The Volcker Oil-for-Food Commission: Is It Credible?

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The Volcker Oil-for-Food Commission: Is It Credible?

September 20, 2004 8 min read

It has been almost six months since United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced the appointment of the U.N.'s commission of inquiry, headed by Paul Volcker, into the Oil-for-Food scandal.[1] So far, few details have emerged regarding the Commission's modus operandi, its staff, or its overall effectiveness. The Commission's operations are shrouded in secrecy, with little transparency or external oversight. For a commission designed to unearth corruption and malpractice on a huge scale, it is strikingly opaque. Its spartan official website contains little information of value, not even a mailing address.[2]


The Volcker Commission is likely to issue its report in a year's time (though no firm deadline has been set). Its investigation could cost $30 million in all.[3] The Commission bears all the hallmarks of a toothless paper tiger, with 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.[4]


Who Is Staffing the Commission?

The "Independent Inquiry Committee into the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program," as it is officially termed, is top-heavy with distinguished luminaries but short on detail regarding its actual workforce.


Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker heads a three-person committee, which includes South African judge Richard Goldstone and Mark Pieth, a professor from the University of Basel in Switzerland. So far, the names of ten senior staff have been released, including Reid Morden, former Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Swiss magistrate Laurent Kasper-Ansermet.[5]


However, no details have thus far been released regarding the remaining staff (currently around 40 in number, and likely to rise further) that will actually be doing the investigating and handling the huge volumes of documents. The key questions remain: How many U.N. staff and former staff are involved with the Commission? What assurances are there that U.N. officials implicated in the Oil-for-Food scandal will not interfere with or unduly influence this supposedly independent investigation? A truly independent inquiry into U.N. corruption should not be staffed by U.N. employees, former U.N. employees, or those with any significant ties to the U.N.


It is therefore surprising to discover that the official spokesman for the Commission, Anna Di Lellio, is a former United Nations official. Moreover, Ms. Di Lellio, who is Director of Communications for Paul Volcker, has publicly expressed contempt for the U.S. president. In an interview with the London newspaper The Guardian on the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ms. Di Lellio launched into a vicious tirade against the U.S. and Italian governments, implicitly comparing President George W. Bush and key U.S. ally Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Osama bin Laden:

What I do feel is a sense of powerlessness against the changes which are potentially lethal for our civilization. But I see the major threats coming from ourselves, rather than the east. I find deeply unsettling both the ascendance of George Bush and his puppeteers to the U.S. government, and the mix of self-serving hypocrisy and incompetence prevailing in European governments.

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. 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-all the things that make our lives worthwhile?[6]

Such extreme opinions do not sit well with the Volcker Commission's claim to impartiality and will impede the establishment of a constructive relationship between the Commission, the U.S. Congress, and the executive branch of the United States.


Anna Di Lellio's appointment brings into question the judgment of the Volcker Commission in hiring its staff. It casts a shadow of doubt over the Commission's ability to provide what Mr. Volcker refers to as "the truly definitive report on the administration of the Oil-for-Food program." Di Lellio's appointment raises serious questions regarding the role of current and former U.N. officials in an inquiry that is purported to be completely free of influence from the U.N. It also strongly suggests that the U.N. is, in effect, controlling the message being communicated by the Volcker Commission to the world media.


Volcker's Refusal to Cooperate with Congressional and Federal Investigations

In meetings on Capitol Hill on July 13, Paul Volcker "rejected requests from members of Congress for access to review documents and to interview United Nations officials being scrutinized by his panel," reports the New York Times.[7] Congressional sources have confirmed that the Volcker Commission refuses to grant access to internal reports on the Oil-for-Food program produced by the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services and is unwilling to share documentation that it holds in Baghdad. It also refuses to guarantee that it will release documents relating to the Oil-for-Food program even after it has filed its final report. This hostile approach seriously undermines the credibility of the Independent Inquiry Committee.


Four congressional entities are investigating the U.N.'s administration of the Oil-for-Food program: the Senate Subcommittee on Government Affairs (chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman), the House Subcommittee on Government Reform (chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays), the House International Relations Committee (chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde), and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (chaired by Rep. Joe Barton). In addition, there are three federal investigations underway: by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Treasury.[8] The Volcker Commission has so far refused to cooperate significantly with any of these investigations.


What Congress Should Demand

Congress has a vital role to play in forcing the Volcker Commission to operate in an open, transparent manner. Moreover, it is likely that Congressional and federal investigations will be far more effective ultimately than the U.N.'s own commission of inquiry. Congressional leaders and the Bush Administration should demand:

  • Full access to all U.N. documents relating to Oil for Food.
    There should be no monopoly over documentation held by the U.N. The U.N. should also provide a full list of documents currently in its possession that relate to Oil for Food.
  • Freedom to interview U.N. officials implicated in the scandal.
    Federal and Congressional investigators should be able to question U.N. officials under investigation by the Volcker Commission.
  • A complete list of names of all staff working on the Volcker Commission.
    The Volcker Commission should be completely independent of the U.N., and there should be no conflicts of interest involving its staff.
  • External oversight of the workings of the Volcker Commission.
    The Commission should be open to public scrutiny and should include third-party representatives seconded from bodies such as the FBI and Interpol.
  • Monthly progress reports from the Volcker Commission to Security Council members.
    All members of the U.N. Security Council should be furnished with regular updates on the investigation.
  • A firm date for publication of the Volcker Report.
    The final date of publication must not be open to political manipulation by the U.N. in an attempt to limit potential damage.


The Volcker Commission's refusal to share documentation with congressional investigators demonstrates not only breathtaking arrogance but also complete disrespect for Congress and the American public that helps fund the Commission through the United Nations. If it is to be treated seriously and respected as something other than an elaborate but costly whitewash exercise, the Commission will need to implement major changes, both in its operations and in its approach. Above all, transparency and accountability will be needed if the Independent Commission is to avoid becoming yet another example of mutual back scratching at the U.N.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, and James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs, at The Heritage Foundation.


[1] For background on the Oil for Food issue, see Nile Gardiner Ph.D., James A. Phillips, and James Dean, "The Oil for Food Scandal: Next Steps for Congress," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder no. 1772, June 30, 2004, at

[3] Susan Sachs and Judith Miller, "Under Eye of UN, Billions for Hussein in Oil for Food Plan," The New York Times, August 13, 2004.

[4] The authors are grateful to Paul Rosenzweig, Senior Legal Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, for his observations on the legal powers of the Commission.

[5] Paul A. Volcker, "A Road Map for our Inquiry," The Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2004.

[6] The Guardian, "Interview with Anna Di Lellio," September 11, 2002, at

[7] Judith Miller, "UN and Congress in Dispute Over Iraq Oil for Food Inquiries," The New York Times, July 28, 2004.

[8] For further detail, see Thomas Caton, "Investigators Crawl Over Iraq's Oil Billions," Financial Times, July 6, 2004.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow