Exclusive: Ex-CIA Chief Says Saudi Arabia Is Vulnerable

By · March 09, 2011

James Woolsey in his Chevy Volt

In early December, General Motors loaned a pre-production Chevy Volt to James Woolsey. The former CIA director—who served under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1995—promptly slapped a bumper sticker on the car, reading “Bin Laden Hates This Car.”

I spoke with Woolsey about his experience behind the wheel of the Volt, political unrest in the Middle East, and the current price of oil. He believes the Volt is a major success, and sees widespread adoption of (and conversion to) plug-in hybrids—especially if running on biofuel—as an effective strategy for alleviating our vulnerability to oil price shocks. "If new cars had that, they don’t need to be all electric," Woolsey said. "Three-quarters of the cars in the country go less than 40 miles a day."

Moreover, Woolsey believes that it's "quite possible" that the recent political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen could reach Saudi Arabia, with profound impacts on global oil markets.

Public Enemy Number One: Petroleum Fuels

As a member of G.M.’s V'olt customer advisory board, Woolsey has been evaluating the extended-range electric vehicle, and providing feedback to the company. “I take my hat off to Chevy,” Woolsey told me. “It’s a nice car. Good pickup, nice looking, and I average about 65 miles a gallon on a mix of gasoline and electricity.” Through the winter months, Woolsey has been getting about 30 miles of all-electric range—enough for half of his daily round-trip commute into the nation’s capital.

Woolsey’s experience with the car has been so positive that he plans to lease a Chevy Volt after he returns the loaner later this month. At that point, the Volt will become the garage-mate to a Toyota Prius converted to run for about 20 miles purely on electricity via an after-market 5 kWh battery pack—along with a 10-year-old Ram diesel truck that “happily runs on 100 percent biodiesel” in the driveway.

Bin Laden bumper sticker />

Woolsey is opting for a lease, because he hopes that it in the next year or two, G.M. will offer a version of the Volt that can use an 85-percent blend of ethanol or methanol in its engine, after the car’s battery is depleted. “I really want a Volt that’s a flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV) because I would be getting [the equivalent of] about 400 miles per gallon of gasoline. I’m an enemy of petroleum fuels.”

In Woolsey’s view, the biofuel-powered plug-in hybrid—whether using the technology strategy of the Volt or a Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid—is the holy grail of energy security. “Brazil went in two years from 5 percent of cars as FFV to 75 percent,” explained Woolsey. He believes America can do the same. “It’s ridiculously easy and cheap, but right now, Detroit and the oil companies have decided that fuel lines in cars will be made of a kind of plastic that won’t let them take alcohol fuels.”

Q and A

Do you have any reflections on the fact that your first months with the Chevy Volt are coming just as we’re experiencing another oil price shock?

If anything in this world is predictable, it’s oil price shocks—given the volatility of the Middle East, given the possibility of peak oil, and given the nature of OPEC.

“People pretend the oil market is a real market. Nonsense. It’s a real market that’s controlled by a very powerful oligopoly and cartel, OPEC. So much of the world is sort of like Charlie Brown in which Lucy keeps pulling the football away, time after time after time. And he falls on his back. Darn, she fooled me again.”

James Woolsey
Former Director of CIA

OPEC has close to 80 percent of the world’s proven reserves of conventional oil. And they’re pumping about 40 percent of the market. So, they’re withholding about half of what a normal market would do, because they’re a conspiracy in restraint of trade. And they want the price high.

People pretend the oil market is a real market. Nonsense. It’s a real market that’s controlled by a very powerful oligopoly and cartel, OPEC...Any pretense that we are not tools of OPEC is fantasy. It’s been a fantasy for 35 plus years.

Has something fundamentally changed in the Middle East, and as a result with oil markets, in 2011?

It’s more demonstrable. It’s easier to see if people can look at television and see rioting in the streets. But the exercise of power has been there for over 35 years. Anybody who didn’t think that the Saudis are running the world oil market is naïve.

Could the political unrest spread to Saudi Arabia?

