March 2, 2004

Two Cheers For The NY Times

I guess the scandal of Saddam's bribery using the U.N. Oil-For-Food program is officially "news", now that the NY Times has done a story on the matter. Maybe they were tired of being scooped by Therese Raphael and Claudia Rosett in the Wall Street Journal. It's been weeks since the story broke, disclosing the list of 270 foreign officials, diplomats, organizations and corporations that had received vouchers for oil purchases under Oil-For-Food, worth millions to those holding them. MEMRI has since published a detailed analysis of the list, complete with reaction (or not) from those named as recipients of Saddam's favor. So it had to be a little embarrassing to the paper of record to have been a "no show" until Sunday.

To be fair (moi?), the piece by Susan Sachs in the Times was detailed and well done, and doubtless in the works for some time. It came as some salve to people like Roger Simon and others in the blogosphere, who have been begging for a "Robert Woodward" to emerge to take this story by the throat and squeeze.

Sachs goes part of the way there, by saying that Saddam rewarded those who "praised him", as in this excerpt:

Iraq's sanctions-busting has long been an open secret. Two years ago, the General Accounting Office estimated that oil smuggling had generated nearly $900 million a year for Iraq. Oil companies had complained that Iraq was squeezing them for illegal surcharges, and Mr. Hussein's lavish spending on palaces and monuments provided more evidence of his access to unrestricted cash.

But the dimensions of the corruption have only lately become clear, from the newly available documents and from disclosures by government officials who say they were too fearful to speak out before. They show the magnitude and organization of the payoff system, the complicity of the companies involved and the way Mr. Hussein bestowed contracts and gifts on those who praised him.

The article focuses on the longstanding practice by Hussein and his foreign partners of "sanctions-busting" and associated surcharges, kickbacks and payoffs. But Sachs discusses the published list of 267 oil voucher recipients late in the piece, almost in passing, and is quick to mention Russian denials:

Last month, a Baghdad newspaper published the list of companies that got allocations, prompting a chorus of denials. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for example, blames politics for releasing the list, which contained 46 Russian companies and individuals, including the former Russian ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, and Nikolai Ryzhkov, a Parliament member.

Sachs seems to try to cast further doubt on the veracity of the list by quoting a Catholic priest, also on the list, who said he had been offered an oil voucher, but had turned it down on moral grounds. So the one person on the list that the Times reporter tracked down and interviewed for the article is a priest who refused to be bought. Exception or rule?

I wonder if Sachs looked into the appearance on the list of an individual named "Sevan", the name of the U.N. official chartered with oversight of the Oil-For-Food program. On the matter of Mr. Sevan, Sachs does report:

The director of the Office of Iraq Programs, Benon V. Sevan, declined to be interviewed about the oil-for-food program. In written responses to questions sent by e-mail, his office said he learned of the 10 percent kickback scheme from the occupation authority only after the end of major combat operations.

In the few instances when Mr. Sevan's office suspected an irregularity, the statement said, it notified the sanctions committee, "which then requested member states concerned to investigate."

This would appear to me to be bullshit on stilts. It does however, sound like the way that U.N. "oversight" seems to work. Instead of investigating, he suggests that the states involved in the corruption investigate themselves. The U.S. and the U.K. have repeatedly expressed concern about the evident corruption in the program. All the way back in 2000, the very U.N. program now run by Sevan issued the following statement demonstrating that there was a concern even then about irregularities and "surcharges" being paid by oil traders and purchasers:

"On Friday, 15 December, the Security Council’s 661 sanctions committee for Iraq requested the United Nations oil overseers to convey to the buyers of Iraqi oil the Committee’s position on the reported surcharge for the purchase of Iraqi oil. In a letter to the buyers the oil overseers noted that the Committee had not approved a surcharge of any kind on Iraqi oil. Payments for the purchase of Iraqi crude oil could not be made to a non-UN account and, therefore, buyers of Iraqi oil should not pay any kind of surcharge to Iraq." --UN Office of the Iraq Programme, 19 December, 2000. (hat tip to BD, a commenter at rogerlsimon.com)

Sadly, many of the goods purchased as vehicles for the corruption turn out to have been defective, mismatched, unnecessary, or otherwise useless. After the liberation, Dr. Khidr Abbas, Iraq's interim minister of health....

canceled $250 million worth of contracts with companies he believes were fronts for the former government or got contracts only because they were from countries friendly to Mr. Hussein.

They were paid millions of dollars, said Dr. Abbas, for drugs they did not deliver, medical equipment that did not work and maintenance agreements that were never honored. Iraq, he added, was left with defective ultrasound machines from Algeria, overpriced dental chairs from China and a warehouse filled with hundreds of wheelchairs that the old government did not bother to distribute.

So while the Times story reveals the extent to which there was a political angle to the payoffs and favors..

"It depended on what was going on in New York at the U.N. and which country was on the Security Council," he added. "They apportioned the amounts according to politics."

...what it really failed to even suggest was a connection between the anti-war foreign policy positions of France and Russia, and the predominance of Russian and French companies and officials on the list of those "rewarded" with oil vouchers. Of the 267 entities on the list of voucher recipients, Russia (46) had far more than any other country, and France (11) had more than any other non-Arab country except Ukraine (12).

So while acknowledging that the corruption money was steered to political allies, and existed for years as simple greed-based "sanctions-busting", the logical leap that follows from that; that the anti-regime change positions taken by those favored countries was a cynical attempt to prevent the golden egg-laying goose from being killed, was not at all articulated by the Times story.

And I suppose it's no wonder. If "Old Europe" gets dragged down off of the high horse of its opposition to the liberation of Iraq by the exposure of its money-grubbing opportunism, the N.Y. Times has a little less company in the ranks of the morally superior.

Two cheers. Baby steps.

Posted by dan at March 2, 2004 11:28 PM