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Oil-for-Food Inquiries Aren't Finished

Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page A20

Robert D. Novak ["Oil for Graft at the U.N.," op-ed, Nov. 15] was mistaken when he said that I "sneered" at the letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). I said that I found it "awkward and troubling" that two distinguished legislators thought the United Nations was trying to cover up corruption or obstruct justice.

Mr. Annan responded to allegations about the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq by asking Paul A. Volcker to head an independent inquiry. That inquiry does not have subpoena power, because the United Nations does not have that power to pass on to Mr. Volcker, but all U.N. staff members have been ordered to cooperate with the inquiry on pain of dismissal. If the inquiry finds evidence of criminal acts by U.N. officials or others, national courts with the right to subpoena will pursue these people. Also, Mr. Annan has said that any U.N. official found guilty of wrongdoing will not be allowed to claim immunity from prosecution.

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That said, all that exists at this stage are unproven allegations. One U.N. official is named in the Duelfer report as appearing on a list prepared by Saddam Hussein's regime as a recipient of oil vouchers. But the same report noted that these vouchers were collected by a different person and that no direct proof has been found that recipients of such vouchers benefited financially. Getting to the bottom of these allegations is the purpose of the independent inquiry.

Finally, Mr. Novak seemed confused about the figures that various parties have said were stolen from the United Nations by Saddam Hussein. The "$10 billion to $11 billion in graft" to which he referred corresponds to the Duelfer estimate of all "illicit" revenue that Saddam Hussein acquired between 1991 and 2003, which includes money obtained in open trade with Jordan and other neighbors under protocols established with the knowledge and tacit approval of the United States.

The Duelfer report estimates $1.74 billion as the total for income allegedly derived from the oil-for-food program in the form of surcharges on oil sales and kickbacks on humanitarian import contracts.

When Mr. Volcker concludes his inquiry we may better understand what happened; meanwhile, the Security Council put a stop to the oil surcharges after Mr. Annan brought them to the council's attention in a 2001 public report. U.N. staffers also sought to focus the council's attention on suspected humanitarian kickbacks, but the council -- including the United States and Britain -- took no action.

EDWARD MORTIMER

Director of Communications

Executive Office of the Secretary General

United Nations

New York


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