WASHINGTON – The Bush administration should provide a list of American companies that did business with Iraq under a U.N.-sanctioned program, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Wednesday.
"The United States of America has all that information - release it," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., told John Negroponte (search), the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at a hearing on alleged corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program (search) in Iraq.
Negroponte said such a list hadn't been compiled, but added that he would look into the matter and return to the committee with an answer.
"Good, because I see no rationale for it being classified, nothing in the law, nothing in terms of U.S. security," Biden said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) last week announced an independent inquiry into what role U.N. officials may have played in the alleged diversion of $10.1 billion from the program to Saddam Hussein's government.
Under the program begun in December 1996 and ended last November, Iraq was allowed to sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to the victims of the 1991 Gulf War. (search)
The Iraqi government decided which goods it wanted and which countries it traded with - but a U.N. committee monitored the contracts.
The General Accounting Office (search), Congress' investigative arm, estimated last month that the Iraqi government pocketed $5.7 billion by smuggling oil to its neighbors and $4.4 billion by extracting illicit surcharges and kickbacks on otherwise legitimate contracts.
Asked by Biden whether Iraq's American trading partners were aware of the corruption, Negroponte said, "We'll have to see if any of that information develops in the inquiry."
Many lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the United Nations' ability to create an independent panel that could implicate some of its own high-ranking officials. Senators emphasized Wednesday that U.N. credibility is at stake.
"The damage to U.N. credibility from corruption in the oil-for-food program is harmful to U.S. foreign policy and to efforts aimed at coordinating a stronger global response to terrorism," said Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., the Foreign Relations Committee's chairman.
He questioned whether some countries may have participated in circumventing the oil-for-food program or turned a blind eye to abuses in it because they either disagreed with the sanctions or "saw a moneymaking opportunity."
Negroponte said the Saddam Hussein is the major blame for the corruption, but added there were perhaps U.N. "member states who tried to frustrate the efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom" to enforce the sanctions.
Lugar specifically asked about China, France and Russia, which hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council and were major trading partners with Iraq during the program. Negroponte said all three countries have agreed to cooperate with the investigation but that it may uncover "further insights into their motives."