THE POWER AND THE PRICE
by Jack Deeney
"The cry that echoed in August 1859 through the narrow valleys of western Pennsylvania - that the crazy Yankee, Colonel Drake, had struck oil - set off a great oil rush that has never ceased in the years since. And thereafter, in war and peace, oil would achieve the capacity to make or break nations, and would be decisive in the great economic and political struggles of the twentieth century. But again and again, through the never-ending quest, the great ironies of oil have been apparent. Its power comes with a price."
Daniel Yergin "The Prize-The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power" (1991)
THE WHITE HOUSE: THURSDAY - DECEMBER 21, 1967
The challenge hung in the suddenly hushed air of the Oval Office. O’Keefe’s approach could not have been more direct. He had stood up to the Big Man’s bluster, ignored the President’s coarse language and overbearing attitude and had not backed down. He knew his career might be over. He really didn’t give a shit.
As they stood facing each other across the President’s desk, O’Keefe fired his final volley.
“Mr. President, I was invited here to give you my informed opinion. Everything I’ve told you today is based on one unshakeable truth. If we can’t control the price of oil, we can’t control the market. And the long-range impact of allowing the control of pricing of oil to slip away could be disastrous to our economy and to our national defense. I've alway understood that my job was to give it to you straight, to make you face the truth. If I'm wrong in that understanding, if I have not earned your trust, I apologize. My boss, your Director of Central Intelligence, has my letter of resignation on his desk.”
The explosion was immediate. The Man jumped to his feet and leaned across the desk.
“Boy, don’t you dare come here ‘n’ talk t’ me ‘bout facin’ the truth. That’s sumpin ah gotta do ev’ry goddamn minute, ev’ry fucken day!” The President straightened up and continued in a more measured tone, “And let me remind you Mr. O’Keefe, one man’s ‘unshakeable truth’ could be anotha man’s pile a dawg shit.”
The tall Texan wasn’t one to be disagreed with, or worse, argued with.
O’Keefe remained on his feet, facing the only other person standing in the room, and realized that, at 6’2”, he was still a few inches shorter than the President. He also realized that the thick, shell and shatter-proof window behind the President functioned as a floor to ceiling mirror, giving him a dim, though usable, reflection of the President’s chief advisor, Tad Moore, seated against the wall behind him and smirking his ass off. He wasn’t sure which of the two of them would be the more determined enemy.
It wasn't O’Keefe’s first visit to the Oval Office, but it was the first time he had to go one on one with the most powerful man on the planet. Just minutes earlier, he had followed his boss, the Director of Central Intelligence, into the room through the door held open by the Presidential gatekeeper. His first impression hadn't changed. The Oval Office was only slightly larger than the office he’d had at the oil company before he joined the Agency. For some reason he had always imagined the President’s would be much bigger. He followed his boss’s lead and stood in front of one of the two upholstered armchairs facing the focal point of the room, the President’s desk. The Man himself was in shirtsleeves, hunched over in his chair behind the desk, his back to them, facing the floor to ceiling windows looking out to the Rose Garden. He was speaking very quietly, but angrily, with his secretary. O’Keefe still didn’t know the protocol so, to be safe, he avoided stepping on the Presidential seal embroidered on the circular rug that lay at his feet between him and the President’s desk. The secretary left, closing the door behind her, the President stood up, yanked his jacket off the back of his chair and slipped into it. He turned around to face his visitors and addressed the DCI.
“Good afternoon, Richard. It’s nice ta see y’all again. Now let’s see what’s so damned important that y’all come in all the way from Langley ta talk ta us about.”
The DCI went through the formalities of thanking the President for his time and introducing O’Keefe to him and to the other three men in the room. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in ribbon-festooned full dress whites, and the former governor of Texas, in boots and string tie, were seated on a sofa off to the President’s left on the far side of the room. Seated against the wall behind O’Keefe and the DCI was the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff and political point man Tad Moore, no friend of the Agency. O’Keefe recalled the DCI’s warning about Moore during their drive up from Langley.`
“He’s a tight-assed Texan, a 5’7” bantam rooster, a confrontational and nasty son of a bitch who takes no prisoners. I did everything I could to convince the President to exclude him from the meeting, but no dice.”
The DCI had explained that Moore had run a small, but influential oil industry consulting operation out of the border town of McAllen, Texas before coming to the administration. “He’s well connected with the big international oil companies and spends a lot of time running back and forth across the Rio Grande to maintain his contacts with the Mexican government and the oil people at PEMEX. These connections are the major factors behind his appointment, but the fact that Moore and the President are fellow Texans with a long political relationship goes a long way to explain why his pull goes far beyond his job description or his pay grade.”
