Why Is the UN Silent About Its Iraq Scandal?

Former Adjunct Fellow

The harder the United Nations tries to keep a lid on Oil for Food, the more the scandal keeps boiling over. Recently, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appeared on "Meet the Press," rejecting as "outrageous" allegations that this graft-ridden U.N. relief program for Iraq had helped prop up Saddam Hussein's regime, and denying that the U.N. has made any attempt at a coverup. Asked by host Tim Russert why only a portion of the documentation requested of the U.N. by the U.S. General Accounting Office had been turned over, Mr. Annan protested: "We are open. We are transparent."

That sounded lame enough, coming just after Mr. Russert on national TV had flourished in front of Mr. Annan a letter sent by Mr. Annan's own Secretariat on April 14, advising one of the pivotal Oil for Food contractors, Saybolt International—which oversaw Saddam's oil exports—to keep quiet.

Now investigators for the House International Relations Committee have dug up a second hush letter, this one dated April 2, sent by the U.N. to yet another crucial Oil for Food contractor: Cotecna Inspections. This is the company that for the last five years of the seven-year program held the U.N. contract for the sensitive job of authenticating all goods being shipped into Iraq under Oil for Food—and was recommended last October by Oil for Food's executive director, Benon Sevan, for the work it is still doing in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority. (Cotecna is also the company that for the better part of three years before winning its slot in the Oil for Food program, in December, 1998, employed Mr. Annan's son, Kojo Annan, first on staff and then as a consultant, a potential conflict of interest that the U.N. did not declare.)

Both letters, to Saybolt and Cotecna, are signed on behalf of Mr. Sevan, each by a different member of Mr. Annan's staff. Mr. Sevan was on vacation, pending retirement, when they were drawn up. The letter to Cotecna was a pointed reminder of terms of the U.N. contracts with Cotecna, detailing that all documentation connected with Oil for Food "shall be the property of the United Nations, shall be treated as confidential and shall be delivered only to the United Nations authorized officials on completion of work under this contract."

In the letter to Saybolt, dated 12 days later, the message had become tougher and yet more detailed, telling the company that any requests for information not already public should be relayed to the U.N., including "the reason why it is being sought." The letter to Saybolt also made specific mention that if U.N. internal audit reports are asked for, "we would not agree to their release." These would be the same internal audits that the U.N. Secretariat—which administered the Oil for Food program—did not share with the Security Council and has refused to provide to Congress.

In other words, in the interval between March 19, when Mr. Annan finally conceded in the face of overwhelming evidence that the program might after all need investigating by independent experts, and April 21, when former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker was appointed to head to the investigation, Mr. Annan's office explicitly reminded these two crucial contractors, which worked for the Secretariat's Oil for Food program checking the imports and exports involved in more than $100 billion worth of Saddam's oil sales and relief imports, to keep quiet.

Mr. Annan's reaction when confronted with the Saybolt letter was to explain that "we are protecting all the material for the investigation that's been handed over to the Volcker group," as well as to say he himself had no knowledge of the letter: "This is news to me." Mr. Annan's office has since defended such letter-writing on grounds that "this is standard procedure" and "an institutional response." According to Mr. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, "To protect our name and our documentation, we put in every contract with a supplier that documentation relating to UN business can only be released to the United Nations, unless otherwise authorized."

It's that phrase, "unless otherwise authorized," that needs attention. The U.N. has the authority to open the books if its officials so choose; the main question is whether the boss wants to. A senior congressional staffer notes that "with the stroke of a pen, the U.N. can clear the companies from all confidentiality."

Instead, after years of insisting on the confidentiality of vital details of Saddam's deals, on grounds such as the argument that disclosure would offend the "sensitivities" of some member states, the U.N. last month came up with a new reason. Secrecy must be maintained, or so says the U.N. letter to Saybolt, "so as to avoid impeding the Secretary-General's independent inquiry and to accord due regard to the Organization's privileges and immunities."

It's high time for Congress, which appropriates 22 percent of the U.N.'s core budget, to ponder precisely why these U.N. privileges and immunities should be allowed to outweigh the rights of both U.S. taxpayers and Congress to know what it was within Oil for Food that some of the participants were so sensitive about.

There's also the question of why Mr. Annan's Secretariat itself is so sensitive. Take, for example, those April letters to Saybolt and Cotecna, signed on behalf of Benon Sevan. On Monday, when only the Saybolt letter had come to light, I phoned Maurice Critchley, the U.N. official who had signed that letter on behalf of Mr. Sevan. He told me that Mr. Sevan had no hand in it: "The letter was not done on any request or instruction on his part." So who, then, initiated Mr. Critchley's signing of the letter over Mr. Sevan's name?

Mr. Critchley declined to answer, and instead directed me to Mr. Annan's office—to which I sent three questions pertaining to the Saybolt letter. The answer was an e-mail from Mr. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, which began with the accusation that "you twist the facts." Mr. Eckhard went on to say, "Frankly, we have other priorities. I will answer one of your questions, the first one." This was a question about who, precisely, at the U.N., had authorized the signing of the Saybolt letter over Mr. Sevan's name. To this, Mr. Eckhard gave the answer quoted above, that it was "an institutional response."

The second question, which Mr. Eckhard did not answer, was whether the U.N. had sent similar letters to other contractors, "For example, has the Secretariat sent a similar letter to Cotecna?" The answer to that is now clear, with the Cotecna letter cited above surfacing via the House International Relations Committee the next day.

The third question was, who is the individual on the U.N. staff now fielding Oil for Food matters and authorized to give definitive answers? That one Mr. Eckhard also did not answer, but Mr. Critchley did: "The Secretary-General."

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 5, 2004.