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Chelsea Manning and the Deepwater Horizon Deaths

    The author under arrest in Azerbaijan in December 2010. (Palast Investigative Fund)

Five years ago Monday, 11 men died on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig — despite Chelsea Manning’s effort to save their lives.

Let me explain.

The BP drilling rig blew itself to kingdom come after the “mud” — the cement used to cap the well — blew out.

The oil company, the federal government and the industry were shocked — shocked! — at this supposedly unexpected explosion in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

But BP knew, and Exxon and Chevron knew, and the U.S. State Department knew, that just 19 months earlier another BP offshore rig suffered an identical, disastrous blowout halfway across the planet in the Caspian Sea.

In both the Gulf and Caspian blowouts, the immediate culprit was the failure of the cement, in both cases caused by the use — misuse — of nitrogen in the cement mix, a money-saving but ultimately deadly measure intended to speed the cement’s drying.

The cover-up meant that U.S. regulators, the U.S. Congress and the public had no inkling that the cost-saving “quick-dry” cement process had failed on an offshore rig until the Deepwater Horizon blew.

But Pvt. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning tried to warn us. The details of the Caspian Sea blowout off the coast of Baku, Azerbaijan, were revealed in the secret State Department cables Manning released in December 2009 through WikiLeaks. Cables from the U.S. ambassador relayed a summary of confidential meetings in which BP’s top Azeri executive confided that the big Caspian offshore rig suffered a “blowout” in September 2008, leading to the “largest such emergency evacuation in BP’s history.” Its likely cause: “a bad cement job.”

The message was relayed to Washington after BP’s American partners in the Caspian — Exxon and Chevron — asked the State Department to find out why BP had ceased to drill in the Caspian, costing them all millions. State, then headed by former Chevron board member Condoleezza Rice, got the oil chiefs their answer — then joined them in keeping it secret.

(Not knowing about the Manning cables, I had to find out about the Caspian blowout the hard way. Just days after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, I received a tip from an eyewitness to the Caspian disaster. To determine the facts I flew to Baku, where my British TV crew and I found ourselves placed under arrest by a team of goons from the Azerbaijan secret police, the military and some of BP’s oil-well-insignia-sporting private security clowns. As a reporter for British television, I was quickly released — with the film of the bust captured on my little pen camera. But, terribly, two of my rig-worker witnesses disappeared.)

Had BP or the State Department ’fessed up to the prior blowout — a disclosure required by U.S. and British regulations — it is exceptionally unlikely that BP would have been allowed to use the quick-dry cement method in the deep Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed, there may have been a complete prohibition on the drilling, because Department of Interior experts had opposed deep drilling in that part of the Gulf. To lobby the government to allow drilling there, about six months before the Deepwater Horizon blew, BP executive David Rainey and the presidents of Exxon USA and Chevron testified before Congress that offshore drilling had been conducted for 50 years “in a manner both safe and protective of the environment.”It is hard to imagine the oil companies defeating the Interior experts had they admitted to a major blowout only a year earlier in the Caspian Sea.

Ultimately, Rainey was indicted for the crime of making false statements to Congress on a lesser matter. However, indicting the executives for concealing the earlier blowout was not possible because our own State Department participated in the cover-up.

And that’s what Manning exposed — though not early enough to save those 11 lives.

Pvt. Manning may not have known about the specific memo on the secret meeting of State and BP. It was one in an ocean of cables she released.

But Manning knew this: The truth can save lives. Or, as Manning was brought up to believe: The truth shall set us free.

And if truth sets us free, then official secrets enslave us.

Barack Obama and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell know this. So do Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the other candidates for Secret-Keeper-in-Chief.

Years ago, Daniel Ellsberg told me that he was surprised when Judge Stanley Sporkin dismissed all charges against him although he had revealed top-secret military intelligence, the Pentagon Papers. The judge noted that the U.S. was unique among nations in having no “official secrets act,” no law against telling the truth to the public.

No more. The brutal 35-year prison sentence for Manning on espionage charges and the continuing effort to arrest Edward Snowden make it clear that the Obama administration considers truth-telling a crime.

As I see it, the State Department officials who withheld BP’s blowout secret are as culpable as the oil company in the deaths of those 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon. You can say that the men who died on the rig were victims of the corporate-government enslavement of information, martyrs to official secrecy.

Greg Palast investigated the Deepwater Horizon blowout for British Television’s “Dispatches,” detailed in his book, “Vultures’ Picnic.”

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Greg Palast
Contributor
Greg Palast has been called the "most important investigative reporter of our time -- up there with Woodward and Bernstein" (The Guardian). Palast has broken front-page stories for BBC Television Newsnight,…
Greg Palast

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