Politics & Policy

Benon Sevan’S Finest Hour

Late in the day, former Oil-for-Food chief demands the U.N. open its books.

It’s rich that the former head of the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, Benon Sevan, is now protesting the secrecy surrounding U.N. records that he himself set up as confidential.

With Sevan a target of the U.N.-authorized probe into the Oil-for-Food scandal, Sevan’s lawyer has just released letters accusing the U.N.-backed investigators of “systematically” depriving Sevan of access to U.N. documents and other information needed to defend himself. Instead, writes Sevan’s lawyer, Eric Lewis, Sevan has been “barred access to all records of interviews of witnesses,” and provided only with CDs “relating to a limited number of files, requiring Sevan to view thousands and thousands of pages one page at a time.”

Sevan has a legitimate complaint. His lawyer is quite right that the U.N.’s “Independent Inquiry,” led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is engaging in high-handed and unjust tactics. Volcker’s committee has already leaked its intention to lambaste Sevan in a report due out early next week, and since last year has been choreographing the tone and timing of its reports in ways more attuned to managing the news than getting at the full truth. The result so far has been to spare U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan while fingering a handful of his subordinates, and to delay until just before the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in September a “main report,” which Volcker has already telegraphed as likely to divert blame from the U.N. Secretariat (which ran the program) to the U.S. (which at least did more than any other U.N. member to try to clean it up).

Worst of all, Volcker has parked himself for more than a year atop U.N. records that might have helped outside investigators crack some of the Oil-for-Food schemes involving ties to terror, organized crime, arms rackets, and political bribery, all of which are salted among the more than $110 billion of Saddam Hussein’s deals administered by the U.N. under Oil-for-Food. It is welcome that Sevan is at last protesting in public the secrecy of these proceedings.

Unhelpfully Late Conversion

But it would have worked out far better for the U.N., and the rest of us, had Sevan achieved this appreciation of transparency and access back in the years when he was running Oil-for-Food, from 1997-2003. Today, Sevan remains on the U.N. payroll as a $1-per-year “adviser,” retained by the secretary-general with no apparent duties but to “assist” in the U.N.-authorized Oil-for-Food inquiry–which Lewis, Sevan’s lawyer, is now denouncing on Sevan’s behalf as a cover-up in search of “cartoon villains, not the truth.”

It would be more helpful still, were Sevan’s boss, Kofi Annan, to conceive even at this late date a similar urge for open and honest U.N. dealings and public access to U.N. records. Such priorities have so far eluded the secretary-general, perhaps because–as Sevan’s lawyer correctly points out–the Volcker inquiry has applied a double standard. Sevan aside, the committee’s findings have imposed spit-shine discipline on a few obscure U.N. officials, while dismissing as merely “inadequate” Annan’s failure to inquire competently into conflicts of interest involving six-figure payments to his own son–and excusing Annan’s growing list of memory lapses along the way. Nor has the Volcker team displayed much interest in broadening its focus on the secretary-general from his paternal oversights to his abject failure to run an honest or even adequately audited multibillion-dollar-relief program in Saddam’s U.N.-sanctioned Iraq.

In the protests Sevan is now airing over U.N.-related secrecy, opaque pronouncements, and warped reports, there has to be an oddly familiar ring for reporters, private investigators, congressional staffers, and possibly even U.S. prosecutors, who for some time have been trying to pry from the U.N. the kind of records to which Sevan believes he is entitled.

Déjà Vu

Sevan’s recent experience of scrolling one page at a time through highly limited sets of U.N. documents, trying to piece together shreds and scraps of information, is an excellent description of what it was like during the Oil-for-Food era for anyone outside the U.N. seeking to know who was doing U.N.-approved business with Saddam–and on what terms. The United Nations did not disclose the names of the contractors, the price, quantity, or quality of goods. The U.N. provided no public accounting for the billions in bank balances, the interest collected, the letters of credit amended or even the $1.4 billion cut of Saddam’s oil sales collected by Annan’s secretariat to run the program (from which the Volcker inquiry is now drawing its $34 million budget, for which there has also been no public accounting).