It’s quite possible. Yemen is in flames. Bahrain is at least seriously shaken. And they’re both right on the borders. And the Saudis in the eastern province have a huge population of Shia that they’ve treated very badly. And Iran is almost certainly using Hezbollah and Al-Quds [Iran’s revolutionary guard] to stir things up in the Gulf, in Bahrain, in Yemen, and quite possibly soon in Saudi Arabia. We just don’t know.

Will the U.S. work to quell those movements in Saudi Arabia, considering what would happen to oil markets?

If we will not even criticize Ahmadinejad in the mildest terms when a year and half ago he stole the election and there were millions of Iranians in streets risking their lives, and the most we could say is “Hmm,” then how in the world does anybody think that we can affect something in that part of the world?

How are we going to keep Iran from funding Hezbollah and the Al-Quds force from creating disruptions and problems in much of the Gulf, when we won’t even criticize them?

James Woolsey in his Chevy Volt

Is the U.S. better positioned in Saudi Arabia to work behind the scenes, or in some other fashion, to make sure the country and oil markets remains stable?

How? The Saudis don’t want us there. That’s one of their great things—not having any Americans in country, except employees of Aramco. They’re not going to invite us in.

They did back when Saddam was sitting 100 miles from their biggest oil field in 1991, but they immediately starting griping that we were there, and Jewish and Christian American troops couldn’t wear Stars of David or crosses, and had to have their bibles confiscated even though we were spending billions of dollars protecting the Saudis. They don’t want us.

Given how long market adoption takes, can electric cars and plug-in hybrids roll out fast enough to make a real impact on energy security?

We’ve got to have conversions of existing vehicles both to FFVs and to plug-ins. If you can convert existing vehicles to be plug-ins, and come up with something that’s a few hundred dollars to convert existing vehicles—whether they’re hybrids or not—to be FFVs, then you can strike a blow against oil really fast because you don’t have to wait for the automotive companies to tool up, do studies and so forth.

Short of conversions, you’re talking very incremental change—single percentage points of new car sales.

The reason we want to look at conversions is you can go so much faster. Even if conversions don’t work for 75 percent of the vehicles out there, if they work for 25 percent, that’s still going 25 times faster than several years of waiting for new cars to come into the market.

Given what you’re saying, what is the accomplishment of seeing the first wave of Volts and LEAFs out there? Is it more symbolic?

No, it’s destroying OPEC. You want to destroy OPEC’S monopoly over oil—and the only way to destroy that is to destroy oil’s monopoly over transportation.


· · 7 years ago

He has mentioned a very nice point there that the US (and other countries too) should assist the conversion of existing vehicles.

The US gives $7500 for a new plug-in purchase. If the govt. would give money (say $4000) for converting an existing car to electric, I guess there will be a huge market for such conversion projects.

· harveysaurus (not verified) · 7 years ago

Great article. And I can't think of a better source of wisdom than Woolsey. Thanks!
"You want to destroy OPEC’S monopoly over oil—and the only way to destroy that is to destroy oil’s monopoly over transportation,"
- Woolsey, former CIA director.

· · 7 years ago

Thank you for the interview. I respect Mr. Woolsey and am grateful for his willingness to speak out on this important matter.

Regarding Mr. Woolsey's advocacy of FFV conversions, my main concern is the poor energy yield from most US ethanol production, which is corn-based. The question is, how much petroleum does it take to produce a gallon of ethanol fuel? Is the use of ethanol truly helping our nation to become more energy independent? If it should turn out to be true that ethanol can help us to substantially reduce our oil imports quickly, then I am for it even if it's no better than oil environmentally.

That said, I remain convinced that electricity should be the preferred transportation "fuel" whenever possible. Electricity wins on efficiency, reduction of petroleum use per mile traveled, and environmentally.

I am a little surprised that Mr. Woolsey is only averaging 65 mpg in the Volt. (In a relative sense, 65 mpg is excellent, but still.) Is this any better than his PHEV Prius? I wonder if a LEAF could work for his commute.

