Apr 6, 2016 · 23 minutes

The scariest book I’ve read this year is Sally Denton’s “The Profiteers.” Released last month by Simon & Schuster, it’s a whirlwind corporate history of Bechtel Group Inc., from its steam-shovel roots in the San Francisco hinterlands to building the nation’s largest solar plant in the California desert.

And so many fascinating places in between. 

Any attempt at a full account of Bechtel is obliged to be chock full of uncomfortable truths that started off secrets, and holes where they still are. “The Profiteers” carries on the task of telling the tale of a notoriously secretive firm that doesn’t want the attention to a reading public that would probably rather not know. Denton weaves a story of spies and Secretaries, kings and presidents, pipelines and plutonium into a brisk history of the postwar developing world, through Bechtel’s eternal role building it. And rebuilding it. 

I talked with Sally Denton by phone on Monday. She was in Las Vegas, a city made possible by the Hoover Dam, a Bechtel project. I was just a quick Bechtel-built BART ride away from corporate HQ in San Francisco’s SOMA, just across the Bay from the Bechtel-run Lawrence Livermore nuclear lab, and Bechtel-built Lake Merritt in Oakland, near the traditional family seat. All around, people plotted to conquer the world with the Internet, first developed at Bechtel-founded SRI in Menlo Park. The fun part is that people all over the world can play this game. 

The following conversation has been edited for clarity but not concision. 

Dan Raile: What inspired you to write this book?  How did you pitch it and hope to move the conversation forward, in the face of everything that has been said and written about Becthel before? 

Sally Denton: It wasn’t the book I started out writing. I grew up in Boulder City, Nevada which was a company town for the [Bechtel-led] building of the Hoover Dam, and my childhood home was one of the first private homes there, and housed Bechtel executives or executives of the Six Companies building the dam. So Bechtel was sort of in the ether growing up, it was just on my radar from early childhood, but I really didn’t decide to write about it until much later.

I had done a piece under commission for Invention and Technology Magazine for the 75th anniversary of Hoover Dam and that was about five or six years ago. I really kind of delved into the history of the dam and it was the first time I’d really paid attention to the company itself. I became kind of intrigued with Bechtel as really the first megacompany in the American West. When I proposed looking at that I really had no idea… I knew it built Hoover Dam and BART in San Francisco and the subway system in Washington, D.C. As I was thinking about writing the book they were building Ivanpah, which is the largest solar project in America if not the world, and I was thinking ‘wow this company Bechtel has really gone full circle from the 1930s into the 21st century.’ 

So I was really looking at it more as a matter of resources and land use in the American West, but I was shocked to discover it had gone on to be one of the largest privately held companies in America, it had branched out from construction and engineering into basically every kind of infrastructure, and mining and pipelines far-flung around the world, 25,000 construction and engineering projects on every continent. I was pretty stunned by the breadth and depth of the operation, of what the book project turned out to be. Then I had a Black Mountain Institute Kluge Fellowship, which gave me four months of intensive immersion in the Library of Congress with access to the hundreds of thousands of databases that that library subscribes to, which made it possible for me to really branch out and look at what Bechtel was doing throughout the rest of the world.

DR: Obviously, its a challenge to write about Bechtel, they are privately held and notoriously secretive. What were the biggest research challenges you came upon or butted your head against?

SD: Well this is my eighth book, and all of my books are very heavily researched, and what I’ve come to call investigative history. Obviously a privately held company presents more challenges or unique challenges than a publicly-held company, in that there are not the traditional shareholder reports and there is no oversight from the SEC or a lot of the ways that public companies are held accountable in that private corps are not, so there was that. But even if you are privately-held, when you are talking about billions and billions of dollars of government contracts and contracts with foreign governments around the world, you can’t operate, no matter how private you wanna be, you can’t really operate in a vacuum in America and the world today if you are a multinational company operating on as grand a scale as Bechtel has done, there’s a trail, and so it was not as challenging as I thought.

The other aspect is that their website and their three corporate-sponsored company histories were just brimming with information. So that made it easier, and of course when there are government contracts those are often available. I was struck, though, by the absolute dearth of litigation, I mean one would think that Bechtel’s rivals, other companies that would covet the kinds of contracts that Bechtel just seems to automatically get, you would think that there would be more adversarial litigation and there was really so little of that. That was worthy of a story in itself I think.

DR: To what do you attribute that?

SD: Well a lot of it I think is due to Bechtel’s corporate policy with its subcontractors and employees — they claim to have 50,000 employees that they now call colleagues on their website so I’m assuming a lot are subcontractors. But they require in all their contracts that any disputes are arbitrated privately rather than in the court system. The overarching theme of the book is really about the privatization of everything, and that was one of the biggest surprises to me as I was writing, that I had no idea as I started this, even growing up near the Nevada test site, and living for 25 years in Santa Fe  in the shadow of Los Alamos National Laboratory, I had no idea that under George W. Bush the entire nuclear weapons complex in America had been privatized with Bechtel essentially at the helm, and I was shocked at how few Americans knew that and even how few American members of Congress knew it. 

