was like hearing the first cuckoo of spring. MSNBC called this week to see
if I would be interested in discussing the UN's waste, mismanagement and
corruption in handling the Tsunami funds twelve months ago. It was, they
suggested, “The biggest financial scandal since Oil for Food.”
It was, in fact, deja vu
all over again. Twelve months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the
Tsunami, I was being ferried around the studios to discuss the shock and
horror of UN Humanitarian Affairs chief Jan Egeland calling the US
Mere technical details like the fact that he had said no such thing did
not dam the tidal wave of indignation bouncing off the walls of the
Egeland had actually said
that the developed countries had almost all failed to meet their own
targets of 0.7% of GDP going to Overseas Development Assistance, which is
indisputably true. He did not specify that of all of them, the US was the
meanest, but I had no compunction about reminding viewers.
In fact, the US had offered an initial $30 million at the time of the
Tsunami, which the talking heads all considered as the height of
generosity. As the scale of the tragedy broke, the administration added
several zeroes to its initial offer. However the purpose of the show was
not to congratulate me on my prescience, it was to find another excuse to
attack the UN.
In fact, I am somewhat surprised that no one has yet found a way to link
the Hurricane Katrina debacle to the UN. But somehow the right does not
want to remind people about the New Orleans debacle.
I doubt that we have heard the last of this newly launched Tsunami canard,
not least since Bill Clinton's position as UN Special Envoy makes it a
double whammy for the right. The UN is always wrong, it is simply a
question of pinning its inherent wrongness to a topical peg.
However we can draw some comfort. Could it be that "Oil for Food" as
a subject has lost its appeal even for the rabid right?
On one level, this is probably no bad thing, since the voluminous but
vapid Volcker Report finally said all there was to say, and probably a lot
more than was worth saying, about the alleged scandal.
De minimis Lex non curat, says the old legal saw, "The law does not
concern itself with trifles." If only we could say the same of much of the
media, which of course concerns itself with little else.
For a year, every minute item about the Oil For Food Program has been
bellowed breathlessly from the conservative media.
And suddenly, there is silence. Last month Kojo Annan, son of Kofi, was
awarded large damages against the Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times,
which had to admit that its story connecting him to Oil For Food contracts
had no substance. You did not see the story on Fox, MSNBC, or any of the
In December, the US charged two colonels who had worked for the "Coalition
Provisional Authority" with accepting bribes of $200,000 a month for
steering contracts to companies that were seemingly just shells. They
worked with someone whom the Coalition Provisional Authority hired as
comptroller with a budget of $82 million -- despite a previous felony
conviction for fraud.
It did not make the headlines. Senator Norm Coleman and Congressman Henry
Hyde did not call for the resignation of the chief executive of the
organization involved, one George W. Bush.
And no one mentioned that much of the money involved presumably came from
the $10 billion surplus that the UN Oil For Food Fund had handed over to
the Development Fund for Iraq, controlled by the CPA. During its blessedly
short life span, the American-dominated CPA spent nearly $20 billion of
the $23.34 billion of Iraqi funds it had under its control for just over a
year. It spent just $300 million of the US taxpayer funding pledges of
$18.4 billion for Iraq's reconstruction.
At a press conference at the UN on Wednesday, December 28, the members of
the International Accounting and Monitoring Board set up by the Security
Council to monitor CPI spending of DFI funds, reinforced the impression
that the Pentagon's efforts to freeze them out were a waste of effort. The
body bared its gums and refused to bark at the clear evidence of gross
waste, mismanagement and corruption by the CPA.
The board simply examined 24 sole-sourced contracts that the CPA awarded
worth more than $5 million. In fact, we discovered during the
press conference, they had paid KPMG to "audit" 23 of them, representing
some $600 million, which it was suggested was mostly a process of
examining American government audits.
The Pentagon had heavily censored what they provided to the IAMB until
Congressman Henry Waxman posted the Pentagon's devastating reports on his website.
