April 16, 2004 -- The voice believed to be Osama bin Laden's went through a list of familiar enemies in the audiotape released to Arab television this week: President George W. Bush, Spain, Israel.
But though bin Laden decried the fact that "this is a war that is benefiting major companies with billions of dollars," he only mentioned one company by name: Halliburton and Company, the Houston-based oil and gas services company.
Asked for the company's reaction to being mentioned by bin Laden, a spokeswoman for Halliburton said, "This is an unprecedented time in American history. Beyond that, for security purposes, we have to refer all questions to the Pentagon."
On one level, the fact that the civilized world's biggest enemy criticized Halliburton can no doubt be worn as a badge of honor. But that a terrorist thinks he can evoke sympathy for his causes and animosity for the U.S. by mentioning its name also signifies how controversial Halliburton is and how the company is seen as a sort of shorthand for corporate greed and crony capitalism.
"I stopped briefly at a gas station," presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said on March 30. "If prices stay that high, Dick Cheney and President Bush are going to have to car pool to work. Those aren't Exxon prices, they are Halliburton prices."
Unfair Black Eye?
Vice President Cheney, who served as CEO of Halliburton for five years, recently told Dow Jones News Service that "Halliburton gets unfairly maligned simply because of their past association with me."
Countered Sen. Frank Lauternberg, D-N.J., one of the company's fiercest critics, to ABCNEWS: "Haliburton has a sorry record on its behavior. And the vice president ought to disavow any connection with them."
Whether the allegations and insinuations are unfair is in the eye of the beholder. But Cheney's relationship with the company is almost certainly the reason it has become a political lightning rod in America and now, apparently, the world.
The Tale of Two Halliburtons
But there are really two Halliburtons: One is the corporation; the other is made up of the thousands of American employees risking their lives to help rebuild Iraq.
Some might wonder why private employees are even in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has long pushed for greater out-sourcing since the military is stretched thin both in terms of manpower and skills.
"Some studies have been conducted that show that there are something like 300,000 military people doing tasks that could be as easily done by civilians," Rumsfeld told troops in August of 2003.
Others say using contractors allows the Bush administration to enter into wars it wouldn't have the popular support to wage if it were relying upon armed forces and National Guard reserve units. "The reason that we're using [contractors] is that we didn't provide enough of our own military to do the job," Lautenberg told ABCNEWS.
The risks are great. "A lot of the times the contractors are taking greater risks because they're going into much more tense areas, but they're also going in packing less firepower," said P.W. Singer, author of the book Corporate Warriors, published last year.
Pride, Patriotism … and Dollar Bills
And why would anyone take such a dangerous job?
"It's because of pride in their jobs, patriotism, for some a sense of adventure," said Singer. "And for some its because the money is quite good."
With overtime, employees can make up to $120,000 a year.
Cheney made a total of $44 million during his five years as Halliburton's CEO, resigning before accepting the vice presidential nomination.
"It's a great company," Cheney said on NBC last September. "There are fine people working for it."
But questions about Halliburton have less to do with how fine its employees may be, but rather, about the fact that Halliburton has become under the Bush administration the largest contractor in Iraq. With estimates of contracts totaling up to $18 billion, Halliburton was in some cases offered no-bid exclusive government contracts.
"Nobody has produced one single shred of evidence that there's anything wrong or inappropriate here, nothing but innuendo, and … basically political cheap shots is the way I would describe it," Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press last Fall. "I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had now for over three years," he added.
No End to Controversy
But that is subject to debate. Cheney has $18 million-worth of unexercised stock options from Halliburton and he continues to receive a fixed deferred salary from the company, $178,437 last year, according to his 2003 tax returns. The Office of Government Ethics defines both as "retained ties" or "linkages" to a government official's former employee.
Cheney's office this week issued a statement saying that the vice president's deferred compensation was earned in 1999, is set in fixed installments for five years, "and is not affected by Halliburton's current economic performance or earnings in any way."
In a more recent scandal for Halliburton, Pentagon auditors recently said a subsidiary overstated the costs of feeding U.S. troops by at least $16 million. The controversies surrounding Halliburton have clearly grown to the point that even America's most feared foe, bin Laden, is using the symbol of the company for his own insidious and murderous ends.