| The New York
Scandal With No Friends
By WILLIAM SAFIRE April 19, 2004
WASHINGTON — How fares the multination cover-up of the richest rip-off in world history?
Obstruction of justice has never had it so good. Last
month, after some
badgering in this space and elsewhere, the House International
Relations Committee announced it would look into the $5 billion
kickback scandal in the United Nations' six-year Iraqi oil-for-food
program, the largest humanitarian aid effort ever
Our State Department, eager for U.N. help in Iraq, wants no revelations
of U.N. ineptitude and corruption. It waltzed the committee
Senate Foreign Relations, however, not wanting to be upstaged by its House counterpart, called instant publicity hearings to blow off steam. Chairman Dick Lugar asked if some countries turned a blind eye to the rampant theft of aid that should have gone to hungry Iraqis because they "saw a money-making opportunity."
Senator Joe Biden chimed in, demanding that our ambassador to the U.N.,
John Negroponte, release the names of the U.S. companies that State has
known for years have been part of the kickback scheme. Negroponte, soon
to be our man in Baghdad working with the U.N., said that no such list
had been compiled.
Meanwhile, because U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's son was on the payroll of the Swiss company hired to monitor the imports, and because Kofi's right-hand man had been in charge of the program rife with 10 percent kickbacks, the world's foremost diplomat announced he would appoint an independent panel to investigate.
He chose men of integrity: Paul Volcker, former U.S. Fed chairman; Judge Richard Goldstone, the first Balkans war crimes prosecutor; and Mark Pieth, a Swiss lawyer said to be an expert on money laundering.
End of cover-up, right? Wrong. Volcker properly required a Security Council resolution, which would presumably empower his panel to take sworn testimony and gain access to the U.N.'s corrupt contracts that enabled Saddam to build palaces instead of providing food to his people.
But such a U.N. resolution would reveal dealings with companies in Russia, France and China — all Security Council permanent members whose nationals had their hands in the till. As Senator Lugar suggested, some nations had secret profiteering reasons to keep Saddam in power.
To nobody's surprise, Vladimir Putin's government was the first to say
nothing doing. Russia's U.N. spokesman said, "We understand
reputation of the secretariat is in question, but we do not think it is
possible to adopt a resolution on the basis of mass media
Of the 270 suspected kickbackers and recipients of illegal allocations of oil whose names were revealed by Al Mada, the Iraqi newspaper, one-fourth were Russian, including a member of the Russian Parliament and a former Russian ambassador to Baghdad. No wonder Putin wanted no "regime change," and now resists any serious investigation.
And what of those "mass media reports" about the scope of the
corruption, which are backed by the initial findings of Congress's
General Accounting Office? Editorialists have dutifully
Reporters have passed along some details of what the G.A.O. estimates
is a $5 billion fraud (not counting $5 billion more in smuggled
The Financial Times, working with Italy's Sole, recently advanced the
story, interviewing a middleman to show how an apologist for Saddam got
$400,000 to finance a film.
But outrage that drives coverage is selective, and there is little
establishment appetite to pursue this complex scandal.
to truth, Newsweek headlines "Anti-U.N. Campaign," and reports dark
suspicions by U.N. bureaucrats that the scandal was "drummed up" by the
doves' Iraqi villain, Ahmad Chalabi.
France's U.S. ambassador writes under "Oil-for-Food Lies" in The
Angeles Times that "unfounded accusations . . . have been spread by a
handful of influential, conservative TV and newspaper journalists in
the U.S." He noted that all 15 members of the Security Council
all the oil-for-food contracts, and "the complete contracts were only
circulated to the U.S. and Britain, which had expressly asked to see
them. . . ." (And State shut its eyes — and has no list?)
Lawyers and accountants hired by Iraq's Governing Council will appear before Chairman Christopher Shays' national security subcommittee on Wednesday. The Connecticut congressman offers journalists a useful briefing memo, but expect little coverage; this scandal has no friends.