This will be interesting in how all this shakes out and to how much of the truth will be let out. I have been getting sick of scandals. All over the world now Scandal seems to be the norm.
Shams, scams and Kofi Annan
By ROGER FRANKLIN
Almost a year ago, when kitchen workers at United Nations headquarters walked off the job in a dispute over holiday pay, the cream of the world's diplomats knew just what to do. They thronged to the site's five unattended restaurants and stole everything that wasn't nailed down.
As one witness marvelled after seeing an envoy make off with a baked turkey under one arm and a framed picture under the other, "They were locusts!"
The next day, however, the incident hadn't happened - not officially, anyway. A UN spokesmen swore blind that a senior official, concerned that his colleagues might go hungry, had granted permission for staffers to help themselves. There had been no mass theft, in other words, because after the event, everything was declared free for the taking.
As excuses go, that one had the benefit of brazen originality. With a few simple words, official honesty was once again the order of business inside the glass-fronted monolith overlooking the East River.
If all episodes of pillage were as easy to explain, the UN might not today be facing what is shaping up as the biggest scandal in its chequered history.
This time it isn't cutlery, baked hams and wine-cellar locks that have gone missing, but at least US$11 billion ($17 billion), depending on who is doing the counting - or rather, the guessing, since the UN has been curiously disinclined to investigate where all that money went.
Whatever the sum involved, it vanished from the UN-administered Iraq Oil For Food programme, and unlike last year's petty looting, those at the centre of suspicion aren't lowly bureaucrats but a tight cluster of high-up insiders centred on the office, family and inner circle of Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself.
To understand what happened - or better, what might have happened, because the UN isn't releasing documents and balance sheets - you have to go back to 1996, when the international body set up a system whereby Iraqi oil could reach the market only if the proceeds went to the "humanitarian relief" of the Iraqi people.
Two years later, at the end of 1998, the UN appointed a Swiss company called Cotecna to administer the programme, which would supervise the flow of some US$100 billion ($155 billion) in oil receipts, before it was finally shut down last November, when the UN reluctantly surrendered the job to the US-appointed Iraqi governing council in Baghdad.
What was Cotecna? For one thing, the former employer of Kofi Annan's son, Kojo, who was on the payroll until shortly before the contracts were awarded, when he became a contract consultant.
Cotecna's job involved squaring the income from oil sales against the goods that were allegedly purchased.
If Saddam's Iraq wanted to import ambulances from Saudi Arabia, the contract of sale had to be approved and the incoming goods inspected by Cotecna, as did tens of thousands of other items, from Russian hoes to Belarus welding rods.
In the first year alone, Cotecna pocketed $6 million ($9.3 million) for its services. After that, because the UN isn't saying, its share of the bounty is anybody's guess.
When Claudia Rosett of the Wall Street Journal began looking into the Oil For Food programme, she soon came up with one explanation: Many of the suppliers, like the Jordanian manufacturer of school desks listed on contract records, simply did not exist.
As Rosett has noted, Cotecna was responsible for approving "tens of billions worth of supplies inbound to a regime much interested in smuggling, and evidently accustomed to dealing in bribes and kickbacks". The issue, she explained in one of her painstakingly detailed investigations, was never "whether the monitors were cheap, but whether they were trustworthy".
Evidence of probity, however, is as hard to find as those notional school desks from Amman - or the ultimate destination of the money spent on them. The suspicion is that those deals, perhaps the overwhelming majority, were nothing but scams and shams.
Remember how opponents of the Iraq War kept citing the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children perishing for want of medicines? Well, Oil For Food was supposed to guarantee that those supplies arrived, but apparently few did.
Again, the UN's stonewalling makes it hard to determine exactly how much was fleeced, but there are some tantalising hints.
Before Oil For Food was handed over to Iraq, the UN conducted an urgent, last-minute review of thousands of contracts. Rosett calls it a "house cleaning", but whatever description is used, some 1500 supplier contracts - one in four - were immediately suspended or banned outright from further participation.
So where did the money go? Into Saddam's pocket is a good guess, with lesser amounts creamed off by the operators of front companies, smugglers and, perhaps, even UN officials.
According to the best estimate of the nonpartisan US Government Accounting Office, Oil for Food generated at least $10 billion ($15.4 billion) for Saddam's family and a further $1 billion ($1.54 billion) to pay the 1000-plus UN bureaucrats who were supposed to be keeping it honest.
Again, the focus is on Kofi Annan, who helped to set up Oil For Food in 1997 and installed his close friend and fellow diplomat Benon Sevan as its director.
Last week, with Rosett's ongoing series of exposes igniting a firestorm over the UN, Sevan wasn't answering his phone. According to a UN spokesman, he is using up accumulated leave before his official retirement.
For his part, a po-faced Annan now concedes "it is highly possible there has been quite a lot of wrongdoing", and has authorised an internal investigation.
Neither Rosett nor congressional investigators hold much hope that it will be more than a whitewash - and the UN has other matters that it would much prefer to talk about, starting with a $1.2 billion ($1.86 billion) interest-free loan from Washington to renovate its decaying New York headquarters.
George Bush rejected the request, saying the UN could have the money at the standard interest rate now being charged to American home-buyers.
As all the world knows, Bush doesn't have much of a way with words, which probably helped to keep the communications terse but diplomatic.
If the President was given to wit, he would have told Kofi Annan to get it from Saddam, who owes the UN big-time
Edit forgot Link to the story