The Great American Oil Graft

By Zack Kopplin

On December 9, the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing to question Joel Rayburn, a State Department official, about America’s intervention in Syria’s civil war. Rayburn talked a good game about rebuilding the country, but President Trump has blown past bromides about humanitarian aid to emphasize that troops are deployed in Syria for one reason: to guard oil wells for exploitation.

“We’re keeping the oil,” the President has said, repeatedly.

An apparent war crime, Trump’s oil-from-Syria policy has moved forward in the form of a Delaware shell company, Delta Crescent Energy. In April this year, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control granted Delta Crescent the only existing waiver to deal in sanctioned Syrian oil. Three other companies, including one run by eccentric Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana, were denied similar licenses. Delta Crescent is the only oil company allowed to do business in Syria without being cut off from the American financial system.

During the House committee hearing, Rayburn admitted that he and his boss, Jim Jeffrey, the American Special Representative for Syria Engagement, had held secret meetings with politicians from Syria and nearby Iraqi Kurdistan to support Delta Crescent. “We met with members of that company, we met with local authorities… with [President of Iraqi Kurdistan] Nechirvan Barzani,” said Rayburn, though he denied this qualified as lobbying for the company.

Despite awkward questions about the Delaware company’s political connections, the hearing went fairly smoothly for the Trump administration. A concerted government effort to conceal information about Delta Crescent made sure of it.

Over the summer, the Government Accountability Project, where I work, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department for a copy of Delta Crescent’s sanctions waiver and its application for that waiver. Government lawyers told a judge they would release those documents during the first week of December, but the administration delayed just long enough to keep the information out of Congress’ hands. Seventeen minutes after the House hearing began, I received a heavily (and inappropriately) redacted copy of Delta Crescent’s sanctions waiver.

The waiver doesn’t reveal much, but the government forgot to cover up an important revelation.  Delta Crescent has secret, potentially scandalous, beneficial owners.

Shadow Owners, Real Owners

The company’s known leadership is a group of small-time Republican donors, including Bush-era Ambassador to Denmark James Cain, wildcatter oilman John Dorrier, and military contractor James Reese. Beyond taking their word for it, however, there is no evidence that these three men fully control Delta Crescent. Delaware is a secrecy jurisdiction, meaning the company’s owners are not publicly recorded. Treasury Documents suggest that there are secret parent companies behind it. “This license application and its attachments contains confidential commercial and financial information regarding Delta Crescent and its parent companies,” wrote Cain, in a letter to Treasury.

For months, journalists and insiders have debated four main theories about Delta Crescent’s real ownership. The primary suspects include a combination of people connected to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, warlord Erik Prince, Texas oil money and the rulers of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Barzani family.

Since the summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s role in supporting Delta Crescent has raised questions. Pompeo first acknowledged the company, and his apparent direct involvement with it, during a Senate hearing in late July. “The deal took a little longer, Senator, than we had hoped, and now we’re in implementation,” Pompeo told Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Speculation has focused on Pompeo’s graduating class at West Point, which has had an unusual number of members rise to positions of power in the government and corporate world. An as-of-yet-unidentified former classmate could have been a key conduit between the Trump administration and the Delaware company.

The second name that comes up is the war-criminal boogeyman of private military contracting, former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince. Like Pompeo, Prince is deeply connected to the Trump administration. His sister, Betsy DeVos, serves as Trump’s Education Secretary and his role as a conduit between Russian agents and the White House was investigated by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Prince also has connections to Delta Crescent’s James Reese through Blackwater, where Reese once served as a Vice President. After Blackwater contractors murdered 17 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square, Reese left to form his own military contracting company, TigerSwan. Rather than a clean break, though, TigerSwan appears to have been a Blackwater spinoff. A Blackwater effort to build a shooting range in Apex, North Carolina  was scrapped amidst bad press that followed the Nisour Square massacre. Instead, Prince financed the project under TigerSwan’s name. “Reese confirmed that Blackwater was behind the deal,” McClatchy reported at the time.

That history is a decade old, but perhaps the connections between Blackwater and TigerSwan are still in play.

Another member of Delta Crescent’s leadership, Texas oilman John Dorrier, has attracted attention. In the late 1990s, Dorrier founded the British oil exploration company, Gulfsands Petroleum, which worked with Syrian regime financiers to gain access to Syrian oil fields before American sanctions were put in place. After being pushed out of Gulfsands, Dorrier has been behind a series of fly-by-night oil companies, at least one of which was involved in a surprisingly large acquisition. Given Dorrier’s background in the oil industry and Syria, and his access to financing, he could have attracted politically connected investors for the project.

The last potential financial beneficiaries of the project are Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders, the Barzani family. Delta Crescent’s original plan for its Syrian oil was to smuggle it through Iraqi pipelines into Turkey, disguised as Iraqi Kurdish fuel. That plot would require buy-in from the wildly corrupt Barzanis, which is why Rayburn and Jeffrey were meeting with Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani on behalf of the company.

The simplest scheme would be to sell the Syrian fuel directly to the family’s companies at a discounted price. One path would be to deliver fuel to a company, Rainfloods, controlled by Kurdish special forces chief Mansour Barzani, Nechirvan’s cousin and the brother of Kurdish Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani. Rainfloods is the parent company for a Kurdish refinery, Lanaz, that has already processed Syrian fuel. (This was also the plan proposed to the Treasury Department by Moti Kahana and a Syrian journalist recently reported the Barzanis were using two companies, Naji and Aslan Oglu, to transport Syrian fuel to Iraq.) But without knowing who Delta Crescent’s beneficial owner is, it’s impossible to count out the possibility that the Barzanis took an actual ownership stake in the company, rather than simply contracting with it.

Any combination of these connections could explain Delta Crescent’s political connections and financial backing. Treasury Department delays may have saved Rayburn from having to answer those questions last week, but it is indisputable that the American public deserves to understand who is benefitting from our involvement in a bloody, ongoing civil war and whether war crimes are being committed in our names in order to enrich the President’s friends and donors.


Zack Kopplin is an investigator with the Government Accountability Project. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackKopplin.

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