Judith Miller and Warren Hoge
New York Times
June 2, 2004
The former head of the United Nations’ oil-for-food program in Iraq says the Security Council prevented him from effectively administering the multibillion-dollar-a-year program that is now the focus of several inquiries into allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Benon V. Sevan, the former executive director of the United Nations’ Office of Iraq Programs, defended the program and blamed the Council members for its many problems in an e-mail message sent Friday. A copy of his message, addressed to “My Dear Friend,” was sent to The New York Times by a recipient who, along with other United Nations officials, vouched for its authenticity.
A recent report by the General Accounting Office in Washington accused Saddam Hussein’s government of having pocketed more than $10 billion from the six-year oil-for-food program, which used Iraqi oil sales to pay for food, medicine and other goods between 1997 and 2002. In February, a document from Iraqi ministries reportedly cited Mr. Sevan as having received oil allotments himself. Mr. Sevan denied the charges in a written statement, but declined to discuss the issue publicly.
The e-mail message to what one United Nations official called Mr. Sevan’s “inner circle” is his first comment on the allegations of corruption and cover-up that have damaged the United Nations at a time when it is grappling to shape an interim government in Iraq scheduled to take power on June 30, and to assist the country in planning elections and drawing up a constitution.
In his e-mail message, Mr. Sevan said he was the victim of an “intense smear campaign.” He defended the oil-for-food program as having made “a real difference in the daily lives of the average Iraqi people.” As long as economic sanctions were in place, he added, “there was no alternative to the program.” But, he continued, “it could have been better administered had we been allowed by the member states to do so.”
Mr. Sevan did not explain in his e-mail message how the Security Council had hampered him from effectively administering the sprawling program. But diplomats and United Nations officials said it was what one called “common knowledge” that member states were ignoring the widespread complaints about kickbacks and payoffs by Saddam Hussein’s government so that their companies could continue being part of the lucrative program.
Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for Secretary General Kofi Annan, said that because the e-mail message was a private communication, the United Nations would not comment on its contents.
In an interview, Mr. Eckhard also said that in accordance with an agreement negotiated before the scandal about the program had erupted, Mr. Sevan had decided to retire as an under secretary, effective May 31. But, Mr. Eckhard said, Mr. Sevan was continuing to work under contract to the United Nations so that he could “fully cooperate” with an independent inquiry into the oil-for-food program being directed by Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the United States Federal Reserve.
He said Mr. Sevan would be paid $1 a year and would retain an office at the United Nations.
Mr. Eckhard also said Mr. Sevan told him yesterday that he had decided to write an e-mail message of gratitude after having received “hundreds” of messages of support from United Nations officials and outsiders. He wrote that there was a campaign to “denigrate the United Nations” because some groups “do not want the U.N. to return to Iraq.”
United Nations officials and Iraqi experts agreed that Mr. Sevan was referring to the group headed by Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the ruling Iraqi Governing Council who led the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of opposition groups that lobbied for the American invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Chalabi and his governing council have been sparring with the American occupation administration over who should investigate alleged corruption in the oil-for-food program. L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator of Iraq, has blocked Governing Council members who wanted to supervise an Iraqi inquiry into the program. The council had asked the American accounting firm KPMG International in February to assemble possible evidence of alleged kickbacks and bribes paid under the now-defunct program. But Mr. Bremer has refused to release money to pay KPMG and instead has approved the hiring of a different company, Ernst & Young, to investigate on behalf of a different agency of Iraq’s transitional government.
Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, denied that his group had waged a smear campaign against Mr. Sevan or anyone else. He said Mr. Chalabi had not been happy when an Arab newspaper listed Mr. Sevan’s name along with others for alleged special oil allotments under the program. “The publishing of such names complicated the inquiry,” Mr. Qanbar said.
In his e-mail message, Mr. Sevan said he was “determined to fight it out and clear my name as well as the name of the organization,” he said, referring to the United Nations. He also accused some of his critics of acting like “Monday morning quarterbacks” – “pundits,” he said, “who have never even set foot in Iraq and have never understood Iraq or the Iraqi people.”