To no one’s great surprise, the much anticipated release of an interim report from the U.N. committee investigating the Oil for Food scandal has been postponed, and the reason for the delay raises fresh doubts about the committee’s investigation.
Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who leads the committee, had initially promised the panel would release an interim report by the end of January. In a recent prelude to that report, Volcker released a number of internal U.N. audits that analyzed various aspects of the Oil for Food program. The documents and the committee’s comments about them raised hopes that the long-promised interim report would include meaningful revelations.
However, last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that Iraqi-American oil trader Samir Vincent had entered the first guilty plea in the U.S. government’s Oil for Food investigation and that Vincent was now cooperating with federal investigators. According to court documents, Vincent revealed that he had acted as an agent for Saddam Hussein in return for payoffs related to the Oil for Food program. Further, Vincent told investigators that while working for Saddam, he became aware that hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were paid to a senior U.N. official. Some reports indicate that Vincent has identified this official to investigators, but that identification has not yet been made public. Nevertheless, it is clear, based on the timing of the payments, that the recipient was not Benon Sevan, the U.N. official previously implicated in the scandal, but was, instead, someone else.
Published reports indicate that Volcker’s decision to delay the interim report was based largely on the disclosure of Vincent’s information. Apparently, the U.N. investigators had not uncovered these critical facts on their own and are now seeking to interview Mr. Vincent before their report is released.
While it’s certainly laudable that the U.N. committee wants to have its ducks in a row before releasing a report, the revelation that Volcker’s team wasn’t already privy to this information confirms initial worries about the panel’s ineffectiveness. Many believed that committee’s lack of subpoena power and reliance on the cooperation of the U.N. bureaucracy would doom the investigation to failure. It certainly appears in this instance that the U.N. investigators missed crucial facts while the properly empowered prosecutors at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office were able to move the investigation forward.
Vincent’s revelations also further belie Volcker’s statement earlier in January that his team had not yet found any “smoking guns.” By now, it ought to be patently obvious to anyone who has examined the Oil for Food program even in passing that Saddam Hussein successfully corrupted senior U.N. officials. And if Volcker’s team really hasn’t built a case against anyone at the world body, it can only be thanks to gross negligence or incompetence.
The Volcker committee’s apparent investigative blunder also raises broader questions about its effectiveness. If it is failing to finger crucial subjects like Mr. Vincent, what else is it missing? What other critical findings are being overlooked? What crucial facts are U.N. leaders and bureaucrats keeping from Volcker’s team?
On one level, these questions simply highlight anew the urgent need for the world body to embrace transparency, release everything, and allow the wrongdoers to be held accountable. But on another, it’s been nearly a year since news of this scandal first broke. Don’t hold your breath.
January 27, 2005