The One-Question 
Interview With 
Steve Coll

The author of Private Empire: ExxonMobile and American Power answers the question: In terms of difficulty, how would you compare reporting on Exxon with the reporting you did for your previous book, The Bin Ladens?

Reporting on Exxon was not only harder than reporting on the bin Ladens, it was harder than reporting on the CIA (for my book Ghost Wars ). 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 make people nervous, they make people afraid. Even people 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 naive. 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.

A little something extra: Read a review of Private Empire here.

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