New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll’s last two books, Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens, were, as he puts it, big projects about closed institutions—the Central Intelligence Agency and the Middle East’s most famous family, respectively. His latest peek behind tightly drawn curtains, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, is a detailed examination of the influential Irving-based oil corporation. ExxonMobil is famously reticent about its operations, and, as Coll explains in this interview, penetrating the company’s official PR line proved challenging, even for an experienced reporter.
Reporting on Exxon can be so difficult—the company is famous for being secretive and cultish. Can you talk a little about the difficulties of reporting this book?
I’ve developed this kind of playbook in my head about how to cope with a subject that doesn’t volunteer to be written about and isn’t happy to know that you have volunteered to write about them. One of my habits has been to approach them right away and tell them I’m intending to write about them. Not because I expect them to say, “Oh, great,” but just to open, from the very beginning, a kind of diplomatic channel. And that channel remained open, although Exxon didn’t offer much information over the course of the project. It remained open to the very end, right through the fact-checking process, when they finally just said, “We’re done.”
Did you start out with one idea about the company and then did your reporting force you to change it?
I didn’t know a lot about ExxonMobil’s distinctive culture when I started reporting, and so the whole discovery of what ExxonMobil really is and what it’s like to work there, I found it constantly surprising and amazing. I was also interested in the question of how the corporation saw its own power in the world. I figured that it would be interesting and maybe different than the assumption that they were just an instrument of the Bush administration, or an instrument of the United States. I figured that the clichés couldn’t possibly be true, but I wasn’t sure what the alternative was. I gradually came to understand how they see themselves almost as, well, an independent sovereign.
In terms of difficulty, how would compare reporting on Exxon with reporting on the bin Ladens?
Reporting on Exxon was not only harder than reporting on the bin Ladens, it was harder than reporting on the CIA. By an order of magnitude. The fundamental problem is that they really don’t want to be written about and they are disciplined. They enforce that discipline pretty aggressively inside the corporation; they tie everyone up with legal agreements. They have a culture of intimidation that they bring to bear in their external relations, and it is plhenty understood inside the corporation, too. They make people nervous, they make people afraid. Even people who I encountered who really had no reason to fear ExxonMobil—American citizens who didn’t have anything, their wealth or anything else, at risk—were still vaguely nervous. I met with a source in Washington—I won’t say more than that—and I had worked very hard to get this meeting and the first thing that the person said was “Don’t be naïve. ExxonMobil knows you’re here right now.” I said, “Really? You believe that?!”
I don’t know how they create that sense that they are pervasive and all-seeing, but they do create it. But I felt protected by one thing—and I think it helped some of the sources that I developed think about their own choices—which is that ExxonMobil really does follow the law, I think. I’m persuaded that they really stay inside the lines. That’s the whole method. So I always took some comfort in the thought that however their security department was managing my project, it would be unlikely that they would stray outside the letter of the law. In the United States, at least, that limits their choices.
Were there times when you were traveling for this book that you felt you were in danger?
Nigeria was the only really dicey place. Chad is rough, but not out-of-bounds, and Indonesia was calmed down by the time I got there. Equatorial Guinea is a strange and rough place, but it’s not dangerous if you have the right point of entry, and I arranged to be there in a kind of authorized way so no one was going to mess with me. But Nigeria was hard because I wanted to go down to the delta without getting kidnapped, and I didn’t really have any way to do that. Everyone told me, “Well, just ask ExxonMobil to take you.” That’s the only way anyone goes there. And I said, “Well, that’s not how I can go, so …” Nigeria is the sort of place that if you just turn up on your own, you will be immediately identified as a target and then kidnapped and all of that. But if you can go with someone who has juice locally, and travel with them under their protection, then you can solve the problem. So I spent a fair amount of my time in Nigeria trying to find a politician who represented that area who would be willing to travel with me and let me go under their colors. And eventually I found a member of the National Assembly who represented the exact constituency where ExxonMobil’s operations are. And he and I went down together. We had a blast; it was really fun! Looking back, I’m not actually sure that I was a whole lot safer traveling with him, but I certainly felt better.