Bashing the United Nations is one of Capitol Hill’s favorite sports. Playing it doesn’t carry any political cost, and looking and sounding tough with “foreign bureaucrats” is often profitable for American politicians. Earlier this month, two high-ranking members of the Senate, Democrat Carl Levin and Republican Norm Coleman, gang-tackled Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a letter. Annan was accused of blocking the release of internal audits and other documents on the controversial oil-for-food program in Iraq that the U.N. ran from 1996 to 2003.
Considering that efficiency has never been a hallmark of U.N. operations, it’s tempting to side with Levin and Coleman. But an independent panel is already conducting an investigation of the oil-for-food matter with the full cooperation of the U.N., and it could be jeopardized by premature testimony and disclosure of documents.
The two senators want access to 55 internal audit reports and other documents, plus interviews with U.N. officials who oversaw the program. They are not alone: Six U.S. agencies have asked for the same access.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who heads the independent panel, rightly refused to comply with the senators’ requests, saying disclosure would “be damaging to the pursuit of investigative leads, chill participation of witnesses and risk misleading, prejudicial and unfair impressions” of people, institutions and nations. Volcker says his panel will release a preliminary report in January and file a definitive report by the middle of next year. That’s not too long to wait.
The program allowed Iraq -- then under U.N. sanctions for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait -- to sell oil and use the revenues to buy food and other humanitarian goods. Saddam Hussein may have manipulated the program to illegally pocket billions of dollars. Some suspect more than just mismanagement on the part of U.N. officials; a report by CIA weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer said that Benon V. Sevan, who headed the program, may have received oil allocations from Hussein.
Upon accepting the post as chairman of the three-person inquiry committee, Volcker told the U.N. Security Council to “make sure that member states knew what they were getting into.” The U.S. ratified his chairmanship, and that means all branches of the government must live by the commitment.