DR: You mention briefly, there is a quote and you seem to be asserting that Dianne Feinstein didn’t really realize that…

SD: Well, there was a fascinating hearing that I witnessed where she was challenging the director of Lawrence Livermore laboratory, criticizing him for his extravagant salary, which you know these management salaries are huge, major six-figure salaries. She was chastising him... she said she thought there was a moratorium on raises for public servants and she made a remark about how this is more in keeping with a corporate salary and the response from the director was, ‘well, we are private’ (laughs). And even she seemed surprised by that, and here she is on the Senate Intelligence Committee and her husband a Regent of the University of California which had managed the labs for 50 years, so I thought if she is surprised, how could the rest of America have a clue what is going on? And not only that, but if I’m not mistaken she is one of the largest recipients of Bechtel’s political contributions of any congress member.

DR: I’m based in San Francisco, and what’s fascinating to me, here in San Francisco there’s this incredible hype around a number of private companies here, Uber and Airbnb and an insurgent new breed of private companies and there is an incredible PR apparatus around these companies, and then here is Bechtel which is larger than any of them, just so quietly operating so much of the nation’s infrastructure and entangled in so much of our national foreign policy. It’s like a vacuum.

SD: It is so far off the radar. When I first started researching this and I’d tell people, I pitched it to Simon & Schuster and everyone was like “who’s Bechtel?” Nobody had heard of them. But if you mention Bechtel anywhere else in the world its a household name. I’m here at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV where I’m the director of literary nonfiction, i was here as a fellow before, we’ve got international fellows, we have a writer here from Nigeria, we’ve got a writer from Iran, and I mentioned Bechtel in a talk to the writing fellows and students here and even thirty miles from Hoover Dam nobody has heard of Bechtel. But boy, the Iranian and the Nigerian piped up right away and said are you kidding, they are all over Africa, they are all over the Middle East, everybody has heard of Bechtel, so that just stuns me. 

DR: The company line seems to be “we’ve cultivated these relationships with powerful people over the years but there is nothing more to it than meets the eye. How did you expect business was done?” How do you answer that?  

SD: I mean, if you read the book, it’s not a gotcha book, it’s not like Bechtel is that aberrant compared with other companies, they enjoy a level of lack of scrutiny because of their corporate standing but my book is really about, less about Bechtel and Bechtel family members and more about how business is done in the world. It’s about an empire that is integrally tied to American foreign policy and has been for the last half century or more and what does this say about how American companies are dealing throughout the world and what is the blowback from that, what are the consequences of that, what is the oversight of that. When I started researching this book I thought “this is going to be really interesting, here is a company that is one of several that are kind of the corporate arm of the U.S. Government.” And by the end of the book I was thinking “You know, the U.S. Government is like one public policy arm of Bechtel rather than the other way around.” 

T.J. Stiles, who reviewed the book in the New York Times Review of Books a few weeks ago, said basically this is a conversation that we need to have, and I think that was the whole purpose of my book. Like i said, this isn’t a huge exposé, I just pulled together a lot of fragments and dots and crossed the t’s on a lot of stuff that has been going on in American history for the last 75 years and just said “OK, Americans: Is this how you want us to operate in the world?”

DR: What strikes me, Laton McCartney’s book ["Friends in High Places: The Bechtel Story: The Most Secret Corporation and How it Engineered the World"] was around 1988,  he didn’t really delve into the connections with Iran Contra, the maneuvers around the chemical weapons plant in Iraq,  the Aqaba pipeline project, things that were going on or had just happened as he was writing, but what is striking is that from there Bechtel has just continued to grow and sort of operate in the same way as ever before…

SD: His book is a fantastic primer for the early years, but basically that is what happened, he set a pattern and I was able to expand upon what he had done for those early years because of the declassified documents especially around [former CIA director and Bechtel executive John] McCone and Chile, and into the Dulles Brothers and the Kennedy and LBJ administrations, and Bechtel in Vietnam.

DR: What’s your hope for the book and the conversation? What should people do with this information? Because its unsettling.

