August 20, 2004
by Claudia Rosett
A hallmark of the United Nations Oil-for-Food relief program in Iraq was secrecy, which served Saddam Hussein all too well. Since Oil-for-Food ended last November, its records have been handled with . . . yet more secrecy. And while I must confess to a certain relief that these remain largely locked up, thus excusing the press from any immediate responsibility to slog knee-deep through piles of old sanctions-busting "Dear Uday" documents, this secrecy does not serve the interests of the world public, nor is it a gift to anyone who would like to see the U.N. function as an honest institution.
The problem at this stage is not a lack of investigations, there being at least nine of these now in motion, including the U.N.'s own inquiry into itself, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker--who now has the monopoly on the U.N.'s central hoard of Oil-for-Food records. But don't hold your breath waiting for results. At a press conference Monday, Mr. Volcker said that his Independent Inquiry Committee, which is looking into such matters as the Oil-for-Food "payoffs, bribes, kickbacks, overcharges, undercharges," may not be ready to issue a report until the middle of next year.
Meanwhile, with major policy being made right now, involving among other things, Iraq, the U.N., and the War on Terror, the U.N. stash remains confidential. So do the vast stores of Oil-for-Food documentation in Baghdad. All told, the reported inventory of paperwork is staggering. The U.N., according to Mr. Volcker, has upwards of 15 million documents related to Oil-for-Food, or about 10,000 boxes worth so far, with more expected to turn up. In Baghdad, where many government offices reportedly kept detailed records of various aspects of Saddam's deals, the Iraq Interim Government apparently has tons more Oil-for-Food related documents, the circumstances of which have been variously described by U.S. or Iraqi officials in recent months as frozen, locked down and gathered in one place--bringing to mind a sort of Yucca Mountain of toxic finance. One can only hope that wherever this giant data dump might be located, it is very carefully guarded against those with an interest either in destroying potentially damning information, or using it selectively and quietly to blackmail Saddam's former cronies, some of whom may still wield power on the world stage.
And then, of course, there's the hoard of documents allegedly held by Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. Mr. Chalabi was one of the first to call for serious investigation of Oil-for-Food, based on what he has described as "damning documents" found in government offices in Baghdad, implicating senior officials of both the U.N. and various unnamed nations. Mr. Chalabi, according to his Washington-based adviser, Francis Brooke, recovered enough of Saddam's paperwork last year to fill three basketball courts chest-high. Of this hoard, says Mr. Brooke, some 20,000 pages relate directly to Oil-for-Food, most of them from the files of the Finance Ministry--which was just one of the many Iraqi ministries involved in this program.
Since Mr. Chalabi first called for that investigation, the discrediting in some quarters of anything he has to say, including his charges about Oil-for-Food, has proceeded apace. In May, U.S. authorities raided his home and office. This week an Iraqi judge issued a warrant for Mr. Chalabi's arrest, on counterfeiting charges--an intriguing allegation in an environment where a considerable number of still un-arrested people appear to have been involved for years in the embezzlement of billions of entirely genuine dollars, hand-over-iron-fist.
The effect, especially with all the secrecy surrounding the officially-held records of Oil-for-Food, has been to tie allegations about Oil-for-Food to whatever doubts now surround the rest of Mr. Chalabi's activities. In recent weeks, I have received notes suggesting that if Mr. Chalabi was the main source for the Oil-for-Food story, it may be time to rethink. Actually, it is time to reclarify. Mr. Chalabi, for this columnist, at any rate, was never a major source. Oil-for-Food was a program so vast, so obviously packed with perverse policies and incentives, and so disturbing to a number of honest people who encountered it--including some sources quite close to the U.N.--that the array of whistle-blowers is extensive and highly varied. The difficulty, over and over, has been to get at some of those umpteen zillion confidential documents, which might help substantiate exactly who did exactly what to produce the biggest aid scam in U.N. history. (Or, if you prefer, might perhaps clear Saddam's name by demonstrating that he was, after all, a much-maligned do-good kinda guy, trying his best to bring baby food to the people of Iraq).
Oil-for-Food was a deal between Saddam and the U.N., in which, to my knowledge, Mr. Chalabi, an avowed long-time foe of Saddam, was not invited by either party to ride the gravy train. Rather, Mr. Chalabi was one of the early messengers, bringing specific tidings that the program was rotten. All the signs so far suggest that whatever else he may be accused of, he was right about this. Since Mr. Chalabi kicked off an investigation this past spring (which was promptly blocked by the U.S. administration), U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker, the U.S. Justice Department, and five congressional teams have followed suit.
Nor has Mr. Chalabi been a solo voice in noting that high officials of various stripes, in various counties, might be implicated in Oil-for-Food. On March 30 of this year, CIA chief weapons inspector for Iraq, Charles Duelfer, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that of the billions skimmed from Oil-for-Food, Saddam's regime "channeled much of the illicitly gathered funds to rebuild Iraq's military capabilities," importing "banned weapons and technology and dual-use goods through Oil-for-Food contracts."
Perhaps most immediately intriguing, even with Saddam gone from the scene, Mr. Duelfer in the same testimony, said: "Companies in several countries were involved in these efforts. Direct roles by government officials are also clearly established."
Direct roles? Which countries? What government officials?
At least some of the evidence, one might suppose, is socked away among the umpteen zillion documents to which the public has no access--save when here or there, someone chooses to leak a sheaf or two. Until the various investigations start to report in--and they seem to be taking their time about it--we won't even necessarily know just which aspects they are examining, and which they might choose to leave out.
Meanwhile, in effect, the Oil-for-Food papers have become poker cards held by various players in a high-rolling global backroom game that lends itself to such practices as blackmail. In some ways, these documents have begun to resemble a form of currency. Maybe we should simply make that official, and ask former Fed Chairman Volcker to start open market operations now.
Certainly Mr. Chalabi's best defense, in Oil-for-Food matters, would be to disclose the documents he says he's got. But the responsibility hardly begins there. The U.N. should have disclosed its records from the start. The keepers of these documents would be wise to release them today, or at least allow public access to the databases both extant and now being assembled. The secrets packed away with those Oil-for-Food papers are the spawn of a sick and predatory system. There can be few endeavors more cynical and ugly than skimming funds meant for sick and hungry people, and few rationales more alarming than the idea that everyone was doing it--especially if "everyone" includes officials still in positions of public trust. The best cure is daylight. Or, to borrow one of Mr. Volcker's best lines: Let the chips fall.
This article appeared on opinionjournal.com on August 11, 2004.
Claudia Rosett was formerly an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.
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