05/18/2007 10:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Condi Rice--Cooked in Oil?

Now that Paul Wolfowitz has been more or less sidelined, how about some questions for Condoleezza Rice?

What's to ask Condi? Well, for starters her role in the Oil-for-Food scandal -- a role she might have played first in private industry, and then, as President Bush's National Security Advisor.

This week an investigation by the International Herald Tribune and the Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore revealed that Total, France's largest company, indirectly paid up to $1 million dollars in illegal surcharges to Saddam's regime on oil it bought from Iraq from 2000 to 2002.

That sum, however, is nothing compared to the $20 million that -according to another report- U.S. oil giant Chevron apparently paid indirectly to Saddam during the same period. Chevron will now pay between $25 to $50 million dollars in fines as part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.

What has Condoleezza Rice to do with all that?

As she tells it, she was just a very concerned spectator. In January 2005, during Senate confirmation hearings to be the nation's next Secretary of State, Ms. Rice expressed her outrage at revelations that Saddam had used some of the billions he skimmed from the Oil-for-Food program to purchase dual-use equipment that could have been used to produce WMD.

"I think it is a scandal what happened with Oil-for-Food," she told the senators. "We've got to get to the bottom of what happened here...and those who were responsible, I think, should be held accountable."

Right, except that during much of the period that Chevron was violating the sanctions, Condoleezza Rice was on the Chevron Board of Directors. She went on the board in 1991. Iraq began demanding the illegal surcharges in August 2000. By the time that Rice resigned from the board in January 15, 2001 to work in the White House, Chevron had already bought millions of barrels of crude from Iraq, even though Iraq's supplemental charges violated the Oil-for-Food program.

According to the Volcker Committee which investigated the Oil-for-Food program, the fact that Saddam was charging illegal supplements was common knowledge in the oil industry.

Though it may be argued that boards of directors are often big name figureheads, according to Chevron's own executives the company's policy was that "board members must hear the bad news along with the good. And they should hear it in board meetings, before it appears in the newspapers."

As Claudio Gatti, who wrote the IHT reports, pointed out, if any board members should have heard the bad news about illegal payments to Saddam, it would have been the board's Public Policy Committee, established specifically to consider important legal, environmental and other policy issues. For two years, it was chaired by Condoleezza Rice. (Perhaps some enterprising reporter or congressional investigator will talk with other members of that committee to see if the subject ever came up.)

But Rice's possible complicity in the Oil-for-Food scandal doesn't stop there. At the beginning of 2001, she became President Bush's National Security Advisor. One of her major preoccupations, of course, was Saddam Hussein. As she told the Senate committee in 2005, the United States relied on Oil-for-Food "to keep Saddam Hussein contained and checked. And clearly we weren't doing that. The sanctions were breaking down. He was playing the international community like a violin."

Who arguably better knew the music and some of the key players then Condoleezza Rice, fresh from the Chevron board?

One wonders what thoughts crossed her mind when she read --as she must have-- reports by U.S. intelligence agencies detailing how sanctions against Iraq were being thwarted by the major oil companies.

Indeed, according to the Volcker Committee, Saddam's manipulations had been reported to members of the 661 Committee which oversaw the U.N. sanctions. The most powerful member of that committee, of course, was the United States.

What did Condoleezza know about all this and when did she know it? It's doubtful we'll ever find out from Condi directly. She has an impressive record of either somehow ignoring, forgetting or gliding by when confronted with unpleasant issues.

For instance when she was questioned by a congressional committee this past February about why the Bush administration in 2003 rejected an offer by Iran to negotiate major issues with the U.S --including Iran's nuclear program-- Rice testified that she had never seen any such proposal.

She was immediately contradicted by Flynt Leverett, who worked on the National Security Council when it was headed by Rice. He compared the potential offered by Iran's proposal to the 1972 U.S. opening to China. He said he was confident it was seen by Rice and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell but "the administration rejected the overture."

Other congressional investigators are still trying to find out how the charge that Saddam had been attempting to purchase uranium in Niger got into President Bush's State of the Union Speech in January 2003. This despite a specific warning from the CIA to the White House in October 2002 that the charge could not be substantiated. In fact, Condoleezza Rice had deleted that accusation from an earlier Bush speech for that very reason.

Condoleezza now claims that the CIA warning had somehow slipped by, forgotten by both herself and her deputy, Stephen Hadley. "Maybe we should have remembered. We didn't." She recently said.

Ms. Rice is refusing a subpoena to testify about the affair before a committee of the U.S. Congress.

On another occasion, after Bob Woodward's latest book, State of Denial, charged that CIA Director George Tenet had come to the White House on July 10, 2001 specifically to warn Rice of a serious terrorist attack being prepared add aimed at the United States, Rice told reporters that it was "incomprehensible" that she could have ignored dire terrorist threats two months before 9/11. She also claimed not to remember any such meeting with Tenet in the White House on that date.

It later turned out there was such a meeting, but Rice still denied receiving any urgent warnings about al Qaeda.

In his book, Woodward also quotes David Kay, who led the hunt for WMD after the invasion, and found out --to his own surprise-- that there were none. Kay later told a NSC staffer who claimed that Rice "was the best national security adviser in the history of the United States": "Well, she could have stopped trying to be the best friend of the president and be the best adviser and realize she's got this screening function," Kay said.

When Tenet had insisted the WMD case was a "slam dunk," she should have followed up aggressively, demanding a full reexamination of every last shred of the "slam dunk" evidence......'She was probably the worst national security adviser in modern times since the office was created,' he said."

There is a similar damning account in Paul Bremer's description of his tour as U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, My Year in Iraq. As Bremer tells it he realized early on that the insurgency was going to represent a serious, perhaps fatal, threat to U.S. plans for Iraq. He repeatedly expressed those fears to Washington, along with increasingly urgent requests for more U.S. troops on the ground.

Among those he repeatedly warned, he says, were Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. Rumsfeld didn't even reply to one particularly stark warning. Nor, says Bremmer, did he hear any further about it from Rice.

A few days later, says Bremer, he briefed Condoleezza again, and Steve Hadley, on the catastrophic security situation: "The message to most Iraqis is that the Coalition can't provide them the most basic government service: security...We've become the worst of all things-an ineffective occupier." What was the reaction of Rice and Hadley according to Bremmer? They "listened but made few comments." Bremer and his assistant walked away "not sure if our analysis would have any effect in Washington."

I heard a similar account in the Spring of 2004 from a top Amnesty International official in Washington. Already in June of 2003, Amnesty and other human rights organizations were attempting to alert the Bush administration to the many documented cases of torture and killing taking place in U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was almost half a year before the Abu Graib scandal became public.

Among the top officials they personally alerted: Colin Powell -and Condoleezza Rice.