Contrary to Annan’s and Sevan’s public statements, many of these vital details–especially concerning contracts, bank statements, and letters of credit–the U.N. did not even turn over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. According to numerous sources, what the CPA got from the U.N. when it inherited the program in late 2003 was a welter of corrupted files and incomplete documentation. For months the U.N. treasury did not even deign to forward information either to the CPA or the Iraqi central bank on the billions still in the U.N.-managed Oil-for-Food escrow accounts.

During Oil-for-Food, the U.N. insisted on confidentiality for Saddam and the clusters of front companies he dealt with in places such as Switzerland, Cyprus, Liechtenstein, and Panama–an abuse of the Iraq relief program that even minimal sunlight could have done much to expose. But in the U.N.’s public records, for example, an outfit such as Al Wasel & Babel, designated last year by Treasury as a front company for Saddam’s own regime, appeared simply as a nameless contractor in the United Arab Emirates, selling such generic goods as “toilet soap” and “minibuses”–contracts only later revealed to have involved hundreds of millions worth of suspect deals.

The names of assorted oil traders now under investigation, and in a few cases now under indictment, did not appear at all. And though the U.N. spewed stacks of paperwork, there was no way to glean from it such telling information as the dollar totals for the heaping portions of Saddam’s U.N.-vetted business doled out to contractors in such security-council veto-wielding states as France, China, and Russia, or to Saddam’s favored collaborators in terrorist-spawning states such as Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Since the scandal broke big-time following the overthrow in 2003 of Saddam, some of the U.N. Oil-for-Food records have been leaked, eked, or pried loose via showdowns between congressional investigators and the U.N.–as finally happened with the release of Oil-for-Food’s secret and damning internal audits last January. Yet more documents have surfaced in Baghdad, providing insights and leads into an underworld of billions in graft, abuse, and the likely existence of hoards built up by Saddam under Oil-for-Food, which may be funding terror even today, in Iraq and beyond–as a number of congressional hearings have recently highlighted.

The Cover-Up Continues

But loads of important information remains buried in the U.N. records to which the Volcker committee claims monopoly rights. Much of what has leaked from the U.N., or even been released by Volcker, appears in formats every bit as difficult to search as the artificially constricted files to which the frustrated Sevan would like easier access. Volcker released a set of “company tables” last fall, which gave at least some official confirmation of the names of some of the Oil-for-Food contractors, and totals for some of the deals. But Volcker apparently struck off the list some of the contracts, and in some cases the contractors, that turned up on Saddam’s agenda late in the program–and following Saddam’s overthrow were then dropped, in some cases because the contractors ran for the hills. In other words, gone missing from Volcker’s presumably comprehensive list are some of Saddam’s fishiest U.N.-approved deals.

In any event, the format of Volcker’s Oil-for-Food tables qualifies less as a help to outside investigators than as a bad joke. Instead of an easily searchable spreadsheet (which one must hope the 65 staffers of the $34 million Volcker inquiry have managed to put together over the past year), Volcker released a locked pdf file, in type so small it could better serve as an eye test. There are no addresses, there are no contract details; there columns of sums paid out, but still no mention of the details one might assume a former Fed chairman would know are basic to evaluating a contract, such as quantity.

To date, almost every important disclosure about the billions in Oil-for-Food scams has been driven not by the U.N., or even by the Volcker inquiry, but by the press, by Pentagon auditors, by the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, and by congressional investigators. Among these, only Congress wields direct leverage over the U.N. by way of funding. If Sevan is serious about opening up U.N. records, his best bet is to pay a call to congressional investigators, and start by opening up himself–not just in his own defense, but about the inner workings of the entire Oil-for-Food program, including the complicity of his boss, Kofi Annan. Had the UN come clean years ago, this colossal scandal might never have happened.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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