11.27.08, 12:00 AM ET
It's now more than six years since I first labeled a file "Oil-for-Food" and began reporting on the former relief program for Iraq that has since become shorthand for United Nations corruption.
In all that time, one of the greatest frustrations has been the shroud of secrecy, evasions and lies with which the UN to this day has veiled not only its handling of Oil-for-Food, but the long series of scandals that have continued to brew in its diplomatically immune depths.
For outsiders, one of the biggest obstacles to uncovering the truth about the UN is the sheer tedium of its procedures and lingo. Waste, fraud and abuse--when disclosed at all--tend to come wrapped in generic labels, referring in many cases to unnamed officials, with the shockers often embedded deep in lengthy, bloodless reports. Investigations too often devolve into drawn-out coverups, while UN officials look for ways to contain not the harm to the public, but the damage to the UN's reputation.
Even in the reports of the supposedly tell-all 2004-2005 UN-authorized inquiry into Oil-for-Food, led by Paul Volcker, it is hard in many places to draw a line between exposé and coverup. One of my favorite examples is Volcker's first interim report, released in February 2005, in which his committee described disturbing behavior by the person who was then deputy secretary general, Louise Frechette, referring to her 12 times without once mentioning her name.
When Volcker finished his inquiry, instead of heeding congressional urgings to release the underlying evidence, he turned the archive over to the black hole of the UN's own legal department. This not only ensured that many lingering questions would remain unanswered; it obscured the matter of whether they had ever been asked in the first place.
So, it was with great interest that this week I picked up a new book on the UN, Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy by Michael Soussan. Framed as a coming-of-age story, this is an insider memoir by a former UN staffer turned whistle-blower.
Born in Denmark and schooled in France and the U.S., Soussan went to work for Oil-for-Food in 1997, arriving as a wide-eyed young man with a desire to "make a difference." In 2000, about halfway through the 1996-2003 program, he resigned in disgust. Four years later, when scandal erupted over the program, he began to speak up.
Soussan spent much of his time at Oil-for-Food at the right hand of the program's executive director Benon Sevan, an Armenian Cypriot whose Byzantine management style earned him the in-house nickname of "Pasha." This was a prime perch from which to observe the UN's inner workings.
Soussan writes with a crisp sense of the absurd, lampooning a long list of characters and UN practices. For those who would see no evil in the UN, there is plenty here to illuminate its internal contradictions, endless infighting and the self-serving ethos of its ever-expanding operations. There are anecdotes here that ought to warn off any U.S. administration from placing any serious trust in this institution.
But it was with a certain disquiet that I reached the end of this 332-page book. To get to the real news, you have to turn to page 295. That's where Soussan discloses, 10 years after the fact, that he was present at the moment when the alleged deal went down between the Iraqis and Sevan for the Oil-for-Food director to start receiving payoffs from the government of Baghdad. (Sevan, who has been living for more than three years beyond reach of U.S. extradition on Cyprus, says he is innocent of all wrong-doing.)
In considerable detail, Soussan now recounts the scene (1998, at a lavish lunch hosted by an Iraqi official at the Baghdad Hunting Club) complete with quotes, the fish and salad on the menu, and the bistro attire of the waiters. Hit with indigestion, Soussan was making trips to and from the men's room and did not hear the full conversation between the official and Sevan. But he heard enough, both at the table and on the way back out to the car, to reconstruct a fair chunk of the exchange, including Sevan's inquiry about how to procure Iraqi oil contracts for a friend.
He quotes the Iraqi official inquiring "What is your ... friend's name?" He describes Sevan's mumbled response, and the Iraqi's reply: "Tell your friend to contact us again." He describes the doubts voiced immediately afterward by a UN colleague who was also present and remarked in an aside to Soussan, "This is not the proper way to conduct official business."
