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.
This arrangement does not bother the bulk of UN member nations, who want nothing unpleasant to happen to their friend Kofi. Two permanent Security Council members, France and Russia, profited so much from the oil-for-food scam that they desire no vigorous investigation.
The question is how rigorous the U.S. government will be toward Annan after the Iraqi election. Powell has a long-standing relationship with Annan, but he is leaving. Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice, has been characteristically prudent in reacting to the UN scandal. According to Capitol Hill sources, she remained mute after Coleman briefed her on Annan and the scandal.
Senior senators are similarly silent, partly not to discourage the UN from helping a little in the Iraq elections but also mostly not to look like yahoo isolationists. During a long interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" Dec. 19, Tim Russert asked four high-ranking senators whether they "still have confidence" in Kofi Annan. Sen. John Warner, Armed Services Committee chairman, answered that "we've got to wait until the Volcker report." "Anyone disagree?" asked Russert. Nobody did.
Sen. Carl Levin, who is ranking Democrat on both Armed Services and Coleman's investigations subcommittee, specifically answered that he did not disagree. That contradicted a tough letter last month to Annan co-signed by Coleman and Levin, accusing the Volcker inquiry of obstructing the Senate investigation. Instead, at a Nov. 15 hearing, Levin reverted to partisanship in trying to pin culpability for the scandal on the Bush administration. It seems impossible for Kofi Annan to escape unscathed from this scandal, but peculiar things happen at Turtle Bay.