· Samie (not verified) · 7 years ago

Picking up on Abasile's comments, I'm concerned that ethanol or biofuels has the same problems that Mr. Woolsey expresses with oil, not being a "real market". Ethanol (corn) IS heavily subsidized, mandated by the Federal Government, & imported fuels are blocked due to trade tariffs. Poor use of government which dooms biofuels or ethanol from becoming more efficient.

· mr jim (not verified) · 7 years ago

first time i heard those questions asked about the u.s . helping sauds quell unrest. i dont believe woolsey though, with such large mutual interest Saudi Arabia right now is brimming with agents from all over,saboteurs and status quo alike.Friday could be an interesting day. i doubt hybrid cars are a scalable solution ,are you going to stop growing food for humans to grow fuel for machines? and electricity is not an energy source mostly we burn other ff to generate it. wind mills and solar panels for all those cars? impossible they dont produce nearly enough eroei. there is also the mater of lithium for all those batteries. the modern civilization was built to run on cheap fossil fuels. you could run a civilization on a different fuel but it wouldn't look anything like this one.
can this one be transformed or will it fall? we will soon find out me thinks

· · 7 years ago

@mr jim,
Sure electricity comes from energy sources but they are American source. Also, because of the efficiency of the electric motor and the grid for transporting electricity, the emissions still come out ahead of an inefficient mobile gasoline engine.
Lithium is a very cheap and plentiful material that is found and ignored in many places.
Solar and Wind are profitable if harvested in the right places (solar in the sunny southwest US, Wind in the windy midwest for example) Other regions of the country may have to import sustainable electricity from those places but it sure beats importing it from other countries that hate us and want us dead.

· · 7 years ago

"OPEC has close to 80 percent of the world’s proven reserves of conventional oil. And they’re pumping about 40 percent of the market. So, they’re withholding about half of what a normal market would do, because they’re a conspiracy in restraint of trade. And they want the price high."

LOL. It is funny he mentions this & meantions Peak Oil. Obviously this guy doesn't understand Oil.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

I agree 100% with Woolsey, we need to end the status of oil as a necessity and turn it back to the status of a commodity. I also agree on having a Flex-Fuel Volt, the car wouldn’t use so much ethanol anymore so the argument of food versus fuel becomes obsolete especially if they improve the battery in the mean time up to 70 miles instead of 40 miles.

For info, 9 $/gallon is where we are now for the price of gasoline in Brussels. I just can’t understand why electric cars aren’t all over this place yet. This is certainly the most electric car friendly place on earth with electricity at 0.14 $/KWh in comparison with that huge gasoline price and relatively short distances to travel. OK there is 6 $/gallon tax on the fuel but I can’t believe people like to enrich the state that much as to accept this for so long. This is mind boggling!

· · 7 years ago

Recap for week:
- Did the interview with Woolsey on Tuesday.
- Posted it on Wednesday.
- News of Saudi violence against protesters in oil-rich eastern provinces on Thursday (today).
- Unprecedented calls for mass protests for Friday.

· · 7 years ago

You guys should add an link in the article to where we can get a copy of that bumper sticker for *our* cars!

· · 7 years ago

I hope all this Middle East turmoil and increase in gas prices gives the Pickens Plan an jump start. Personally, I'd LOVE to buy a Ford Mustang V-6 that ran on CNG and was a hybrid. 300 bph + good CNG mileage! No OPEC! (except to lube engine, tires, plastics, ....)

· · 7 years ago

Autos and light trucks can run on CNG. Semis, per Pickens, can run on CNG, but not batteries (for the foreseeable future).

I wonder if international shipping can convert to flex fuel/CNG???

If jet airlines can???

If not, we need to convert to CNG what we can ASAP to save oil for those things that cannot do w/o it, to buy us time while we try to invent ways around oil.

· · 7 years ago

For several years, CalCars.org has been a near-lone voice in suggesting to thought-leaders in the energy security and environmental communities that we need conversions of existing internal combustion vehicles to accelerate the market penetration rates for plug-in vehicles.