The biggest sole-sourced contract was Kellogg Brown Root, the Halliburton
subsidiary which walked off with $1.6 billion. KPMG recused itself from
this, so the IAMB relied on the work of the Special Inspector General for
Iraq as well as the Pentagon audits.
Just consider. The US gave a sole-sourced contract to a subsidiary of the
company Vice President Dick Cheney had presided over as CEO, and from which he is still
rolling up deferred compensation. The audit was carried out by Stuart
Bowen, the Special Inspector General appointed by President George W.
Bush, his legal client way back to when Bush was
Governor of Texas.
Despite almost complete media silence about this ultimate in potential
whitewashes, one cannot help but hear echoes of the feeble UN demands for
transparency and external checks on the UN, on the need for external checks. If Kofi Annan
had appointed his own lawyer to conduct the Inquiry that Volcker actually
headed, can you imagine the indignation?
It also emerges that the IAMB did not examine other contracts at all,
not even to check the open-ness and fairness of the bidding, let alone to
see if the money from the Development Fund was in fact spent on behalf of
the Iraqi people as mandated.
In fact, even Bowen's report managed more indignation than the IAMB has so
far mustered. Almost the only admonition from the Board has been the mild
suggestion that the US reimburse the $200 million plus that KBR
overcharged for fuel supplies to Iraq.
Bowen found via Defense Department Audits
(that the Pentagon tried to conceal from the IAMB, and that Waxman
revealed, showing far greater indignation than publicly made IAMB
statements express) a massive amount of Iraq Development Fund money --
$8.8 billion -- that could not be accounted for.
That was the result of Defense Department Audits that the Pentagon tried
to conceal from the IAMB, and which were only revealed by Waxman who has
managed far more indignation about it than the IAMB's public statements
display. One cannot help suspecting that some of the board's five members
have had words with US administration officials. Even Bowen complained
about this one.
As Waxman said back in June, "there has been a stark and telling contrast
between Congress' approach to the Oil For Food Program and the DFI. Five
separate congressional committees have been investigating U.N.
mismanagement of the Oil for Food Program, and more than a dozen hearings
have been held. But before today there was not a single hearing in
Congress on U.S. mismanagement of the Development Fund for Iraq," which,
as he points out, is the successor to the Oil For Food program. (click
Waxman reported that the CPA withdrew no less than $12 billion in cash
from the New York Federal Reserve Bank DFI and flew it to Iraq -- no less than 363 tons of $100 bills
-- the largest cash withdrawal in
history. In its final feeding frenzy, in the last month the CPA took out
$4 billion from the mother of all ATM's in New York including the largest
cash withdrawal in history, $2.4 billion.
In a partial audit of $120 million of the $600 million handed out to US
military officials for local reconstruction, more than 80% could not be
accounted for, and $7 million was simply missing.
After I enquired about the fate of these funds at Kofi Annan's press conference
just before Christmas, I was berated by John Bolton's press officer
as an "apologist for the UN," as he questioned my journalistic integrity
and accused me of "blurring the line" between the Oil for Food kickbacks
and what he characterized as the CPA's accounting irregularities. I told him
that I was not blurring the line. I was drawing a straight line between
If Benon Sevan's $160,000, alleged by the Volcker Inquiry, is headline
news for the best part of the year, then I think it is a legitimate
question to ask why the CPA's attested multi billion scandal scarcely
merits a paragraph in the back pages.
Or is the media profession saying that this is a dog bites man/man bites dog
scenario? That if the UN is corrupt it is unusual, but massive corruption
is too commonplace in this Bush administration to merit mention?
I suspect that this is not what the news editors and producers are saying.
But it would be interesting to hear an explanation about what news values
mandate that the mote in the UN's eye deserves minute attention but that
the beam in the White House's can be overlooked.
Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the
world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, from
the New York Observer and Village Voice to the Financial
Times and the Guardian. His blog is the
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