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Will the Bush Library Reveal Any Secrets?

Daniel Fishel

Last week the city's only daily newspaper published a package of three opinion pieces about the new George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas and the effect it will or will not have on the city's image. They all wound up saying it would put us on the map one way or another, but not one of them mentioned the Ray Hunt oil deal in Kurdistan.

But that's the whole map.

The Ray Hunt oil deal in Kurdistan is the piece on which the Bush library will rise or fall and take with it the reputation of Southern Methodist University and to some extent the city. Everything else is dross.

The Hunt oil deal in Kurdistan was not itself the most important thing that happened during the entire Bush administration. But it's the key to the most important thing. The important thing is the Iraq War and why we did it.

We should assume scholars will come here from everywhere in the world including Iraq to work that one big puzzle: Were the weapons of mass destruction always a ruse for justifying the war? Did the Bush administration invade Iraq for oil? Was Ray Hunt's oil deal in Kurdistan the proof of it? Those questions belong to global history.

The part of it that may stick to us locally is how the Bush Presidential Center, SMU and the Hunt Oil people choose to deal with those questions. If their collective response is anything like the stubborn stonewalling that came from the Bush White House, then, yeah, that could have some effect on what Dallas looks like to the rest of the world.

A lot is known already. The deal was the subject of congressional hearings, and much has been written since. It's just that none of it adds up, and all of it sharpens the unanswered question: Was Iraq about oil?

On August 14, 2007, insurgents killed 796 people and wounded 1,500 more near Mosul in the Yazidi community bombings, the most brutal in the war to that date. On September 16, 2007, private American security guards clearing the way for a convoy of U.S. State Department vehicles killed 17 civilians and wounded 20 others, for which five guards were charged with manslaughter. Sandwiched between those two events, on Sept. 8, 2007, Ray Hunt of Dallas inked a deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government for drilling rights on a parcel roughly the size of the Dallas metro area. The Kurdish region of Iraq is roughly the size of the state of Maine, so even through the fog of war Mr. Hunt was able to draw a sharp X.

The fog that welled up immediately after he drew his X is still impenetrable a half decade later. In July 2008 a congressional oversight committee released emails and other correspondence showing that Hunt had kept the State Department well informed of his intentions to sign the deal in the days before the closing. Yet State Department officials told Congress they had opposed the deal, testifying, "We believe these contracts have needlessly elevated tensions between the K.R.G. [Kurdistan Regional Government] and the national government of Iraq."

On Sept. 20, 2007, President Bush told a news conference the deal was news to him, and he even thought it might be troubling: "I knew nothing about the [Hunt Oil Co.] deal. I need to know exactly how it happened. To the extent that it does undermine the ability for the government to come up with an oil revenue-sharing plan that unifies the country, obviously I'm — if it undermines that, I'm concerned."

The president's foreign policy advisory board knew about it. Hunt was a member. He wrote to the rest of the board on July 12, 2007, telling them: "We were approached a month ago by representatives of a private group in Kurdistan as to the possibility of our becoming interested in that region. We had one team of geoscientists travel to Kurdistan several weeks ago and we were encouraged by what we saw."

Hunt's operation was fairly out in the open, given the typically clandestine nature of the international oil business. The question is how and why his good friend in the Oval Office could claim to be shocked that there was oil dealing going on in Kurdistan.

Which brings us back again to Dallas and the Bush Center. Ray Hunt is arguably the most powerful person in Dallas. He is the single most important reason the Bush center is here. Jeanne Phillips, a Hunt executive who was called to testify in the Kurdistan controversy, helped put the Bush Presidential Center together. She, Hunt and Laura Bush are all SMU trustees.

We have lots more people right here in town with special knowledge of the Hunt oil deal in Kurdistan. Clay Sell, for example, was deputy U.S. Secretary of Energy at the time of the deal. He joined Hunt Oil five months after the deal was signed and is now here as president of Hunt Oil's alternative energy division. In fact the opening of the Bush Center here, a personal triumph for Ray Hunt, has the ironic effect of bringing the whole Kurdistan question home to roost in Dallas, his hometown.

 

I mentioned stonewalling earlier. From very early days, the Bush administration took an approach to presidential papers and archives far more restrictive than any previous White House. In 2001 he issued the semi-notorious Executive Order 13233, circumventing the Presidential Records Act of 1978, extending presidential privilege over papers and archives to his heirs in a uniquely dynastic act and basically declaring by decree his own right to keep his own records secret forever.

Order 13233 was later taken down a peg or two by Congress. President Obama, in one of his first acts, countermanded it entirely.

The archives themselves are not legally under George Bush's control. Last week Bush signed control of them over to the National Archives as part of a "joint use agreement" with the private policy institute at the Bush Center, which has been described as an "action-oriented think tank." The problem there is that the Bush administration does not have entirely clean hands where the joint use, care and preservation of important records may be concerned.

Still missing and unaccounted for, for example, are entire weeks of important White House emails from the all-important period when the American invasion of Iraq was just beginning, enough to make Rose Mary Wood's 18-and-a-half-minute tape-recording gap during the Nixon Watergate scandal look like a drop in the bucket. Those are issues that aren't going away, either, any more than Ray Hunt's oil deal in Kurdistan. The worse a thing looked back when it happened, the more attractive it is now to scholars and journalists. That's sort of the way of the world, isn't it?

But Hunt's oil deal in Kurdistan has a special status that puts it at the head of the line. Hunt himself seems to have been pretty open about what he was doing. At least he took pains not to surprise people who had been good to him. The question is Bush. Why did he back away?

There are lots of non-nefarious possibilities. Maybe nobody told him. Or it could have been an entirely political and almost spur-of-the-moment thing, a feeling that this was not the conversation the president wanted to have with things over there so hot.

At the other end of the spectrum, the possibilities are entirely nefarious. Maybe the Hunt oil deal in Kurdistan was only one example of a general land-rush going on behind the scenes. Maybe lots of American and British oil companies were greedy to take back the colonial booty they thought Saddam Hussein had snatched away from them. And of course if that was going on at any significant scale, it couldn't help casting an even worse light on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. All of a sudden the WMD matter would look less like a terrible mistake and more like a terrible lie.

That's what people will come here to find out. It's why they will knock on the door. If those doors are thrown open, if everybody gets credentials and the files are easy to read, that's one thing. But if the shadow of EO 13233 falls across the land, then it's going to be another thing entirely.

I would think some people might come here hoping for that very outcome. George Bush has been off riding his mountain bike, selling trees and keeping his lips zipped: What better way to pull him back into the ring and bloody him up than a fight over presidential records? What better place to start than Hunt's oil deal in Kurdistan?

So even if that happens, what does that have to do with Dallas? Hey, we weren't the president. We're not Ray Hunt. We don't have an oil deal in Kurdistan.

Mmm. I don't know. If this thing goes south, I don't believe we can weasel out of it quite that easily. The city's only daily newspaper has already been awash to the gunwales with talk about how the shiny new presidential center will put this burg on the map.

Listen, I could defend us, I think, by pointing out that the city's only daily newspaper always says stuff is going to put us on the map. They say everything is going to put us on the map. The last thing was a bridge. Considering all the stuff they said was going to put us on the map, we should be the whole map by now.

My fear is that they might finally be right. The Bush Center might really put us on the map in some indelible way. Cross our fingers. Hope they've got a good story right away about the Ray Hunt oil deal in Kurdistan. Plan B, change our names and move to Ohio at midnight. Always my plan anyway.


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