Lawmaker Questions Independence of U.N. Investigative Panel

A congressional leader is questioning whether an independent panel created by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) can get to the bottom of allegations of corruption in the oil-for-food program.

In a letter to Annan, Rep. Henry Hyde (search), chairman of the House International Committee, also said the committee plans to request U.N. documents as part of its own inquiry into the corruption allegations. The committee plans a hearing on the program this month and Hyde said he will ask that a U.N. representative testify.

Hyde, R-Ill., said that the independent investigation's "structure and scope is a matter of great concern to many in Congress." A copy of the letter, dated Thursday, was provided to The Associated Press.

The oil-for-food program (search) carved an exemption into U.N. sanctions on Iraq by allowing Saddam Hussein's government to sell oil to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War (search). Saddam's government determined which goods it would buy, who would provide them and who could buy Iraqi oil, but a U.N. committee monitored the contracts.

Investigators from Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, charged last month that Saddam's government illegally collected $10.1 billion through the program.

Some lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the United Nations' desire for a thorough investigation that could possibly implicate high-level U.N. officials. Also two of the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members, Russia and France, were major trading partners with Iraq under the program.

"If there is truth to allegations that the Iraqi regime, with assistance from U.N. officials in some cases, wrongfully acquired $10.1 billion through oil smuggling, oil sale surcharges and illegal commissions on Oil for Food contracts, this represents a scandal without precedent in U.N. history," Hyde said.

After initially planning an internal inquiry into the corruption allegations, Annan announced last week that he would establish a broader, independent investigation that would also examine dealings with governments and entities that signed contracts with the United Nations or Iraq.

The Security Council sent a letter Wednesday to Annan welcoming the decision and pledging to cooperate.

In his letter, Hyde says any investigation must be independent, "or it will suffer from fatal credibility questions and charges of bias and conflict of interest."

He asked Annan to ensure that:

— All relevant documents will be preserved and that the commission have access to documents and to past and present U.N. staff.

— Commission members be vetted to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

— U.N. member governments cooperate.

— Affidavits be taken immediately from persons involved in the program.

— Whistleblower protections be provided to anyone coming forward with allegations.

— U.N. officials cannot influence the panel.