Kofi’s cover up

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Despite U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s promises to fully investigate the scandal in the Oil for Food program, United Nations officials have been doing their level best to conceal information from investigators and the public. The office of Benon Sevan, the outgoing boss of the program, has sent at least three letters to companies who participated in it urging them not to hand over documents to investigators without first clearing their release with the United Nations. Unfortunately, while Mr. Sevan has continued to stonewall, Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), is undercutting efforts by the Iraq Governing Council to conduct its own audit of the program.

One of Mr. Sevan’s letters was sent to a firm called Cotecna Inspection SA, which for five years had responsibility for verifying that relief shipments provided through the Oil for Food program actually reached Iraqis in need. Cotecna once employed Mr. Annan’s son, Kojo, according to scholar-journalist Claudia Rosett, who has played a major role in exposing the scandal. Mr. Sevan’s letter to Cotecna warns that all information “shall be treated as confidential and shall be delivered only to United Nations authorized officials.”

Coming from Mr. Sevan, this should raise red flags. A veteran U.N. bureaucrat, he has been at the very heart of the scandal ever since his name turned up in records found in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Oil Ministry in Baghdad. The records suggest that Mr. Sevan was given a voucher enabling him to receive 11.5 million barrels of oil as a result of Saddam’s manipulation of the program — enough to earn him a profit of up to $3.5 million. Mr. Sevan, who is retiring at the end of the month, has refused to respond to press questions about his management of the program.

In his own defense, Secretary-General Annan has repeatedly asserted that he didn’t know about the myriad problems in the program. He may want to take a look at some of the more than 50 reports put together by the United Nations’ own Office of Internal Oversight Services — reports that he refuses to release to Congress. Just one of these reports (which was published earlier this week on the Web site www. mineweb.com), produced in 2002, goes on for close to 20 pages about U.N. malfeasance in the handling of the Cotecna contract. According to Mr. Annan, all of these problems will be fixed thanks to the work of the United Nations’ own investigative team headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Don’t believe it. Given the fact that Mr. Volcker lacks subpoena power, his investigation will likely go nowhere.

Meanwhile, Claude Hankes-Drielsma, who is heading the IGC’s investigation, told this newspaper yesterday that he continues to face interference from the CPA’s Mr. Bremer. Mr. Hankes-Drielsma suggests that Mr. Bremer is motivated by concern that public attention to the scandal will undermine support for transferring responsibility for Iraq to the United Nations on June 30. Whatever the motivation, his refusal to release funds to pay for continuing the IGC’s audit of the Oil for Food program is delaying this critical investigation. Mr. Bremer should reverse course and permit the IGC’s investigation to proceed.

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