SD: You know, I think there should be some congressional hearings on a couple of different elements of it, you know, it occurs to me that this is the kind of book that would find an easy audience in both the Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump camps, you know? It’s basically the same impulse driving both of these huge movements toward “We’re just not going to take it anymore,” it’s kind of this overwhelming sense that the system is rigged, and I think what my book does is show that, yes, it is. It’s rigged for a few and this is how it happens. I think it’s kind of a primer for how foreign policy is negotiated, and these are the forces behind it and these are the people that lobby on behalf of this and that. I call this book not an exposé on the military-industrial-complex but of the energy-industrial-complex, which nobody, again, in America so few people understand. You hear “the Department of Energy” and you think isn’t that cute? Its like sun and wind and stars and sky and environment and how sweet, when in fact the Department of Energy is the largest military and weapons…racket, basically, in the U.S. Government.

I mean there are more classified projects through DOE and more weapons-based projects, I mean all of the nuclear industry is in DOE and much of it shrouded in classifications and lack of congressional oversight that Americans don’t have a clue about, Anybody who is my age or has been around remembers DOE as this concept of Jimmy Carter for conservation and Ronald Reagan vowing to get rid of the DOE as soon as he got into office. But then he gets in and sees that it’s the biggest cash cow in government with the potential for diverting all these programs, the nuclear programs, the Atomic Energy Commission and the management of the nuclear weapons labs and all the sudden it doesn’t even resemble what the original concept was.

DR: Maybe that was opportunism on the part of Bechtel and companies like it?

SD: Not so much opportunism, I think Bechtel is fulfilling an American foreign and domestic policy agenda and maybe the dialogue that needs to be entered into public discourse is about what role private industry should play in government today, when you go back to the early days of Six Companies which built Hoover Dam in the early days of the corporation, back when corporations were select and had to be granted corporate status by the US Government and how we’ve  transitioned from that into corporate entities having as much or more power than the government itself. It's really gotten into a new realm that I think the oversight and public discourse hasn’t kept up with the real politics of it. And then also the the government used to do these projects, you know, through the  Army Corps of Engineers and such. When did everything get outsourced? If you read my book you see that it happens over and over in various fields and walks of life and different parts of government,  to the extent that the lines are so blurred. I make the case that Bechtel is really the creator and founder of what would become the revolving door, which is so prevalent now that a current generation doesn’t even understand what it is or why it’s aberrant. Or why it once was different. It just happens so effortlessly, seamlessly and often without anyone paying any attention whatsoever or thinking it’s unusual.  

DR: You write about Laton McCartney and the response his book got from Bechtel after it was published. What has your interaction with the company been?

SD: I didn’t really have any. I reached out to them at the beginning of my process, about four years ago, while I was researching, and then when galleys became available, advanced copies, back in the fall, Bechtel reached out to Simon & Schuster and wanted an advanced copy of the book and I said “Sure, give it to them” and they responded and they were unhappy with it, which is what we expected. And frankly I would expect that if they were really happy with it I wouldn’t have done my job as a reporter very well (laughs).

DR: Sure.

SD:  They complained about some things they had concerns with, and I took their complaints under consideration. I was still finalizing the book and I used the opportunity to give them extra time to review it more closely and again requested an interview with one of the principles, Riley or Brendan Bechtel, and they declined to be interviewed. 

DR: Has Brendan ever been interviewed, that you know of? 

SD: You know I don’t know, he kind of took over while I was finalizing my book. It’s possible he’s been interviewed in some trade publications. I saw and Op-Ed he did for USA Today about the necessity for America rebuilding its infrastructure, which I think is a tell that that’s the new direction  Bechtel will be going under the direction of Brendan. But as far as any personal interviews, it’s possible. He’s a thirty-something, in his early thirties, and it’s possible that he will signify a new direction in this five generation company, which is unique in itself. I don’t know how many American companies have survived five generations under the helm of individual patriarchy like this and sustained it for 80 years. It’s remarkable.

DR: It is, and remarkable that it’s not more of a well-known story. One would think this would be celebrated as a great American company, and the Bechtel’s lionized, but the vacuum around it is something that is really fascinating.

SD: Well I’m sure that they create a counter narrative like I think they did with Laton McCartney, I think it will celebrate it. One of the questions that comes up for me a lot and that I asked myself while I was writing is: If not Bechtel, who? And of course, this is a company that is in a position to build, they say, the biggest, the best, anytime, anyplace, etcetera. But does that mean that American taxpayers should have absolutely no oversight or that they should be completely unaccountable to anybody? I don’t think so. 

DR: You mention that your FOIA requests have been rebuffed to a one, how is that possible given that you’re requesting documentation or details or just verifying the existence of these often giant government contracts?

SD: I don’t know, I think FOIA has probably been declawed to a certain extent, but especially when you are talking about the nuclear weapons complex, post-9/11, so much comes under the cloak of national security and you can’t really challenge it. Or if you do challenge it as a writer/reporter it could take you months if not years and eventually you’ll get a document, and the book is ten years old by then. For example, I couldn’t even get the actual list of contractors who were building the American embassy in Bahgdad, it’s all classified, and then you’ve got a company like Bechtel that builds projects for American embassies and American military bunkers and outposts all over the world. The number of employees with classified clearances is a classified number in itself, so it’s like the wilderness of mirrors, truly. 

