WASHINGTON -- "The extent of the corruption is staggering," Sen. Norm Coleman told me. He is a freshman Republican from Minnesota completing his second year in Washington, and he was talking about the United Nations and its pious secretary general, Kofi Annan. Coleman's comments are not the mere musings of an insignificant rookie senator, but the considered judgment of a committee chairman whose careful investigation reached the hearing stage Monday.
After winning his Senate seat against former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in 2002, Coleman was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (made infamous a half-century ago during Joe McCarthy's tenure). He now is conducting what could be the most explosive congressional investigation in years, probing the UN's fraudulent oil-for-food program in Iraq and Annan's obstruction of the senatorial inquiry.
Coleman said this week's hearings will show that "the scope of the rip-off" at the UN is "substantially more" than the widely reported $10 billion to $11 billion in graft. But more than money is involved. These hearings also should expose the arrogance of the secretary general and his bureaucracy. At the same time that he has refused to honor the Senate committee's request for documents, Annan has inveighed against the Fallujah offensive sanctioned by the new Iraqi government while ignoring the terrorism of insurgents. This is an unprecedented showdown between a branch of the U.S. government and the United Nations.
The scandal is not complicated. Money from Iraqi oil sales permitted by the Saddam Hussein regime under UN auspices, supposedly to provide food for Iraqis, was siphoned off to middlemen. Billions intended to purchase food wound up in Saddam Hussein's hands for the purpose of buying conventional weapons. The complicity of UN member states France and Russia is pointed to by the Senate investigation. The web of corruption deepened when it was revealed that Annan's son, Kojo, was on the payroll of a contractor in the oil-for-food program.
As the pressure built on Annan, on April 16 he named former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to conduct an "independent" investigation. This has been construed on Capitol Hill as a ploy to stave off any serious congressional inquiry. Nobody questions Volcker's integrity, but his political skills have always been suspect. His Independent Inquiry Committee, off to a slow start because of inadequate funding, in the absence of subpoena powers looks like a sham.
Coleman is not pursuing a right-wing vendetta against the world organization. The senator was a born and bred liberal Democrat from Brooklyn before the claustrophobic liberalism of Minnesota's Democratic Farmer Labor Party compelled him to become a Republican in 1996 as the elected Democratic mayor of St. Paul. He had no anti-UN mindset when he embarked on his investigation.
What's more, Coleman has been joined in rare bipartisan cooperation by the subcommittee's fiercely liberal ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. Coleman sent Levin a draft of a tough letter to Annan, and Levin -- after making a few edits -- signed it. The bipartisan letter demanded access to UN internal audits and key UN personnel. It also accused the Volcker committee of "affirmatively preventing the subcommittee" from investigating the scandal. A major point of dispute is the UN's flat refusal to permit Lloyd's Register, hired by the UN to inspect Iraq's oil-for-food transactions, to provide any documents to the Senate.
The reaction by the UN bureaucracy has been an intransigent defense of its stone wall. Edward Mortimer, the secretary general's director of communications (and a British national), publicly sneered at the Coleman-Levin letter as "very awkward and troubling." Privately, Annan's aides told reporters that they were not about to hand over confidential documents to the Russian Duma and every other parliamentary body in the world.
But the U.S. Senate is not the Russian Duma. These are not just a few right-wing voices in the wilderness who are confronting Kofi Annan. "In seeing what is happening at the UN," Coleman told me, "I am more troubled today than ever. I see a sinkhole of corruption." The United Nations and its secretary general are in a world of trouble.