—”
“I’m sorry, sir, please return to your seat.”
“Come on, lady, let him go,” my neighbor intervened. “He’s testifying in Congress today. He’s nervous.”
I wanted to strangle him.
“I’m fine . . . it’s fine!” I sat back down, turned up the music full blast, and looked out the window.
It had been seven years since I left Washington, D.C., to embark on this unusual journey. The UN Oil-for-Food operation had been set up in 1996 to provide for the humanitarian needs of Iraq’s civilians who had suffered dramatic shortages of basic necessities under the stringent economic sanctions adopted in 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
While diplomats jousted for the moral high ground in New York, lecturing one another on international law, those same laws were being violated methodically behind the scenes through an ever-increasing flow of crooked deals that cheated Iraq’s civilians out of an enormous share of their country’s wealth. Billions had gone missing from right under our nose, and we weren’t even sure how many. Soon, this collective fiasco would be investigated by a high-level anticorruption commission. France, the United States, and Russia would get embroiled in a mutual blame game. Bureaucrats at the United Nations would turn on one another. Hundreds of lobbyists would be called up to defend some 2,300 companies that had broken the law in order to gain favor with Saddam Hussein. The trickle of damning revelations would soon turn into a flood. A judge investigating the fraud in Iraq was killed in an explosion, and several sources used by investigators on the ground mysteriously disappeared. Some influential diplomats, politicians, and other power brokers would go to jail. It promised to be a political bloodbath.
Some people blamed me for helping set this whole debacle in motion after I became the first former employee of the UN operation to call for an independent investigation in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal the previous month. My intervention had snowballed, and I received myriad requests for interviews, including from CNN, Fox, ABC, the BBC, and many others—most of which I turned down. But when I received the invitation from Congress, I decided to accept.
My position, at the crossroads of pressing humanitarian concerns, big-power politics, and multibillion-dollar business interests, provided an unusual vantage point on the Iraq conflict. While much of the international community was hypnotized by the “hunt” for Saddam’s proscribed weapons, my colleagues and I had our eyes on the human dimension of the conflict.
In Iraq, we became familiar with a society in which youngsters had less education than their parents, where the infrastructure was rotten beyond repair, where criminal gangs close to the regime ruled all the country’s trade and smuggling routes, and where the only thing that held society together was fear. In 2003 the United States and its allies had set out to create a “new Iraq” on the ruins of the old one. This ambitious agenda underestimated the damage that had been done to the Iraqi people in the thirteen years since the Gulf War.
In New York, we saw the institution that was supposed to stand for international order break its own laws for seven years. The UN Security Council operated much like a drug cartel, fighting over access to Iraq’s oil and, in so doing, letting the Iraqi dictator cannibalize his own country in partnership with our most respectable international corporations.
A strange conspiracy of silence had prevailed for many years. The Clinton and Bush administrations had been intimately aware of the massive fraud. French and Russian government officials had directly participated in it, as had officials from all over Europe, South Africa, Australia, India, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, among others. Reuters, the Associated Press, and most news organizations with correspondents in Iraq had ample evidence as well. As did we, the humanitarian community of the United Nations.
I was determined to break that silence now. But I couldn’t care less how the unfolding “scandal” ranked in the annals of history. It was merely the third act of a tragic story that highlighted some of the core flaws of our international system and the frightening, corrupting power of the black elixir that fuels the world economy. From the end of the cold war to the onset of the “war on terror,” the Iraq conflict can be looked at as a mirror reflecting the evolving nature of our global political power game.
In order to explain what happened, I would need to describe the events and the attitudes that prevailed at the United Nations during this critical era in international affairs—a time during which I came of age.
As I stepped out of the plane in Washington, D.C., my neighbor insisted we exchange business cards. When he read mine, he looked up at me.
“So it’s you! The guy in the article. . . .”
Well, I can’t say I recognized myself in the article’s depiction. I had never thought of myself as a whistleblower. I had stayed loyal as long as I could.
I knew there would be no going back on this decision. But it was a lonely road. Between the UN-bashers who were hyping up my appearance and the UN-apologists who resented it, I felt everyone in this affair somehow fell into rank behind interest groups that could protect them—except me. What I had to say would not flatter any side in this conflict.
The choice, as I saw it, was between cynicism and candor. If all of us insisted that we really cared about the people of Iraq as much as we professed, then this story could only be described as a conspiracy of saints. Alternatively, we could accept that what made this episode in recent history possible was not so much the lies we told one another but the lies we told ourselves.
SAIPAN, SPRING 1997
Four hundred women crammed into a warehouse. The deafening sound of sewing machines. Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger shirts piling up in large bins at the far end of the factory floor, ready to be shipped out. The shirts were labeled “Made in the USA.” But what the label did not specify was that the women working in this sweatshop—young Filipinas and Chinese girls, for the most part—were paid far less than the U.S. minimum wage. A loophole in the law allowed the U.S. commonwealth island of Saipan, located somewhere near nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, to import foreign workers and pay them dirt to make shirts.
The point of my presence at the scene was to help these factory owners get away with exploitation.
