Don't Let Kofi Annan Destroy Oil-for-Food Documents

Nearly two years ago, stories first started to appear that provided the first hints about the monumental corruption of the UN-Iraq Oil for Food program. And like so many other tales of scandal, the Oil for Food story has now come full circle.

The Oil for Food corruption story was first broken by intrepid reporter Claudia Rosett. And as details began to emerge, the UN did what it always does: covered up. We now know that the chief of staff to Secretary General Kofi Annan, after learning that there might be trouble with the program, threw himself into the task of shredding drawer after drawer of documents. For months, world body officials refused to discuss the substance of the scandal while ordering UN contractors to conceal documents from U.S. investigators.

Yet, in the face of unrelenting pressure from journalists like Ms. Rosett and concerned Americans through organizations like Center for Individual Freedom, the UN eventually ordered up an investigation. To be sure, the world body put the best face on its special investigatory committee, led by Paul Volcker, but no amount of lipstick could make the UN’s self-examination any less a pig.

After 18 months, $35 million, and five reports totaling thousands of pages, the Volcker Commission left huge elements of the scandal unaddressed. Its own findings prompt a wide range of questions that it made no attempt to answer. And the answers it did offer were generally unavailing.
So, while other investigations continue in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Volcker Commission has declared its work finished.

But once the commission’s staff of more than 70 has cleaned out their desks, a critical question remains: what to do with the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that Volcker’s investigators assembled?

Needless to say, the U.N. wants them shredded. And if not shredded, certainly buried in a warehouse, under lock and key where no one will ever see them again.

But this trove of documents could provide critical evidence for federal prosecutors, congressional investigators and foreign agencies still looking into the scandal. Moreover, the UN has spent the last two years telling us that it had no problem with releasing its Oil for Food documents, but whined that to do so before Volcker was finished would compromise his investigation.

It’s time for the UN to quit stonewalling and give up the goods. Volcker’s entire stash of documents, interview transcripts, files, records and contracts should be made available to the public. Preferably, as blogger Glenn Reynolds has suggested, over the Internet and in a searchable format.

Now, anyone who has observed the UN for more than a nanosecond knows that hoping for such a document dump seems like pure fantasy.

But it’s important to recall that over the 18 months, while he wasn’t dodging subpoenas and pointed questions from reporters, Kofi Annan has been crusading for UN reform. Among his central themes: making the UN more transparent and accountable.

What better way to demonstrate a real commitment to these principles than releasing the Volcker documents?

Indeed, Annan has a real chance to prove than transparency and accountability can be more than rhetoric at a world organization rife with corruption and scandal. On the flip side, if Annan fires up the shredders, he will demonstrate, yet again, his own weakness, absence of character, and total failure as a leader.