Skip to comments.The man who tried to blow the whistle on the UN oil-for-food scandal
Posted on 04/02/2005 3:20:31 PM PST by MadIvan
No one would listen to the man who tried to blow the whistle on the UN oil-for-food scandal. Two years later he finally received a response - he was fired.
Rehan Mullick finally got the chance to tell his story last week. For four months in late 2002, he repeatedly tried to explain to high-ranking officials at the United Nations how Saddam Hussein had infiltrated and manipulated the $65 billion oil-for-food programme with the collusion of UN staff.
The softly spoken database analyst should know - he had spent nearly two years working at the UN mission in Baghdad and was appalled by the chaos and abuses he witnessed - but at the organisation's headquarters in Manhattan, nobody wanted to listen. Instead, he was treated with the contempt reserved for whistleblowers the world over - first ignored and then, when he persisted, fired.
Among the startling revelations in the dossier he compiled were details of relatives of senior Saddam loyalists running the database at Unicef, the UN agency that claimed that sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children. If that dossier tells much about the abuse of the oil-for-food programme on the ground, Dr Mullick's treatment by the UN is a damning indictment of the culture of cover-ups at an organisation also plagued by allegations of sexual harassment at its headquarters and sexual misconduct by its peacekeeping troops in Congo. It is all the more striking as Dr Mullick is a self-confessed supporter of the UN and he arrived in Baghdad opposed to sanctions.
On Tuesday morning, the 39-year-old Pakistani-American detailed these experiences to Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman appointed by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, to lead an inquiry into the oil-for-food scandal.
A few hours later, the Volcker commission released an interim report highly critical of Mr Annan's handling of the controversy. But the impact of Dr Mullick's remarkable testimony could turn out to be just as devastating for the UN when the investigation is completed this summer. (The UN has declined to comment while the inquiry is under way.)
The biggest so-called "humanitarian" operation that the world has seen was established in 1996 to allow Iraq, which had been placed under strict UN sanctions after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to import food, medicines and other goods crucial for its civilian population using income raised by authorised oil sales. It is now known that Saddam skimmed off at least $2 billion in kickbacks and doled out lucrative oil vouchers to foreign supporters, possibly including UN officials.
In his only interview since his appearance before the Volcker commission, Dr Mullick told The Telegraph that he realised there were serious problems almost as soon as he arrived in Baghdad in October 2000. He was to discover that Saddam was diverting supplies intended for his long-suffering people to his military machine; that the UN operation was riddled with senior Ba'athist officials; and that nobody had any real grasp of how the programme was running.
Dr Mullick's expertise in databases and statistics gave him an immediate and shocking insight into the disorganisation at the UN mission. At first he thought the system was simply terribly badly organised. Only later did he discover that nobody wanted to fix it.
Dr Mullick made his first attempt to alert his UN bosses in Iraq to problems soon after his arrival in October 2000. He repeatedly raised the alarm and filed reports and recommendations for nearly two years, but was rejected or ignored at every turn. Frustrated by his treatment in Baghdad, he took his complaints to New York in August 2002 with stacks of documents to back up his criticisms. The Telegraph has seen the devastating report that he submitted in vain to a series of UN chiefs. "The regime's subversion of and access to the UN's information nerve centres [its various databases] is scandalously blatant," he wrote.
Dr Mullick's failed whistle-blowing came at a time when, publicly, there were only unsubstantiated rumours that Saddam was abusing the programme. The endemic scale of the corruption only started to become clear in 2003 after the US-led invasion.
At the time of Dr Mullick's campaign, UN chiefs were desperate to keep a lid on the allegations as they had allowed Saddam to pervert the programme - including the introduction of kickbacks on every contract and the appointment of supporters to key posts in the UN mission - to maintain his co-operation. So important was the "success" of the oil-for-food programme deemed to be in New York that senior officials were apparently willing to turn a blind eye to even the most outrageous abuses. Saddam took full advantage.
The UN was required to employ hundreds of local Iraqi staff as part of its deal with Saddam, yet little effort was apparently made to ensure that this did not lead to widespread penetration of the mission's most sensitive operations by regime loyalists. Indeed, among the most important disclosures in the report is the scale of infiltration of the database staff at Unicef, the UN's children's agency. This was the organisation that had produced the much-quoted but highly controversial estimate that 500,000 Iraqi children had died because of sanctions, a figure based partly on an extrapolation of statistics provided by Saddam's own health ministry.
In his report, Dr Mullick told his bosses that the Unicef database was "run by a coterie of individuals with direct links to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The daughter of an Iraqi deputy prime minister and her cousin closely guarded the date-related activities there."
Although the 500,000 statistic was produced before he was posted to Baghdad, Dr Mullick told The Telegraph that he was sceptical about the accuracy of figures emerging from Unicef in Baghdad. "The death of a single child because of sanctions is a tragedy, but there is no excuse for exaggerating the figures," he said.
Similarly, he listed the local staff working on the oil-for-food database: the son-in-law of the deputy foreign minister, the daughter of a top official, the son of a retired intelligence official, the son of a former ambassador and the relatives of other Ba'ath party members.
