Kofi Annan insists an investigation into the oil-for-food program in Iraq clears him of wrongdoing, but the probe shows that the U.N. secretary-general didn’t do much right either. He was willfully inattentive to the point of negligence to the mounting signs of trouble in the program.
Among those signs was a consulting contract with a Swiss firm seeking a piece of the oil-for-food program that paid his son Kojo, who had few visible qualifications, as much as $485,000. The investigation, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, found that Annan played no role in steering U.N. contracts to the company, but that there were “several instances in which he might or could have become aware” of his son’s involvement. But Annan was stunningly incurious.
After press reports of his son’s dealings appeared in 1999, Annan blew off the allegations after an in-house investigation that lasted all of one day.
The $64 billion oil-for-food program ran from 1996 until 2003 and was intended to allow Iraq to buy much-needed food and medicine. Almost from the beginning, the rich odor of corruption emanated from the program. Saddam Hussein regularly ran tours for gullible European journalists and “peace activists” who were driven past spanking-new government buildings and palaces to visit crumbling hospitals filled with sick children. You didn’t have to be any great skeptic to wonder why money could be spent on the one and not the other.
Annan apparently never did wonder. The first part of Volcker’s investigation showed that Saddam had corrupted the U.N.-run program, paying hundreds of millions in bribes to politicians, various shady intermediaries and even U.N. officials, including Benon Sevan, whom Annan had chosen to run the program and whom Volcker charged with “grave conflict of interest.”
Annan’s lack of curiosity extended to his own office. His chief of staff, who retired in January, shredded three years’ worth of files pertaining to the Iraq program _ the day after the United Nations authorized Volcker’s investigation.
Annan emphatically doesn’t believe the results of the investigation so far warrant his resignation, and the Bush administration supports his staying on as secretary-general. Annan has announced an ambitious reform program for the international agency. Perhaps those reforms should start with his own office.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)