Investigate, Don't Incapacitate
By Tom Lantos
The Washington Post
Saturday, May 8, 2004
Since the end of January, when an Iraqi newspaper alleged that a senior U.N.
official had taken bribes from Saddam Hussein, the United Nations has been the
target of unsubstantiated allegations involving potential mismanagement,
unethical behavior and collusion with Hussein's despicable regime. The notion
that a high-level U.N. official could have been on Baghdad's payroll is
sickening, if true, and it must be investigated.
That being said, it has been just as sickening to see that longtime haters of
the United Nations are using the bribery charge and other unproven allegations
to discredit the world body when the case against it is far from clear. This
campaign of slander threatens great harm to U.S. interests because it is aimed
at undermining the United Nations' ability to help us in Iraq.
Based on my preliminary review of the oil-for-food program, it appears that
the United Nations took action to prevent some of the abuses of which it is
being accused, and that much responsibility for the problems that beset the
program lies with the members of the Security Council, including our own
We know that U.N. officials raised concerns about possible Iraqi fraud in
oil-for-food contracts as far back as early 2001, when Secretary General Kofi
Annan issued a report warning that Hussein had begun to implement a system of
surcharges on sales of oil under the program. Annan's reports led to reforms in
the program. We also know that some U.N. officials tried to halt Hussein's
scheme to extract kickbacks from companies seeking to sell goods under the
Although the Security Council did not give the U.N. Secretariat oversight
authority, U.N. officers worked to hold up overpriced contracts by demanding
that missions that submitted them on behalf of their companies explain any
overcharges. In many cases, the missions were unable or unwilling to defend the
contracts, and they were never approved. In cases where the missions did attempt
to justify the overpricing, the United Nations forwarded them to the Security
Council's Sanctions Committee with red flags about the cost.
Nevertheless, the State Department never exercised the power it had as a
Sanctions Committee member to block any of the overpriced contracts flagged by
the United Nations, nor did it otherwise try to halt Hussein's kickback scheme.
Other members of the Security Council, including France, Russia and China, also
failed to act.
We have learned that the State Department approved dozens of ridiculously
overpriced contracts, including three multimillion-dollar deals submitted by
Syria that were inflated by a whopping 44 percent. In February 2002, the State
Department even approved the sale of a fleet of 300 Mercedes-Benz luxury cars
for use by the Iraqi government.
I fully understand that our highest priority as a Sanctions Committee member
was to make sure that Iraq could not get its hands on illicit and dual-use
items, and the United States blocked thousands of contracts based on these
concerns. But another important priority should have been to prevent overpriced
contracts that invited kickbacks.
The United Nations clearly has to answer to the allegation that a U.N.
official accepted bribes from Hussein, and the panel of inquiry headed by former
Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker will thoroughly investigate this
charge. I would expect that such an inquiry would look at whether the United
Nations had put in place sufficient mechanisms to deter corrupt behavior by its
employees. If the panel also discovers evidence of shoddy management or other
problems in the program, the United Nations must make appropriate reforms. In
Congress, as we move forward with a responsible inquiry, we should also focus
attention on our own government and other Security Council members, and find out
why they didn't use the authority they had to block Hussein's padded contracts.
U.N. bashers would love to hold the United Nations culpable for Hussein's
abuse of the oil-for-food program, because it would make an effective case for
excluding the United Nations from Iraq's transition. But fairness and U.S.
national interest require us to avoid being distracted by reckless distortions
and to focus on facts.
Rep. Lantos, of California, is the ranking Democrat on the House
International Relations Committee.