As well as using relatives of Saddam loyalists, the Iraqis also recruited foreign UN officials, particularly those from neighbouring Arab countries. Dr Mullick said that the officers in charge of the database during his time there included a Lebanese and a Jordanian who were both married to Iraqi women from powerful families with close regime connections.
He was told at one stage by local Iraqis that he could have "anything" he wanted if he dropped his efforts to expose the programme's failings. He did not know if other UN staff took bribes, but said that many colluded with Saddam's manipulation of the system because otherwise the Iraqis would block the renewal of their visas and that would cost them their lucrative assignments. "A lot of these people came from poor developing countries so these jobs were very important to them. Others were just opposed to the whole sanctions regime, so they were happy to see it undermined," he told The Telegraph.
Saddam, for his part, had a dictator's instinct for the importance of controlling information. By distorting or hiding accurate statistics, it was much easier for him to exploit the programme for his own ends. As Dr Mullick discovered, even such basic information as a breakdown of population figures by provinces - vital for accurately assessing where goods should be distributed - remained a closely guarded secret. "The result of this lack of accurate information is that UN observers would go out to see goods being distributed, but have no real idea of what they were looking for or recording. Most UN workers really were conscientious and doing their best, but the system just didn't work.
"The UN allowed oil-for-food to become a wonderful control mechanism for Saddam. The whole country was dependent on the programme and he manipulated it to his advantage. I would truly say that the regime achieved all its goals." He said that the Iraqi regime stage-managed a "humanitarian catastrophe" while at the same time using oil-for-food supplies to rebuild its battered military. In particular, it routinely diverted thousands of trucks, four-wheel drive vehicles and pick-ups to its armed forces and intelligence agencies.
What Dr Mullick experienced in Baghdad was bad enough, but worse was to come when, despairing of exerting any influence in Iraq, he flew to New York in August 2002, sure that there he would find someone to listen. He was wrong.
He approached the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (the UN wing that first hired him) and also sent a copy of his protest to Dileep Nair, the head of the Office of Internal Oversight and one of the officials reprimanded in the Volcker report last week. Finally, in December, he received his response - a letter informing him that his contract would not be renewed because UN officials in Iraq said they had heard nothing from him. He listed 35 occasions on which he had been in touch with the UN, but he still lost his job.
Now he hopes that the evidence he has given to Mr Volcker will play its part in forcing change at the UN. Yet the prospects of reform still seem limited at an organisation where, with Alice in Wonderland logic, Mr Annan and his senior aides managed to interpret last week's Volcker report as an "exoneration".
It is correct that it did not find Mr Annan guilty of any criminal activity with regard to the oil-for-food programme and uncovered "no evidence" that he exerted influence over the awarding of a crucial contract in 1998 to Cotecna, a Swiss firm with whom Mr Annan helped his son Kojo get a job in 1996. However, the Secretary-General came in for heavy criticism for his failure to address several apparent conflicts of interest involving himself, his son and Cotecna and for his overall handling of the troubled programme. The report also found that his chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, ordered the shredding of key documents linked to the investigation.
Mark Pieth, a commissioner who had reportedly opposed efforts by Mr Volcker to absolve Mr Annan, made clear his annoyance at UN attempts to spin the report. "We should not brush this off," he said. "A certain mea culpa would have been appropriate."
A closer reading of the report makes it clear that Kofi Annan had links with Cotecna over many years and that his son, who describes himself as an "independent businessman" and insists that his work for the company had nothing to do with UN contracts, enjoyed privileged access through a family friend to the UN's procurement department.
As recently as last November, the Secretary-General made no mention of meetings with Cotecna executives in an interview with the Volcker commission, only to recall them two months later. There was also a series of telephone calls between Mr Annan and a friend who worked for Cotecna, after The Telegraph revealed Kojo Annan's links to the company for the first time in January 1999.
"The trouble is that people at the UN seem to suffer from sudden memory loss one week and then remember everything the next week," said a senior investigator with one of the six US congressional committees investigating the scandal. "One thing's for sure: this was no exoneration."
The air of "another week, another scandal" at the UN deepened last week when a management review turned up evidence of sexual harassment, misused office funds and cronyism at the UN elections division that helped organise the recent ballots in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
Dr Mullick is no longer surprised by such news. "I believed deeply in the importance of the UN," he said. "But the oil-for-food scandal brings shame on the whole organisation. The UN has to take a hard look at itself and should start to reform now. It's running out of time - fast."
"This was the organisation that had produced the much-quoted but highly controversial estimate that 500,000 Iraqi children had died because of sanctions, a figure based partly on an extrapolation of statistics provided by Saddam's own health ministry."
Yet that fake statistic still has not been officially debunked by the UN, and is quoted in the echo chamber between Islamists and Western Leftists as a truth rationalizing 9/11 and imagination for bigger attacks to come.
The UN itself should be compelled to debunk that story, and apologize for it.
Also the Clinton admin. should be called to task for not challenging it back then, but I suspect persons like Albright were so enamoured with anything that came out of the UN they were inclined to let it lie and fester.
Hey, the UN was the only place Maddie could do the Macarena without being laughed out of town.
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