Sally Denton, author of The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, signs copies of her book Tuesday at Collected Works in Santa Fe. Photo by Roger Snodgrass/ladailypost.com
- The Profiteers – Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World.
Veteran investigative reporter Sally Denton was drawn to write a book about Bechtel Corporation in part because she grew up in Boulder City, a town built by Bechtel for a colossal project in Nevada during the Great Depression. Denton was raised in a house overlooking a majestic view that included Lake Mead held back by Hoover Dam, the largest dam of its time.
“Symbolic of all that was right and wrong with America, Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947) created the water and energy infrastructure that would power the rest of the century’s burgeoning development in the American West, Sunbelt metropolises never before envisioned – Los Angeles, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego – and would become a sudden slightly daunting reality,” she wrote. “The central thrust of the massive population shift from East to West depended upon the control of water and energy, and Bechtel would be firmly installed as a power broker in exploiting the western resources of water coal, uranium, oil and gas.”
The Profiteers book jacket. Courtesy image
Bechtel’s power to realign the axis of the American Dream was just the beginning of its role in building the modern world, with all that was bold and heedless about where we are today. In a hard look at the company’s career, one of the few independent assessments that have been made outside the private company’s tightly held secrets, Denton follows the company’s career into naval construction during World War II, where it joined fortunes with John McCone, later to become not only the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, but also the director of the CIA, an invaluable connection to future wealth and rich veins of public resources.
The rest of the story is almost too grandiose to summarize, but Denton captures Bechtel’s dramatic growth around the world, before global was a household concept and when the Middle East oilfields were there to be milked by a company that could build pipelines for Sheiks and palaces for Saddam Hussein and nuclear power stations for the up and comers. When Saddam fell, the same company was there to convert his palace into an American headquarters compound, picking up a bonus in the so-called reconstruction of Iraq.
Bechtel built the Chunnel from Britain to France and the Big Dig through Boston and went on to work on some of the most lucrative, government funded, publically subsidized contracts and tens of thousands of projects throughout the world. In recent years, they have become a major player in the Department of Energy nuclear weapons complex, including a limited partnership with the University of California and others to manage and operate Los Alamos National and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.
According to Denton, Bechtel perfected a mechanism for success that has been widely adopted in the military-industrial complex. This was the famous “revolving door” that moved top officials back and forth from position of responsibility inside the government to positions of decisive influence outside the government.
In response to Bechtel’s public criticism of unspecified inaccuracies in the book, Denton said she did not write a “gotcha book.” Her story of the company is based on the available public record, which she admits is incomplete, because Bechtel has always been a private company not subject to Securities and Exchange Commission regulation or stockholder review. Investigating an impervious subject, Denton has written a well-documented “I see you,” without rabbit punches or low blows. One-third of her book is devoted to notes, bibliography and citations and is clearly an honest attempt to say what she could gather and grasp.
Denton said she was surprised to discover how little Americans know about the privatization that has swept up the national laboratories, which began recasting themselves as the nuclear weapons enterprise, rather than the nuclear weapons complex in the last decade. “What should the relationship be between private industry and the government?” she asks.
One take-away from her effort, she said at a book signing and discussion Tuesday evening at Collected Works in Santa Fe, is the necessity of the “spotlight.” This happens to be the title of the movie that won the Academy Award for best picture this year, about the investigative journalism that exposed the cover-up of endemic sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. “Anyone can operate in the shadows,” Denton said.
Denton has written nine books since 2008, including Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs and Murder; Money and Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America (with Roger Morris); and The Plots Against the President: FDR, A Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right.
Intended as a two-year project, The Profiteers took four years and grew in scope as Denton pursued the secretive Bechtel empire across the twentieth century to the present. She admits the difficulty of projecting the company’s future under Brendan Bechtel, the young, fifth-generation heir who took over the reins as president and COO in 2014, but she pointed to a recent op-ed in USA today, which Bechtel calls for America to respond to the emergency posed by the decline of its infrastructure.
Probably not by coincidence, working off some of the long neglected deferred maintenance at the weapons laboratories is one of the big growth areas in DOE’s budget proposal for next year.