But despite his self-appointed role as whistle-blower during the investigations in 2004 and 2005 into Oil-for-Food, during interviews with the UN-authorized Volcker inquiry and with federal prosecutors, that conversation apparently slipped Soussan's mind so thoroughly that he says he never mentioned any of this dialogue. By his account, it was not until Volcker in August 2005 produced a report alleging corrupt behavior by Sevan that a light bulb went on, and he realized what he had heard. By that time, Sevan, after almost a year of lingering in New York to "assist" in the investigations, had quietly skipped town.
In his book, Soussan muses: "Had I connected the dots earlier and talked to the authorities about Pasha's efforts to introduce his 'friend' the oil trader to the Iraqi government during our lunch at the Baghdad Hunting Club back in 1998, it is possible that the District Attorney's office might have moved against him much faster and arrested him while he was still in New York."
Soussan rationalizes this missed opportunity by suggesting that had Sevan been found guilty early on the investigations might have stopped there. "Chances are we never would have found out about the true extent of the corruption that plagued our international system."
Come again? Actually, had Sevan been arrested and persuaded to turn government witness, he might have shed a great deal more light on figures inside the UN; in the end, not a single employee was fired and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan by 2006 was dismissing the biggest fraud ever exposed at the UN in terms such as "If there was a scandal... ."
Granted, the mind plays tricks, and Soussan deserves congratulations for deciding to speak up at all. But it's hard to believe that in the thick of the investigations, while testifying to Congress and writing articles about the program, he had no clue what he'd witnessed.
On March 11, 2004, just three days after Soussan published an article in The Wall Street Journal describing Oil-for-Food as corrupt, former Journal staffer Therese Raphael wrote a long and detailed article (to which Soussan makes no reference) describing documentation found in Baghdad pointing to alleged oil payoffs to Sevan. Over the following year, as investigations went on, there was enormous coverage available to anyone following the story--which Soussan certainly was--on how the graft worked, including further allegations about Sevan.
Nor does it seem that the questions put to Soussan by investigators were overly subtle. He recounts that "After one interview in which I refused to speculate about Pasha's guilt, an assistant DA asked me point-blank whether I was protecting Pasha out of a sense of loyalty."
In the end, to this welter of amnesia followed by near-total recall, Soussan adds that he was relieved not to have had to testify against Sevan, glad that this man "who had taken me under his wing when I was an absolute beginner in the world of international diplomacy would be spared the prospect of spending his retirement years in jail."
On a further upbeat note, Soussan concludes that the Oil-for-Food scandal kicked off a new era of radical reform at the UN--one in which he himself sounds ready to re-enlist if called upon (which is what he tried to do between resigning in 2000 and turning whistle-blower in 2004). He claims that "UN whistle-blowers were offered new protection. A steady progression toward greater transparency was in motion, and to the best of my ability I would contribute to this process in the future."
In truth, the Oil-for-Food scandal sparked a huge debate at the time and may have served some purpose in alerting American taxpayers to the corrupt nature of the UN, which their dollars so substantially support. But of genuine reform, there has been almost nothing.
Promises of transparency faded into policies of "financial disclosure" that require no public disclosure at all. The ever-expanding budget remains an opaque and largely unaccountable morass. UN internal audits are now at least made available to the public by the U.S. Mission, but even when they expose wrong-doing, few seem to notice. and almost nothing gets done.
An Ethics Office set up to protect whistle-blowers has proved toothless, as illustrated by the firing and subsequent mauling of whistle-blower Tony Shkurtaj, who called attention to the "Cash-for-Kim" abuses in the UN Development Program's North Korea office. The vaunted reform of the Geneva-based, depraved UN Human Rights Commission into the new Human Rights Council has offered no improvement--unless one counts the $23 million new ceiling recently installed, courtesy of Spanish taxpayers, in its meeting chamber.
Soussan's tale is a complex and interesting one, and I thank him for two kind references in the book to my own reporting. But to frame Oil-for-Food as a coming-of-age story, either for the author of this book or--more important--for the UN itself, is dangerously misleading.