The DCI underscored his point. “Moore’s a powerful player and wastes no time letting people know it. You gotta be extremely careful with him.”
That was all in the back of O’Keefe’s mind as the DCI introduced him as the CIA's 'chief oil expert' and the originator of a plan to strengthen the U.S. position in the world's pursuit of petroleum then took his seat. He began his pitch.
"Mr. President, the U. S., once the largest oil producer in the world, now has to import an ever-increasing amount of foreign oil, much of it from the Middle-east, to meet its growing domestic and military needs. This places us in an untenable strategic position regarding our global military and defense commitments, is beginning to have a negative effect on our balance of payments and could adversely effect our economy in the long run."
As he said this, O’Keefe knew it sounded stilted. Nor was what he was saying news to anyone in the room. He even caught a dim reflection of Tad Moore casting his eyes to the ceiling in an obvious display of boredom. But he had decided that it had to be said aloud, that it was a necessary preamble. He continued.
"The recent major oilfield discovery in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and its estimated 10 billion barrels of recoverable reserves, may seem to promise relief in the future. However, in that permanent frozen landscape, the countless difficulties in getting the oil out of the ground are nothing compared to the problems of transporting it. Overland is not possible - there aren't enough trucks in the country. Shipping is extremely problematic - the problem with frozen Arctic seas is paramount. Pipelines are possible - but no one has yet figured out how oil, coming out of a wellhead at 160 degrees Fahrenheit will be able to enter and flow through a pipe set in permafrost at 65 degrees below zero. These operational problems are probably not insurmountable, but we estimate that they will require at least 10 years to solve. Add to this the delays which are certain to be caused by legal claims from Eskimos and other native Alaskans and by a host of environmental groups, and there is the probability that we will see no oil from this field for the remainder of this century, if at all."
“And,” he added pointedly, “those of us who still believe in the market dynamics of supply and demand look at the long range projections of large increases in demand - estimates made by OPEC, the Texas Oil Commission, the majors - and conclude that today’s price of $2 a barrel could go to $25, maybe even higher. It’s absolutely imperative that we be able to control that price. The future of our economy is at stake.”
After pausing briefly for effect, he went on to cite an extensive and boring array of statistics meant to bolster his position but, more importantly, to prod the President's impatience. The DCI had told him that the tall Texan was known to have a short attention span, and a shorter fuse, especially now with his current preoccupations in Southeast Asia. So it was a delicate balancing act to make the actual pitch at the right psychological moment. Feeling that he was getting close to that moment, O'Keefe briefly outlined his proposed plan for project 'TRINITY', a long-range, covert strategy to re-structure the petroleum world and the U.S. position in it. Finally he requested approval to proceed with Phase I and sat down, pleased that he had been able to cover everything in under 10 minutes.
Having concluded his pitch, he turned to his chair and, before sitting down, caught a quick look at Tad Moore and imagined a slight smirk on an otherwise expressionless face. As he sat down and looked to his right where his boss was seated, the DCI gave him a quick nod of approval and turned back to face the President. O'Keefe looked beyond the DCI to see if he could read any reaction from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, though he knew Admiral Benton was almost impossible to read.
"That son of a bitch", the DCI had told him, "wouldn't twitch even if his balls were being squeezed in a vise."
The five men sat in the Oval Office, facing the President as he remained standing behind his desk. His tall, lumbering frame was back-lit by the last lingering light of the late afternoon sun, now growing weaker with the onset of winter. The President himself, his poll numbers plummeting as his involvement in Southeast Asia deepened, was also a lingering light in the late afternoon of the first elected term of his presidency. Power was slipping from his grasp. There were even rumors that he would not seek re-election so that he could devote the final year of this administration to the mess in Viet Nam that his predecessor had started and so tragically left in his hands.
As O'Keefe leaned forward in his chair, the President spoke forcefully, ignoring him and addressing his comments directly to the DCI.
"Thank yuh, Richard, for bringin' your oil expert", (he emphasized the last word), "Mr. O'Keefe here, to give us a hist’ry lesson and explain the problem. We appreciate the time 'n' effort you and your people took t' bring this mattah t' our attention. While ah understand and share your concerns, ah'm a mite more optimistic than y'all. Ah've bin assured by mah oil experts," (again giving emphasis) "the majors, the oil companies, that all the problems y’all mentioned can be dealt with, and in good time. So, ah gotta tell yuh ah don't think what you're proposin' is a propah course of action. I want yuh and Mr. O'Keefe t' forgit about this here 'TRINITY' thing. Understood?"
That was when O'Keefe almost lost it. He jumped his feet and did something he never would’ve thought he was capable of. He challenged the most powerful man on the planet. And the Man had slapped him down. Not as hard as he could have, but he had slapped him down.
