Hungry for answers

Rich Tucker

2/20/2005 12:00:00 AM - Rich Tucker

If you leave a fox in charge of the henhouse, don?t expect many eggs.

That nicely sums up the United Nations Oil-for-Food program. It was supposed to feed starving people in Iraq. Instead, a handful of corrupt bureaucrats in Baghdad and at the U.N. (foxes) were in charge of the program and pocketed billions of dollars, while innocent Iraqis starved to death (for a lack of eggs).

Internal U.N. documents describe widespread incompetence and mismanagement in the program, and the U.N. admits it wasted millions of dollars through overpayments to contractors, a lack of oversight and other unjustified spending. Oil-for-Food is the largest financial scandal of our time -- perhaps of all time.

To get to the bottom of the scandal, the United Nations turned to Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Admittedly, he?s no fox himself, but he is a longtime friend and supporter of the United Nations -- and that?s a big problem. After all, it?s impossible to have a credible investigation unless you have investigators with credibility.

That?s why Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell didn?t serve as co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission. Within weeks of being named in Nov. 2002 to head the panel each resigned, citing conflicts of interest.

?Although specific potential conflicts can be resolved,? Kissinger wrote in a letter to President Bush, ?to liquidate Kissinger Associates cannot be accomplished without significantly delaying the beginning of the joint commission?s work. I have, therefore, concluded that I cannot accept the responsibility you have proposed.? For his part, former Senate Majority Leader Mitchell admitted that his law firm had too many ties to too many groups and noted, ?I regret that I will not be able to serve.?

The investigation went ahead, of course, under different leadership. And because the panel mostly managed to avoid other conflicts (some questions did arise about Commissioner Jamie Gorelick?s service in the Clinton Justice Department), the investigation was seen as fair.

When it comes to the U.N., though, Volcker has clear conflicts of interest. As my Heritage Foundation colleague Nile Gardiner recently pointed out, when Volcker was appointed, he was a director of the United Nations Association of the United States of America. That organization?s self-proclaimed mission is to ?greatly expand and contribute to Americans? understanding of the U.N. and its importance to the U.S.?

Volcker recently waved aside concerns about his leadership of UNA-USA. ?It was not a particularly active relationship, to say the least,? he told reporters. ?I have not attended a meeting of the organization for the last two years.? But it?s difficult to believe that someone who?s worked to improve American perceptions of the U.N. would be eager to seek out and publicize the sordid details of Oil-for-Food.

Volcker and his organization also have close ties to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In fact, UNA-USA is already defending him. The organization has already assured us that the investigation ?will be objective, thorough and fair.? It also criticizes what it calls ?politically motivated attacks? on Annan, and claims they ?constitute an effort to undermine the U.N., which is a real objective for many of those who are distorting the facts on this complex issue.?  With comments like that, it?s no wonder Annan selected Volcker to lead the Oil-for-Food investigation.

When Kissinger was appointed to the original 9/11 commission, The New York Times editorialized, ?It is tempting to wonder if the choice of Mr. Kissinger is not a clever maneuver by the White House to contain an investigation it long opposed. It seems improbable to expect Mr. Kissinger to report unflinchingly on the conduct of the government, including that of Mr. Bush. He would have to challenge the established order and risk sundering old friendships and business relationships.?

Well, Volcker has all those problems, and more. He?s long backed Annan and remains a staunch supporter of the United Nations. So when Volcker recently told the Times that his investigation hasn?t found a ?smoking gun,? it?s fair to ask whether that?s because there isn?t a smoking gun, or because Volcker simply doesn?t want to find one.

The world needs a complete investigation of Oil-for-Food. We need to find out what went wrong, so we can punish the guilty and ensure that future humanitarian efforts, like the ongoing tsunami relief, succeed. Unfortunately, we can?t count on getting a fair hearing from the Volcker Committee, because his clear conflict of interest has left the lead investigator with egg on his face.