Conservatives’ persistent complaints about the United Nations’ alleged lack of transparency are belied by the Interim Report of Paul Volcker’s Independent Inquiry Committee into the Oil for Food program. His investigators scoured the hard drives, e-mails and telephone records of UN staff–including those of Secretary General Kofi Annan–and of the private individuals involved. They even went through a cigar box full of business cards belonging to the former head of the program.
In the interests of reciprocal transparency, similar investigative exercises at the Pentagon, the White House, Coalition Provisional Authority offices and Halliburton would be welcome. For there were actually two reports about Iraqi oil money in the same week–Volcker’s and that of Stuart Bowen Jr., US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, on the fate of the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI). The inspector told Congress that the US occupation administration of Iraq provided “less than adequate controls for approximately $8.8 billion of DFI funds provided to Iraqi ministries through the national budget process” and that there was no way to confirm that the money had been spent in accordance with UN Resolution 1483, which set up the fund.
The inspector’s report was released the day of the Iraqi elections and was overlooked by most of the US media. It concluded that the “CPA management of Iraq’s national budget process and oversight of Iraqi funds was burdened by severe inefficiencies and poor management.” One of the relatively few news stories about the inspector’s investigation explained that the DFI was made up of “proceeds from Iraqi oil sales, frozen assets from foreign governments and surplus from the UN Oil-for-Food Program.” In fact, more than $8 billion came from the unspent balances from the Oil for Food program. Some of that money went to Halliburton, the company formerly headed by the US Vice President. We have heard no calls in Congress for the investigation of Dick Cheney.
Meanwhile, in New York on February 3, Volcker released his report at an overflowing press conference. The story dominated the headlines for the weekend. Henry Hyde, chair of the House International Relations Committee, responded to Volcker’s report, claiming, “I am reluctant to conclude that the UN is damaged beyond repair, but these revelations certainly point in this direction.” For the record, it should be noted that Hyde held that opinion before the Oil for Food program was set up, let alone the inquiry. But what are the Volcker revelations? In fact, any objective reading of the report rebuts the fevered right-wing slanders that triggered the inquiry. After all, this was supposed to be what one typically hyperbolic conservative columnist has called the greatest financial scandal in the history of the universe.
Volcker’s report finds that because of political pressure, the UN gave inspection contracts for the Oil for Food program to British and Dutch firms. The Iraqis wanted either a Swiss or a French bank to handle the fund’s escrow account, and after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opposed choosing a Swiss bank, then- Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali chose a French one.