We welcome James Woolsey's support for the concept of gas-guzzler conversions! In this interview, he combines two very distinct strategies:
* retrofits of existing vehicles to FFV, which as he says, could perhaps be done for hundreds of dollars. (Of course, using U.S. corn-based ethanol has multiple negative impacts; Woolsey is hopeful for cellulosic ethanol, whose progress has been far slower than expected.)
* conversion of the low-hanging 25% of vehicles to plug-ins. Obviously the latter is far more expensive--north of $20K, which of course argues for an equivalent federal incentive given the high petroleum displacement benefit.

CalCars has proposed high-volume, fully-warrantied conversions of what Andy Grove calls PSVs -- Pickups, SUVs and Vans (and buses) to EV or PHEV depending on designs/drive cycles. Our general page on with white paper, news, links, etc. is http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html . We've concluded this has to be driven by real businesses rather than advocacy.

We've been working with a few companies struggling to get started doing this. We have hopes that at least one company, ALTe, may soon gain the public and private resources to begin working on a scalable plan involving dozens of national corporate customers to convert thousands of large fleet vehicles. Stay tuned!

· · 7 years ago

@John K,
There's no reason that light and short-haul (100 - 200 mile) semi's can't run off of batteries. It might be a bit tough for Long Haul trucks but fast charging or battery swapping may enable them too. I believe that the long-term, sustainable means of long-haul trucking will be via electic trains either piggy-back or just the inter-modal containers.
Our planet's finite supply of natural gas would be much better used to efficiently generate electricity for electric vehicles rather than wasting half of it's energy out the tailpipes and radiators of ICE cars.
The difficulty of carrying large amounts of CNG will make it challenging to use in international shipping or aircraft although I suspect that liquifying it would probably work fine. I don't know how the economics of it stack up with what the market can bear, however. I'd be concerned that shipping and air travel costs might go so high using LNG that it wouldn't be affordable.
The main benefit of CNG is that it prevents incumbent auto manufacturers or near-sighted investors needing instant gratification like are in Europe from having to take any risks until we inevitably run out of natural gas. See my snarky comments in (http://www.plugincars.com/geneva-small-players-showed-way-electric-cars-...).
I'll stick with pushing for electric vehicles as they definitely do offer a long-term sustainable solution to our terrestrial transportation. I'm thinking that long-term, bio or synthesized fuels will be needed for shipping and air transport but I fear what the impact of likely significantly increased costs will have on our lifestyle.

· MartyBob (not verified) · 7 years ago

Oh - almost forgot to put that in. Sorry ... I didn't know about $7500 for new PHEV purposes. I do agree w/55mpg on this: "If the govt. would give money (say $4000) for converting an existing car to electric, I guess there will be a huge market for such conversion projects.. I have a car in the shop that I'd love to convert - my total drive [if we wanna call it a commute] is about 6-8 miles a day. Yet, the clunker gets maybe - at best - 16MPG. UGH!! Convert me, somebody - QUICK!!

· · 7 years ago

Thanks for the input, ex-EV1. I didn't mean to imply that CNG hybrids are our ultimate goal, but rather, that they are, IMHO, our best "bridge" from where we are to EVs when the battery tech is much lighter, smaller, and affordable. My *guess* is battery tech won't get there for about 10 yrs (barring Eestor living up to its hype).

At least we agree that battery powered airliners are in the foreseeable future. LOL! ;-)

· · 7 years ago

@John K.
I, personally believe that battery technology needs to be put into places where it is useful today. That will enable significant research and cost reduction to be done to fill that useful market. This is the main reason we spent all the money for a Tesla Roadster. Now, with a real (albeit small) place to sell batteries, battery manufacturers know what they need to do in order to sell batteries to a real auto manufacturer. The Leaf and Volt will also offer even better opportunities for an ROI from investing in better batteries. As other real EVs come on line, this will hopefully snowball in a positive way to give us better and more affordable batteries. We've already seen the cellular phone and laptop computer industry do this for small format batteries so it is reasonable to think we'll see the same with large-format EV batteries too.
A PHEV that can run off of CNG, H2, Diesel, or gasoline would be awesome IMHO. That beast could run on nearly any energy available.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

Very interesting guest. However, the CIA is an organization that is based on lies and fear. I would have liked to see some questions answered as to why the agency and the US have spent so much effort into maintaining its reliance on foreign oil and trying to start wars with countries that have it.