O’Keefe sank back into his seat, astonished and dejected, but still defiant. He'd been assured by the DCI that everything had been pre-approved and that this meeting was only a formality. The DCI's reaction was much the same. He was about to offer a slight protest when the President raised his left hand and placed his right index finger on his lips to quiet everybody and then reached down and flicked a switch on his desktop control panel. He placed his hands on the desk, leaned forward and addressed the DCI in a more conversational tone.
"Now, heah me, Dicky. Yuh know ah got problems all ovah the goddamn place. Ah even got problems with some of the boys back home in Texas. And yuh sure as hell know ah got bushwhackers on both sides a' the aisle. So ah cain't give them no more ammunition then they a'ready got. And ah really don’t appreciate your boy O’Keefe here giving me shit. But, ah gotta admit that what y'all's proposin' may be some pretty risky stuff but it’s better than anything else ah been hearin’ lately.”
O’Keefe could see Tad Moore’s face darkening in the reflection over the President’s right shoulder.
“This here President cain’t give yuh the official OK. But this here Texan sure as hell’d be tickled pink t' see somethin' lak this pulled off. So, if you're pretty damned sure 'bout this 'TRINITY' thing, ah mean goddamned sure, ah'll leave it t' y'all t' decide what t' do with it. But, if y'all decide t' go ahead with it, in spite of mah reservations, you'd best leave no trail behind of any taxpayer dollars spent on it."
The President shifted his glance to O'Keefe and addressed him directly.
"Mr. O'Keefe, yuh sure got some set a balls, comin’ in here ‘n’ tawkin’ lak that ta yaw President,” emphasizing the last syllable as he hunched over the desk. “But, ahm tellin' yuh boy, ah nevah heard uv 'TRINITY' and nevah wanna hear uv it agin. " He turned back to the DCI. "Dickie, y'all personally, and ah mean all by yo'self, keep the guv'ner here informed day t' day, and nobody else. He'll decide what t' tell me and when. Jest the guv'ner and not another goddamned soul. Yuh hear?"
The DCI shook his head in resignation and looked over at the sixth person in the room, the President's close friend and personal adviser whom he had primed during last night's dinner at Duke Ziebert's. As their eyes met, the DCI gave a barely perceptible nod to the former Governor of Texas, not knowing whether to thank him or damn him. It was obvious the Governor was either unwilling or unable to completely sell 'TRINITY' to the President, in spite of the assurances he had given to the DCI over their final cognac last night.
"Well", the DCI thought, "this is not the first time the Agency's been hung out to dry, and me with it."
Apart from the six people in that meeting in the Oval Office, there were only two other people in the world who knew of the existence of the plan. One was Nick Tipaldi, an American who worked as General Manager of a Saudi family-owned business based in Riyadh and was O'Keefe's most important set of eyes and ears in the Middle East. The other was the Venezuelan Oil Minister, Señor Hector Marìn, O’Keefe’s hook into OPEC. That made only eight people in the world, the DCI thought, who knew of ‘TRINITY’. Only eight if you don't count the few selected bureaucratic bastards who will be given access by Tad Moore to the supposedly secret recordings that were made of everything that goes on in the Oval Office. However, the recordings will only provide definitive proof that the President rejected 'TRINITY' and told the CIA to "forgit about this here 'TRINITY' thing. Understood?" There will be no record of the Presidential "Ah'll leave it t' y'all."
After giving the DCI the qualified go-ahead, the President flicked the switch back on and thanked everyone for being there, mentioning each by name. The record now complete, and all asses being covered, he turned to face the window behind him and gazed out at the Rose Garden. The DCI recognized the move. The President always did this to give others in the room a chance to exchange glances and signals behind his back after he had either given or withheld the Presidential imprimatur. O’Keefe recognized that the President was also using the window as a mirror, observing what was going on behind him, including whatever signal Tad Moore wanted to make.
Glances were exchanged. The DCI nodded at the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who answered the nod with a shrug of his gold-embroidered shoulders, a lifting of his eyebrows and a sideways tilt of his head. The two had worked together closely for years, sometimes at cross-purposes, and knew each other well. The DCI knew what Admiral Benton’s nod and shrug meant. The message was, "OK, Dickie. It's your baby. I'll stay out of the way. But remember, you have all the authority and all the responsibility. There’ll be no help from me when this crackpot scheme of yours goes down in flames."