“See? Working conditions are not as horrible as the press would have us believe,” said Pat, the team leader of the Congressional delegation that had come here to “witness conditions on the ground”—as well as to play golf, enjoy the amenities of a five-star luxury resort, take sightseeing tours, and stop over for two days in Hawaii on the flight back to Washington, D.C. The junket’s only uncomfortable moment was the present one. Walking through the aisles of the sweatshop like noblemen from a different century, dressed in khakis and blue shirts, we observed the girls at work. I noticed that they did not look up at us. They could not afford a moment of reprieve. One girl was sewing zippers, and after I insisted on catching her eye, she paused—just long enough to acknowledge me but not long enough to cause a stoppage in the chain of events that made shmattes into clothes. By the time I managed a smile, she was back at work.
“It’s clean, well lit,” Pat continued. And the members of the Congressional junket nodded. We were all eager to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. A special treat awaited us at the end of the tour: discounted clothes. A chance to shop directly from the sweatshop! And to distract us from any sinking feeling such direct sponsorship of exploitation might cause, we had a field trip planned for the afternoon. We were going to visit the neighboring island of Tinian, to see the airfield from which the United States launched the Enola Gay on its mission to drop an atomic bomb on Japan.
“Fact-finding missions.” That’s what these free, lobbyist-operated vacations were called in Congress. Our job was to drop little one-liners here and there: “These girls come from very poor families.” “It’s a lot of money for them here.” “They work a few years, and when they go back they can buy houses for their entire family.” “The stories of mistreatment are exaggerated.” “If they had to be paid U.S. minimum wage, the factory would go out of business, and then what? The island’s economy would collapse. Then what?”
But we knew, and our nodding counterparts knew, that this was exploitation. These girls lived in barracks, shopped at the company store, and could be kicked off the island anytime it pleased their owners. If they were abused, they could run to the authorities. But given that the governor of Saipan was in the factory owner’s pocket, the girls knew better.
The pride I felt for my job at that moment made me want to put a bullet through my head. I had joined the Washington, D.C., law firm Preston Gates as an international research analyst in order to prepare myself for law school. My ambition, shaped by the words of Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University, had been to “go out there and make a difference.” Well, I was making a difference, all right—one I was so ashamed of I didn’t share it with my closest friends. I’d couch the work I did in general terms, as PR work for corporate clients. But I knew I had to put in at least a year at this firm if I wanted my résumé to look halfway credible to a law school or my next employer. And I had to impress the head of our client group, Jack Abramoff.
The law firm’s partners tended to be old-school Democrats, but after the Republicans took control of Congress in the mid-1990s, the firm hired Jack, a conservative lobbyist extraordinaire, who would guarantee the firm access to top Republican lawmakers. Jack would rise to become the number-one rainmaker on Capitol Hill, before his dealings became the center of a scandal that took Washington by storm. The debacle would bring down House majority leader Tom DeLay and threaten President Bush, who denied knowing Jack even though they had been caught on camera together at the White House. Frank Rich of the New York Times would refer to him as the “new Monica”; Time magazine plastered his face on its cover as “The Man Who Bought Washington.”
I had told Jack early on that I held liberal political views.
“That’s all right,” he said. “You’ll grow out of it.”
In any case, Democrats were just as happy to go on his junkets as Republicans were, so he didn’t mind having a young liberal around. The moment these Congressional staffers got on the plane and washed down their first bloody marys, they were “Republicrats” and “Demoblicans,” out for a good time.
“Just make sure people like you,” Jack had advised me. In retrospect, it was an ironic piece of advice to receive from him.
Yet back when he was a senior rainmaker at Preston Gates (the firm started by Bill Gates’s father), Jack was a very popular guy in Washington, including among many Democrats, who took about a third of his political contributions.
Jack’s one-liner advice was all I got by way of a job description. Whether it meant staying late at the office or working the D.C. cocktail circuit, picking up golf so I could lose to clients or taking Congressional staffers to strip clubs during a “fact-finding mission” in Puerto Rico, I usually found ways to follow his advice.
After six months at the law firm, I received a big raise. I went out with my girlfriend to celebrate. We got a table at Sequoia, a trendy seafood restaurant overlooking the Potomac River and the Watergate Hotel. As I held her hand after dessert, she told me how proud she was of me.
I believe that is when I realized how fully I had come to hate myself. Not knowing how to share this discovery with the woman I longed to impress, I simply hailed the waiter for another glass of wine. We moved on to a party, where a friend of mine insisted on toasting with whiskey shots to celebrate my promotion. A colleague from work was there. He offered me a cigar and congratulated me for being “right on track for six figures.”
Much later—after a one-way conversation with a toilet bowl—I reached a drunken epiphany. Out of disgust, I abandoned my plan to study law. And in the following weeks, I began sending out résumés to humanitarian organizations.
Weeks went by without an answer. I turned twenty-four. I broke up with my girlfriend. And I continued to help my bosses pervert the democratic process in Washington with increasing skill, even as I was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. All I could do to compensate for my chronic self-loathing was purchase flashy yellow ties. One morning, as I was tying one on, I pulled on the fabric to check how sturdy it was. Would it hold my weight if I tied it around the fan and stepped off a stool?