I'm citing the fact that former director George H Bush with Ronald Reagan derailed Jimmy Carter's energy policy in favor of oil profits, and the agency claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They also helped Bin Laden in the 80's.

The CIA has done so much to cause problems in these countries one has to wonder if we wouldn't be better off without them. After all if Bin Laden hates the Volt wouldn't the leaf make him livid?

Their latest example:


· · 7 years ago

@Anonymous: It seems that our leaders were deluded by cheap oil, and believed that it would last for quite a while. At only one dollar per gallon of gas, and with "climate change" not well known as a concern, maybe it didn't seem like such a big deal that we had to import a great deal of oil, provided we could continue to exert sufficient world influence to avoid another Arab oil embargo. I don't necessarily blame the CIA in particular, or other agencies, for that sort of macro level misjudgment.

I also believe that the "war on terror" is very, very real, not some sort of imperialist conspiracy. Remember 9/11? Of course, considering that the hijackers were a product of the world's most important oil producing nation, I think we have every reason to stop depending on the Middle East for oil.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

@abasile: I also believe that the "war on terror" is very, very real, not some sort of imperialist conspiracy. Remember 9/11?

I'm not a conspiracy theorist but what I do know is that the true reality of the "war on terror" is its stupidity and unnecessary loss of life. The things that were not real were the WMD's in Iraq and any hope of agencies like the CIA ever being accountable for the mistakes they do trying to secure oil for their corporate masters.

· · 7 years ago

@abasile 'I also believe that the "war on terror" is very, very real, not some sort of imperialist conspiracy. Remember 9/11?'

I do remember 9/11. Infact I remember most of them were rom KSA. Do you ?

But "war on terror" became just an euphemism for "securing" oil supplies. Otherwise we would be really serious about our role in the middle east and things that anger people there and turn to terrorism.

Last time I checked power elites in DC were still in bed with the House of Saud who still pay off terrorists. I suggest you read "Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude".

· · 7 years ago

@EVNow: Yes, in the months after 9/11, I recall some folks wondering why we weren't going to war with KSA since that's where most of the terrorists came from. You are certainly correct in saying that our power elites have been in bed with the House of Saud for a long time. To me, it is especially dismaying to see money from American oil purchases being used by Saudis (and others) to fund both terrorists and radical mosques around the world. Talk about sleeping with the Devil!

I do believe that the Iraq War stemmed mainly from the desire to safeguard our access to oil in the region. In hindsight, it is easy to see that we miscalculated, at the cost of much blood and money. (This is not to say that I do not appreciate the heroic sacrifices made by our troops, as I do, and I still believe the world is better off without Saddam.) I don't believe oil has much to do with us being in Afghanistan, though. There clearly is a need to confront terror around the world, whether we want to call it the "war on terror" or something else with less baggage.

In hindsight, it is also easy to see that one of our responses to 9/11 should have been to make it a national priority to reduce our use of oil, particularly from the Middle East, as quickly as possible. Getting out of bed with the Devil, so to speak, is necessary if we want to do better at confronting terrorism at one of its major sources, i.e., Saudi Arabia. I hope and pray that the United States can achieve the freedom of energy independence through various means, not least of which should be the adoption of EVs.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

@ abasile: In hindsight, it is also easy to see that one of our responses to 9/11 should have been to make it a national priority to reduce our use of oil, particularly from the Middle East, as quickly as possible.

There are so many times in recent history the country could have reflected and said we should be moving away from oil. Last summer in the Gulf, the price spikes of the year before, the first Gulf War, the gas rationing of the late 70's, the shortages in the early 70's, and so on and so forth.

Yet with all that the country to my knowledge has only decided to try to limit foreign oil once and that was short lived. Why? Mr Woolsey had a leadership position in an organization that should have some answers. I only wish the question was asked. After all I already know what type of car will be the best purchase for limiting oil dependency.

· · 7 years ago

I'm not sure what your point is. This website is devoted to electric vehicles and if we can get a DC and CIA insider to support the cause, I think we all want to hear his opinion on why he supports them. Interestingly enough, his opinion seems to generally mirror that of the environmentalists and left leaners as well. Doesn't that support electric vehicles if people point towards them no matter where their opinions on other things lie?

