The cover-up is always worse than the crime, they say. But that doesn't necessarily hold true when you're dealing with the crime of the century -- in fact, two centuries. And the United Nations Oil-for-Food program is among the largest criminal enterprises in history.
Over the course of several years, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimates Saddam Hussein's Iraqi dictatorship generated more than $10 billion in illegal revenues by exploiting Oil-for-Food.
Members of the U.N. seem to have been deeply involved in the scandal. For example, Benon Sevan, once the executive director of Oil-for-Food, was included on an Iraqi Oil Ministry listing of hundreds of people who allegedly received oil vouchers as bribes from Saddam's regime.
As such details have dribbled out, the United Nations has reacted predictably -- by attempting to sweep Oil-for-Food under the rug or change the subject. For example, the U.N.'s commission of inquiry, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, has been at work for almost six months. But it doesn't seem to be making progress.
And that's not surprising -- the commission seems to have been set up to fail. As Heritage Foundation experts Nile Gardiner and James Phillips reported recently, it has "no subpoena power and is clearly open to U.N. manipulation. It bears no enforcement authority (such as contempt) to compel compliance with its requests for information and has no authority to discipline or punish any wrongdoing it discovers."
The Volcker Commission's operations are shrouded in secrecy. We know who the top-level investigators are, for example, but there are some 40 other officials who remain unidentified. These are the people who will be handling documents, interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence. In other words, those doing the real work. These people must be independent -- but since we don't know who they are, we don't know whether any (or all) of them have close ties to the U.N.
One key commission official already has resigned because serious doubts were raised about her fair-mindedness. Volcker's spokeswoman, Anna Di Lellio, stepped down on Sept. 24, after The Heritage Foundation highlighted one of her past anti-American statements.
"I don't like it that the two nations whose citizenship I hold, Italy and the U.S., have leased their institutions to a couple of families," Di Lellio told the London newspaper The Guardian on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. "With defenders like W and Berlusconi, largely unchecked by a sycophantic media, who needs bin Laden to destroy culture, personal freedom, respect for other human beings, integrity and the rule of law?"
In accepting her resignation, Volcker admitted that such a statement "could impair your ability to act with full effectiveness as liaison of the committee with the press and public."
That's an understatement. Such views may play well at the United Nations, but they won't go over well in Iraq, where polls show most people are thankful for the American-led coalition that ousted Saddam last year. And they certainly won't be popular in Congress or the Bush administration. The commission must work with all three groups to do its job.
Meanwhile, even as the Volcker commission languished, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan tried to change the subject. He recently told the BBC the war with Iraq was "illegal" under the U.N. charter.
It makes sense Annan would rather make such a ridiculous charge than talk about Oil-for-Food. His son, Kojo, was a consultant for a company that later won a questionable $4.8 million U.N. contract. Plus, the U.N. has completed at least 55 confidential internal Oil-for-Food investigations. Annan ought to release all those reports, so we'll know what he knew and when he knew it.
The world deserves a full and fair investigation of Oil-for-Food. If any U.N. officials engaged in wrongdoing, they should be fired and prosecuted under American or Iraqi law.
But we won't get that investigation unless we keep up the pressure. Congress must make sure a United Nations cover-up doesn't obscure a $10 billion crime scene.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.