You have to admire the resilience of the United Nations. In theory, the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food relief program for Iraq, which ran from 1996-2003, is now the subject of at least five investigations into billions worth of alleged fraud and corruption. In practice, however, while U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan dismisses well-founded allegations as “outrageous,” and President George W. Bush chalks out a big new role for the U.N. in Iraq, it is the investigators themselves who are now largely stalled, stymied, carefully contained, or even attacked.
The attacks have not been limited to the U.S.-led armed raid last Thursday on the Baghdad home and office of Iraq Governing Council (IGC) member Ahmed Chalabi, in which–by Chalabi’s account in a phone interview with me later that same day–U.S. forces seized documentation incriminating to U.N. officials “on every level.” There has also been the harassment recently of a British adviser to the IGC, Claude Hankes-Drielsma. This past February, Hankes-Drielsma lined up KPMG International, an accounting firm, together with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a law firm, to carry out an audit of Oil-for-Food for the IGC. He testified before Congress last month that the KPMG investigation “is expected to demonstrate the clear link between those countries which were quite ready to support Saddam Hussein’s regime for their own financial benefit, at the expense of the Iraqi people, and those that opposed the strict application of sanctions and the overthrow of Saddam.” (Security Council members France, Russia and China come to mind.)
Last Thursday, the same day as the raid on Chalabi, an as-yet unidentified person hacked into Hankes-Drielsma’s computer and deleted all the files, as Hankes-Drielsma recounted to me in a phone interview. The computer expert called in to cope with damage “said he’d never seen anything quite like it. They deleted even the backup files,” says Hankes-Drielsma. Asked if he has been physically threatened as well, Hankes-Drielsma, says, “No comment.”
MIA: SERIOUS INVESTIGATIONSWhatever the circumstances surrounding Chalabi, it ought to be obvious that he, the IGC, and Hankes-Drielsma deserve credit for being the first to call for an investigation into Oil-for-Food, something even Annan after much stonewalling finally conceded this past March was necessary. But the KPMG audit begun in March at the behest not only of Chalabi, but the entire IGC, has been stalled for almost two months now by the refusal of Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, to approve the necessary funding. The funding requested for this project by Iraq’s Governing Council, from Iraq’s own public money, is $5 million. That is miniscule compared to the $111 billion worth of Saddam’s oil sales and “relief” contracts overseen under Oil-for-Food by the U.N., or $1.4 billion commission paid by Saddam to Annan’s Secretariat for administering the program, or the billions grafted out of the program–which the KPMG investigation proposes to trace and as far as possible restore to Iraq’s citizens.
But the cost of KPMG’s services is hardly the real issue. The crucial effect has been to greatly delay any professional investigation in Baghdad, home of abundant documentation kept by Saddam on Oil-for-Food. The KPMG team was due to issue a preliminary report by early June. That won’t happen. Instead, as outlined in a draft U.N. resolution now being sent around by the U.S. and U.K., Iraq’s public money, including funds to cover relief contracts leftover from Oil-for-Food, will be handed back on June 30 to an interim Iraqi government now being assembled by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. In other words, the still-uninvestigated U.N. will again have a hand in deciding who oversees the remains of Oil-for-Food. If Annan is serious about his claims of U.N. transparency, he ought to provide his man in Iraq, Brahimi, with a business card that reads: Conflicts-of-Interest-R-Us.
What of the other investigations? Bremer has decided the CPA should replace the Iraqi-commissioned KPMG audit with one to be conducted by Ernst & Young–with an official announcement imminent. Thursday. According to an Ernst & Young spokesman, that project hasn’t even had a chance to get off the ground.
VOLCKER’S CHALLENGEThen there’s the U.N.-authorized investigation, headed by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, who has promised as “careful, unbiased, independent an investigation as we can do.” This mission may test Volcker’s limits. More than two months have passed since Annan on March 19 agreed to call for an investigation, and the real investigating seems barely begun. Speed might have helped secure access to vital documents, especially in Baghdad. Instead, there has already been much delay. It took Annan a month to assemble the Volcker panel, and it took another month before the Volcker team was able to start settling into offices in New York, and start hiring staff, collecting documents, and hooking up phones. During this interval, the U.N. Secretariat was busy sending out letters to vital Oil-for-Food contractors, reminding them to keep quiet about Oil-for-Food.
Annan has promised to turn over to Volcker whatever he wants. But Annan’s Secretariat made similar statements last fall about having turned over all Oil-for-Food records to the CPA, and then–as it turned out–failed to deliver important documents, including bank records. Volcker, lacking the power of subpoena, will have to depend on the good graces of sources who may in many cases be subjects of the investigation–including, one might assume, a number of folks hailing from Security Council member states Russia, France, and China, favored under Oil-for-Food by Saddam.
Nor do the surroundings of the Volcker team bode well for either the independence or agility of the U.N.-authorized investigation. Last Thursday, Volcker spoke to the press in the U.N. briefing room, introduced by Annan’s spokesman. His office is on U.N. premises, U.N. staffers have reportedly been helping with logistics, and the investigative team’s business cards and website carry the U.N. logo. This hardly seems the kind of arm’s-length stance one might expect of an independent inquiry. And all those U.N. trappings might just act as a deterrent for anyone interested in providing an anonymous tip–especially members of the U.N.’s own staff.
CULTURE OF COVER-UPSBeyond that, there are assorted congressional inquiries, stymied by lack of access to vital information. For example, Annan has refused to release either to the Security Council or to Congress the U.N.’s internal audits of the Oil-for-Food program. When one of these leaked last week, packed with information about waste and violations of U.N. rules and responsibilities, Rep. Henry Hyde (R., Ill.) wrote to Annan: “The U.S. Congress–which provides 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget and which has publicly requested copies of the 55 internal audits–should not be required to depend on media leaks for source documents.” Rep. Christopher Shays (R., Conn.) has been trying to pry documentation on Oil-for-Food from Secretary of State Colin Powell and answers about the stalled KPMG investigation from Bremer. In sum, Congress has its hands full at the moment simply trying to get past the U.N. and U.S. administration’s cover-ups of the original cover-up–in which Oil-for-Food allowed Saddam’s corrupt deals to masquerade as relief.
Finally, there is the U.S. Treasury’s hunt for Saddam’s illicit assets. Treasury is not focused specifically on Oil-for-Food, and perhaps for that reason has been permitted to get somewhere. In April, Treasury designated one of the many Oil-for-Food contractors, Dubai-based Al Wasel & Babel, as a front company for senior officials of Saddam’s own regime. Earlier this month, Treasury named the Commercial Bank of Syria as a conduit for about $1 billion in funds illegally diverted from Oil-for-Food. But none of this sheds light specifically on the U.N., nor has Treasury offered much in the way of further detail.
In sum, we have Treasury not quite focused on Oil-for-Food, the KPMG investigation stalled, Congress stymied, the Volcker inquiry only just begun, and the Ernst & Young audit not yet started. So, is it time to write off the likelihood that anyone will ever get to the bottom of Oil-for-Food? Hardly. Volcker has plenty at stake–after a long and respected career, he has placed his own reputation on the line, and we might yet hope that this will help overcome his current surroundings. Hankes-Drielsma says that KPMG, given any chance, is willing to proceed with the investigation already begun. And Oil-for-Food, overall, was simply too enormous and too rotten to stay stuffed under a rug. Information will almost certainly continue to seep out. Right now, amid all the high and mighty talk about a clean and transparent new start for Iraq, would be a good moment for both the U.N. and the White House to reconsider the perils of cover-ups.