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

@ex-EV1 driver:
The point I was trying to make is that this Washington insider that is now driving a Volt, with a bumper sticker in order drum up support is a nice thing to see. However, there is another angle here that I would have liked to see explored and that is the fact that his current opinion in many ways is opposite to what Washington leadership has demonstrated. After all if he truly feels the way he does about the US’s oil dependency he must have had some conflicts of interest personally working at the CIA. Maybe he is as frustrated as I am at the fact that the country doesn’t have an energy plan. He might not be in a position to answer but I don’t think it would have been rude to ask.

· · 7 years ago

I think you'll find that Mr. Woolsey has publicly and privately said a lot about an energy plan. Feel free to google him. I've heard him say, himself that he's opposed to much of what Washington leadership has demonstrated. On many occasions, he's used his CIA knowledge to try to point out a differing point of view that environmentalists and laymen don't have. in support of this.

· Follow the Money (not verified) · 7 years ago

Guys, look at this.
"James Woolsey is a Venture Partner with VantagePoint Venture Partners of San Bruno, California. Woolsey also: chairs the Strategic Advisory Group of the Washington, D.C. private equity fund, Paladin Capital Group; is a Senior Executive Advisor to the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton; and is Of Counsel to the Washington, D.C. office of the Boston-based law firm, Goodwin Procter. In the above capacities he specializes in a range of alternative energy and security issues.

· · 7 years ago

@Follow the Money: What are you trying to say? Is there something wrong with Mr. Woolsey making a career of alternative energy and security? This seems like a good thing to me!

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

The battery pack itself, rated at 16 kilowatts/hour, comprises more than 220 separate cells wired in series. That means the failure of any one cell disables the entire array, though some existing hybrid vehicles also have this flaw. The Volt pack is about six feet long and weighs a hefty 375 pounds. (Equal with two passengers).
Voltage: 320 – 350 V
100% recharge time:
110V outlet: 6 – 6.5 h
Electromotor: 45kW
GM also claims the 2011 Chevrolet Volt can run solely on electric power for 40 miles with a full battery charge. That’s in line with studies showing that most Americans drive only about 40 miles a day, so in theory at least, a Volt could go for weeks without using a drop of gas or spewing any CO2. But some analysts think the real-world electric range will be closer to 30 miles and probably less, depending on vehicle speed, ambient temperature (which affects battery performance), and whether trips include steep grades.
After how many recharge cycles (DAYS) the Battery Pack 16KW/H with 220 separate cells wired in series, weighting 375 pounds, HAS TO BE REPLACED WITH A BRAND NEW ONE?
If this car will be used as a normal hybrid car:
If the battery pack is fully charged overnight, the fuel tank filled with gasoline (gasoline pump shuts off) and the car is driven non stop 230 miles:
Going beyond Hybrid, GM and his rescuers are going down a cliff.
And never forget "GM" DISASTER:
Pontiac Transport, Oldsmobile Siluete, Pontiac Montana, Chevrolet Venture, Chevrolet Uplander. Is same stupid thing with different NAMES because "GM" was not able to create a reputable MINIVAN.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

I would love a rebate to upgrade my 2nd gen Prius to make it even more fuel efficient. There's a shop not to far from me that upgrades the battery pack without infringing on the warranty. It's a little pricey which has kept me away, but a rebate of a $3k would make me change my mind in a hearbeat. It would increase my all electric range 13-fold. OR a rebate to convert it to a plug-in would be fine by me. A 15% increase would make it a 51 mpg car and I believe that is more of a conservative number.

· · 7 years ago

Conversions? That's nonsense. He needs to check with two other government agencies, EPA and NHTSA, before making such outlandish proposals.

· · 6 years ago

I share his wish that the Volt also be flex fuel, able to run on ethanol. Adding in methanol would be even better, side-stepping the misleading and distracting "food vs fuel" argument, but there are over 2,000 E85 stations in America today and almost no methanol stations.

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