- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

President Bush wants investigators to get to the bottom of the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations, which National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says may have originated in a “corrupt underworld.”

“We need to have that investigated until we fully understand the depth of that,” Mr. Bush said in a previously unreported interview with The Washington Times.

In his first on-the-record comments about the burgeoning scandal, the president brought up the subject of a document, disclosed by the Iraqi Oil Ministry, that indicates Saddam Hussein awarded oil “vouchers” to 270 friendly governments, groups and individuals around the world.

The biggest beneficiary of these multimillion-dollar contracts — awarded under the aegis of the United Nations’ oil-for-food program — was the Russian government, followed by a financial backer of French President Jacques Chirac.

Mr. Bush expressed caution about the veracity of the document and stopped short of linking oil-for-food revenue from Saddam’s Iraq with opposition to the war by France, Russia and other countries. Still, the president had his suspicions.

“That would give you an indication of how the decision-making might have been made,” Mr. Bush said in the Feb. 5 interview. “I don’t know. I would never ascribe those motives to — ‘those motives’ being people willing to kind of turn a blind eye to the security of the United States because of commercial interests. That’s a pretty heavy charge.”

Mr. Bush’s call for a probe in the interview came more than six weeks before U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed an investigation. Mr. Annan, whose son is among the U.N. officials implicated, had expressed reservations about toppling Saddam.

The oil-for-food program was part of a regimen of sanctions designed to punish the Iraqi dictator by forcing him to devote all oil revenues to the purchase of food and medicine for his impoverished people.

“Sanctions are an important tool,” Miss Rice said in a separate interview. “They do have a tendency to grow an underworld and a corrupt underworld. We need to understand it better.”

Miss Rice also called for an investigation weeks before Mr. Annan did.

“There will have to be a thorough look at how oil-for-food was running and what was happening,” she said. “I’ve heard, we all have, from Iraqi ministers that they’re uncovering a lot of contracts — that were not fulfilled, but the money was paid — a lot of contracts … where bogus equipment was sent.”

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