Then, one afternoon, my phone rang. It was Daniel, a friend from Brown University. Together, we had founded a publication called The Brown Journal of World Affairs, which, we felt certain at the time, would prepare the ground for illustrious careers in international affairs. Instead, Daniel had landed in banking, and I in lobbying. But the tide was about to turn.
Daniel had heard of an immediate opening at the United Nations. In fact, he had been offered the job but had decided to turn it down in favor of a post in the Clinton administration.
“Ever heard of Oil-for-Food?”
“Oil for what?”
“It’s this new UN program. Just got started. But you might have to travel to Iraq.”
“I’ll go anywhere. I need to get out of here.”
“Children are dying over there, you know, because of the sanctions. It’s a pretty bad situation. The UN is starting this huge humanitarian operation. They need a coordinator type. . . . I gave them your name. They’re waiting for your call.”
I tried to remain calm, but my cubicle shook as I frantically looked around for my résumé. I got on the phone with the recruitment woman, Mira, who had a sensual Eastern European accent. She confirmed that they needed someone right away.
“Would you like to have a look at my résumé?”
“Sure. Send it over. And feel free to add any details. You know, like your height, the color of your eyes.”
“Um . . . sure.”
“Just kidding, darling.”
Daniel had told me the woman was flirtatious. So I decided to push my luck. I improvised and said that I would be visiting New York for work that Friday and would be happy to drop in for a chat. The interview date was set.
Three years. That’s how long I had tried to get an interview at the UN. Finally, a door had creaked open.
A few days later, I was flying through the streets of New York in a yellow cab piloted by a man who seemed as worried about crashing as a kid playing Grand Theft Auto. The car came to a screeching halt in front of One UN Plaza. I stood there for a moment, looking up at the tall blue skyscraper. I readjusted my suit, checked my watch, and took a deep breath.
I had learned from experience not to appear too eager. The worst thing I could do was try to promote myself. Boast and you’re toast. Just listen to these guys. Figure out what they want before you say anything.
So I did some active listening as Yohannes Mengesha, a jovial Ethiopian man I assumed was the head of the budding UN operation, explained to me that “Oil-for-Food” was a misleading nickname for what they did. There was no barter of oil in exchange for food. Iraq sold oil, and the UN took the money to pay for a range of “humanitarian” goods, including food, medicine, and industrial equipment. The UN then observed how these goods were used inside the country to ensure that they were helping Iraq’s civilians rather than the regime. It was an unprecedented experiment that could be halted at any time if Saddam was seen to be cheating, he added, so there would be no guarantee of job security. He waited for a reaction to this, but all he got was a nod.
“What are your needs?” I asked.
He explained that he needed a person who could write speeches and official correspondence, coordinate trips and briefings, deal with the press—in short, someone who could hit the ground running in a highly political environment.
I treated him like one of Jack’s clients, seeking to make sure I understood his concerns, occasionally jotting down notes on a pad, and adjusting my glasses—a move I hoped made me look older than my twenty-four years. When the time came for him to ask me if I had any questions, I said, “Yes. Is there a strategy in place for dealing with the media?”
“Erm . . . we have a public information officer, but we’re still a new operation. That aspect definitely needs to be developed further as the program expands.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, I did some research before coming here. There seems to be some opposition to this operation in Congress. Quite vehement, in fact. I believe this is an issue to handle with great care.”
The man nodded, and soon, the question I had been waiting for came: “When would you be able to start?”
I had pulled a Jack Abramoff on him. If potential clients walked into Jack’s office thinking they had a small problem, he’d make sure they walked out thinking they had a huge one—and that Jack was the only person who could fix it for them.
A few days later, I was back at the firm waiting by the fax machine for my letter of employment. It was a beautiful thing: “On behalf of the Secretary-General, I am pleased to inform you. . . .”
As I read on, I had a shock. I’d be making $5,200 a month! More than double my current salary! Plus rent subsidy, full medical insurance, and daily allowances when I went “on mission.” Sweet Lord, I would have paid to go “on mission” for the UN!
But still, I had to call up and ask, “Um . . . the $5,200 . . . is that tax free?”
“Oui, absolument! ”
I would not only be making a positive difference in the world; I’d get paid enough to party my ass off in New York!
My skin was tingling from my scalp to my feet. No amount of dancing around could possibly release the overflow of energy that was unleashed by this sudden turn of events. As I sought to regain my composure, the words “tax free” stopped bouncing around in my head and a sense of great responsibility seeped in. I was deeply grateful for this chance to become an official do-gooder. But I would be a civil servant now. And I had just seen how easily such people could be bought with trips and concert tickets, manipulated and finessed into inaction, even when serious moral issues were at stake. The line between serving the public interest and serving one’s personal interest was an easy one to cross. I would be on the other side of the fence now.
Standing before the bathroom mirror, I made a solemn promise to myself: “No matter what happens, you will never, ever deviate from your mandate!” I looked into my eyes until my reflection appeared to understand how serious I was about this.
"A great book and a fun read."
—Fareed Zakaria, GPS Book of the Week
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Bold Type Books