DR: How did you, as you were writing it and as you said it evolved from a more contained piece, how do you personally deal with this information and keep moving forward without getting drawn down the rabbit hole or just plain horrified?  

SD: Well like I said, this my eighth book. Once I started going into all these projects around the world and seeing how closely the symbiosis between this company and the federal government was, you at different stages and how it changed along the way from pre-World War II to the Cold War and into nuclear deterrence and nuclear nonproliferation and back to deterrence where we are now, I just let the story go where it was going. I certainly didn’t have a thrust or a foregone conclusion and I was as stunned as anybody by the directions it went.

But I guess as far as an investigative reporter and, whether or not I’m horrified by it, it's my job to throw rocks at castles and I just kind of do it and do it as best I can, and try to do it without writing in a tone that is either strident or alarmist. I don’t think of myself as an advocate journalist, as much as its my job to shine light and every one else’s job to figure out what to do with that. 

DR: You mentioned one possible route of what to do with this might be Congressional investigations. About what in particular? 

SD: I think the contracting, say, in the Iraq war, the contracting in all this reconstruction stuff, the contracts with the nuclear weapons laboratories and the number of cost overruns and safety violations and the discriminatory practices and layoffs for instance at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. I just think somebody should be taking a closer look at the concentration of power, that the people that are in charge, say the legislators, should be looking at this concentration of power and how American business is done in the world and how American companies are allowed to operate around the world. The kinds of relationships they develop with foreign leaders and foreign companies. You know,  the book is full of like forty books, any one of these subjects you could go off and another writer could go into one area and focus on that alone, I mean what is the relationship between American Intelligence and American companies and when were those relationships forged and when did they become perverse, or did they become perverse, and who is doing who’s bidding here.? All of these things I think are really important subjects for the American public to explore and comes to terms with.

DR: It’s so difficult because so much of this has for decades been considered unfit for public consumption and I presume there are current contracts and projects that are similarly classified and won’t be known for some time, so how do we ever catch up?

SD: Absolutely, you don’t even know what you don’t know. And the other thing is you’re talking about a very private company, so when you ask how come people don’t know this or how have they evaded scrutiny or how scrutiny just rolls off, don’t forget that there are millions and millions of dollars spent intentionally to make sure that a lot of these issues are obfuscated, these are not easy things to figure out much less figure out how to resolve. There is also a lot, and I’m not just talking about Bechtel, but there are several American companies and institutions that don’t want to have attention or scrutiny and they go to great lengths to discredit or besmirch the critics. The public needs to know that there is a lot of time and money and attention that goes into the PR apparatus of some of these companies right now, they spend a lot of time on opposition research and going after their critics, so it’s not a surprise that the public is confused  and even members of congress are confused.

DR: Yeah, I think Seymour Hersh once wrote a book of corporate muckraking and came out of it saying he’d never do it again, its too difficult, he’ll stick with the CIA.

SD: Yeah, and Jane Mayer is going through it now with Dark Money, her book on the Koch Brothers. She was on a panel with my partner who is a journalist here in Las Vegas, Nevada who has been a columnist for 30 years and Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, just bought his newspaper. That would be like the Catholic Church suddenly bought the Boston Globe when they were in the middle of the Spotlight team. 

DR: One thing that rang bells for me was when you mentioned Bechtel’s role in the founding of the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International… 

SD:  Well that’s another thing that happens a lot, where you see these companies and they are integrally tied to creating these institutions and think tanks that are are completely connected to the areas of business and research that are important to them.

DR: You point out how that works in specific cases, where SRI has been commissioned to do a study and, lo and behold, supports what Bechtel wants to build. But among other things SRI was also the lab that developed what became Siri at Apple, and where the internet was first connected. It’s part of the Silicon Valley legend of itself, it’s really a founding part of developing what became the consumer proliferation of Silicon Valley, what we’re calling tech now. You also mention Theranos, were there other Bechtel ties you found with the current generation of Silicon Valley business that is getting so much attention? 

SD: A year or two in this book I abandoned any hope of trying to delve into all the numerous projects and investments that they have, it’s just massive. It will be something really interesting to watch under Brendan Bechtel. I found the whole Theranos thing fascinating, I mean here you had on the board George Schulz and Henry Kissinger and everybody from the Hoover Institute and Riley Bechtel was one of the key investors in that. I think when you are dealing in this world of high technology, and engineering and construction and intelligence and the Google founders mining asteroids, Bechtel is all over it. I mean, if I was their PR person I would spin that in a very positive way… they should hire me (laughs).  Just kidding.