And go down in flames it might, and he along with it. He was used to being in tight spots, starting with the Navy during World War II. Then after the war, the OSS, running intelligence and counter intelligence in central Europe, in Vietnam with the coup to overthrow President Diem, and in his present role as Director of the CIA. But 'TRINITY' was something else. Not only was it a bit far-fetched and just as likely to fail as to succeed, it could also be considered illegal. One of the aspects of the plan was to go forward without informing the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board which had congressionally mandated oversight responsibility for all CIA operations. O'Keefe had assured him that Phase I could be undertaken with minimal use of CIA personnel, none at all from their headquarters at Langley, thereby severely reducing the chance of a leak to Congress or the press. But there was always the risk of a leak, especially in this town, and he couldn’t ignore the specter of a vengeful Tad Moore lurking in the shadows. However, he placed great faith in the judgment and practicality of his Director of Special Projects, his oil expert. Gerry O'Keefe had never failed him.
And O'Keefe himself knew that, by proceeding without any official record of approval, no ass-saving, career preserving safety net, he might be putting his own balls in the same vise in which he had imagined Admiral Benton's. And he knew that the pain, if it were to come, would be intense.
PART ONE: THE JUDAS GOAT
MEXICO CITY - OCTOBER 11, 1968 (Friday)
The room was never meant to be a morgue and Señor Hector Marín Flores never intended to end up there. However, the Venezuelan oil minister, or what remained of him, did indeed occupy the center of the foul room. His battered half-naked body lay face up on a litter centered on the dank and slippery cobblestone floor, having experienced a death much more horrible than he ever could have imagined in life. The room was windowless and dark, the air fetid, hinting at decay. It was after all in the 2nd sub-basement of a 7 story building erected in the heart of Mexico City 105 years ago, one of several spaces whose original and sole purpose was to control any seepage arising from the ancient lake bed on which the city was built. Notwithstanding the builder’s plan, the suitability of the room to its present purpose was enforced by the low ceiling, moss covered walls and complete lack of any fixed light. At the least, the body of Hector Marín gave compelling silent testimony to the reality that the room's current and temporary function was that of una casa de muerte, a house of the dead.
This room and the building it was in had been property of the United States government for thirty years, since 1938, on the heels of the Mexican government's nationalization of the oil industry and seizure of all foreign oil-related assets. The antiquated colonial style building on Cinco de Mayo off the Zocalo which had housed the U.S. Embassy was abandoned in favor of this newly refurbished building on the Paseo de la Reforma in the newer commercial sector of the capital. The move was made for several reasons, all of which had to do with security and communications. This newer building increased the Embassy's capabilities in both areas but it was the security people that had the final say. They reasoned that this sub-basement complex would prevent any tunneling or other subterranean breaches of security, such as had been a major problem in their old building, and left these rooms untouched.
If Hector Marín had been able to protest his new surroundings when he was carried in at 8 o'clock that morning he most probably would have done so, having been a very proper man, fastidious in behavior and dress. But the Mexican doctor whom the Embassy had rudely roused at his home in Lomas at 5:15 that morning had pronounced Señor Marín dead at 7:04 am where the body was found, on Calle Flores in the San Angel district, approximately 12 miles from where it now lay. The doctor also estimated the time of death at about 1 am.
At 6:15 that evening, the only other inhabitant of the room was a very alive and extremely agitated Mr. Gerry O'Keefe of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. His agitation had been growing since shortly after 8 that morning, when he received the news of Hector Marín’s death in his office at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. After shaking off the initial shock, he scanned the overnight mail and message traffic summaries, giving himself time to digest what had happened, and began to consider his next steps. He requested and got a meeting with his boss, the Director of Central Intelligence, to explain the difficulties brought about by Hector Marín’s demise and to begin to discuss what he intended to do to minimize its impact on ‘OPERATION TRINITY’.
After briefing the DCI he made two phone calls to Mexico City, the first on a secure line to the Chief of Station in the Embassy, the other en clair to the Hotel del Paseo where he left a message for a Mr. Alex Dexter. Finally, he sent two encrypted messages to Lybia, the first to his man visiting the western capital city of Tripoli and the second, along with a photograph, to a female operative in US AID office in the eastern capital city, Benghazi. Satisfied that there was little else he could accomplish in his office, he took a commercial flight out of Dulles and arrived in Mexico City at 4:30 that afternoon.
Throughout the day, his agitation increased at the realization that a key contact and friend of the United States, an important man with whom he could 'do business', was no longer a functioning entity. More importantly, one of the key factors in 'TRINITY' was now out of commission. It was his job to find out what had happened, why it had happened, what sadistic son of a bitch had caused it to happen and where to find a replacement for the late Hector Marín.
Mr. O'Keefe was known amongst his peers as one who rarely showed emotion, but those few who had seen him at CIA headquarters that morning would later say that his fury was palpable.