Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Norm Coleman bit his lip and kept silent when the State Department expressed confidence in United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Bush administration seemed to be repudiating the freshman Republican senator from Minnesota, who had called for Annan's resignation. But Coleman was well aware that his investigation of UN corruption is trumped for now by a transcendent issue.

 When Annan made a hurried trip to Washington Dec. 16, his non-cooperation with the Jan. 30 election in Iraq was manifest. His attitude changed markedly after Secretary of State Colin Powell declared: "We have confidence in the secretary-general." With that, Annan began to provide the UN's desperately needed help on the elections.

 That looks like a big-time deal in the best interests of the United States. Nothing is more important to President Bush than the Iraqi election, dwarfing even full exposure of the UN's oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, including the secretary-general's complicity. But Annan has not bought permanent immunity by belatedly helping in Iraq. The U.S. government includes an independent legislative branch, and Norm Coleman is biding his time.

 Just finishing his second year as a senator, Coleman would be invisible in the old Senate. But as chairman of the Senate's permanent investigations subcommittee, Coleman has become the leading congressional watchdog over UN abuses. Despite Powell's avowed confidence in Annan, Coleman is standing by his Dec. 1 column in the Wall Street Journal, which concluded: "If this widespread corruption had occurred in any legitimate organization around the world, its CEO would have been ousted long ago, in disgrace. Why is the UN different?"

 The corruption was documented in October by chief U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer's report. It shows Saddam Hussein "subverting" the $60 billion oil-for-food program to generate still uncounted billions for the Iraqi dictator's own purposes.

 Annan's defense has been his appointment of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to conduct an independent inquiry. But Volcker's report will go directly to Annan, who has promulgated procedures permitting him to hack away at the findings.

 In a letter to the UN Security Council, Annan asserted that the Volcker report "will be made available to the public in a form that will take into account the rights of staff members and, where necessary, respect any undertakings as to confidentiality that may have been granted by the inquiry." What will result from the report? "I will take such action as I may deem appropriate," Annan said. It is as if Enron executives could edit and act on the Justice Department investigation.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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