A Jordanian oil firm sought approval from a U.S.-led international naval force to import millions of barrels of Iraqi crude through the Persian Gulf in violation of U.N. sanctions in February 2003, according to an internal company e-mail released yesterday by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.).
Whether approval was granted was unclear, but the disclosure provided the first documentary evidence that could support allegations that the United States allowed Jordan to export large quantities of oil from an unauthorized Iraqi terminal to build up its strategic oil reserves in the weeks leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It also signaled that Levin intends to broaden a probe by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has focused on U.N. mismanagement of the oil-for-food program in Iraq, into U.S. enforcement of sanctions.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the U.S.-led Maritime Interdiction Force's effort to prevent smuggling in the Persian Gulf, referred calls to the Pentagon. A Pentagon spokeswoman said it was too late in the day to obtain comment.
At a subcommittee hearing yesterday, a senior U.S. official from the U.N. mission strenuously defended the U.S. decision to waive sanctions against Jordan and another key U.S. ally, Turkey, for illegally importing oil from Saddam Hussein's government.
"By ensuring that Jordan was not strangled by a lack of a critical resource, the Jordanian government was able to pursue policies of critical importance to U.S. national security in the region," said Patrick F. Kennedy, the U.S. representative for U.N. management and administration.
The $64 billion U.N. oil-for-food program was established in December 1996 to allow Iraq, which was placed under economic sanctions after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to sell oil so it could buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. Hundreds of companies paid the Hussein government as much as $2 billion in illegal kickbacks or bribes as the price of doing business with Iraq, according to U.S. and U.N. investigators.
Subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) urged U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to lift the diplomatic immunity of Benon Sevan, the former director of the program, so he could face criminal charges. A U.N. investigation has found that Sevan solicited the rights to purchase millions of barrels of Iraqi oil at a discount on behalf of a relative of former U.N. secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
"I believe that Mr. Sevan's misconduct goes well beyond a mere conflict of interest," Coleman said in his opening statement. Evidence gathered so far establishes "probable cause that Mr. Sevan's actions rose to the level of criminal liability," he said.
The panel also released Iraqi documents indicating that a Portuguese employee of Saybolt Eastern Hemisphere B.V., a Dutch company that monitored Iraq's oil exports, received more than $105,000 in bribes to allow a French company to load 500,000 barrels of oil outside the oil-for-food program.
Saybolt's attorney, John Denson, told the panel that his company would use the documents in an ongoing internal investigation into the allegations. "Saybolt does not take allegations of bribery by company employees lightly," he said in prepared testimony.
The subcommittee also pressed representatives of the Swiss company Cotecna Inspection S.A., which approved imports of humanitarian goods to Iraq, to describe the activities of Annan's son, Kojo Annan, a former Cotecna employee. The Senate panel and U.N. investigators are trying to establish whether Kojo Annan helped the company obtain the U.N. contract in 1998. He received $150,000 from Cotecna while it profited from the oil-for-food program.
Cotecna chief executive Robert M. Massey told the subcommittee Kojo Annan played no role in the company's Iraq operations and was primarily pursuing business deals for the firm in Nigeria and Ghana. The subcommittee, however, released a series of documents indicating that Kojo Annan's business dealings went beyond West Africa.
One document suggested he was pursuing business opportunities in the Middle East. In a September 1998 memo to Massey, Kojo Annan described his effort to establish the "machinery" in New York to develop fresh business opportunities of a "global nature."
Coleman said that Kojo Annan told the subcommittee's staff on Friday that he could not recall what the memo meant. "The memory lapse is troubling," Coleman said.
Citing reports that the Jordanian oil tankers "were escorted by American ships," Levin asked Kennedy to provide a written response to three new documents outlining U.S. support for the illicit trade.
The e-mail Levin released was from the Amman-based company Millennium to the Connecticut-based ship broker Odin Marine; it describe procedures for ships loading oil at Khor al-Amaya, the unauthorized terminal in Iraq.
The vessels coming into the terminal were instructed to provide the "U.N. naval check point" -- a reference to the U.S.-led naval interdiction force -- with the name of their vessel, the location of the loading terminal and the quantity of oil being exported. The president of Odin Marine, David E. Young, or the ship's master was then instructed to contact the U.S. commander, Harry French, to obtain approval for the ship's safe passage.
"The message that should be sent," the e-mail said, is that "we are loading crude oil from the terminal . . . for Millennium; do you have any objections."
Young declined to comment on the e-mail yesterday, citing a confidentiality agreement. The author of the e-mail, Ahed Sokhon of Millennium, could not be reached at his office or on his cell phone.