NEW YORK – Amid the complaints from U.S. lawmakers that United Nations officials have tried to hamper investigations into the Oil-for-Food scandal comes a suggestion that the U.S. government also is being uncooperative.
The blame game over the multibillion-dollar Oil-for-Food program is underway.
Paul Volcker (search), tapped to lead a U.N.-approved probe into the program, said earlier this month that with so many nations involved and thousands of documents and contracts to examine, his panel has received the least amount of cooperation from Washington.
"I hate to make a sweeping statement, but we get better cooperation from many other countries than we do from the United States," the former Federal Reserve chairman said during an interview with The New York Times.
After Volcker made his comments, the State Department said Monday that it had reached an agreement with his Independent Inquiry Committee (search) to allow State employees to be interviewed about their involvement with the Oil-for-Food program.
"We will be sharing additional information" on top of the thousands of documents already released and interviews that have taken place, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. "They've asked for us to look through eight-and-a-half years of documents, so this first tranche may not [be] everything they've asked for, but it's everything we can identify and lay our hands on at the moment."
Ereli said the State Department would wait until the final report on the investigation — due to be released near the end of this month — to comment on it in detail but said "the State Department, like the U.N. and like Mr. Volcker, wants a full accounting of the Oil-for-Food program."
Eyes on the U.S.
Some say the pile of audits released Sunday by the Volcker commission plainly spells out that the brunt of the blame for excess mismanagement of the $64 billion program should be placed on the United Nations and that focus shouldn't be shifted to the United States.
"When it gets to the idea and the accusation that we're co-responsible in the United States — that's very troubling," said one congressional staffer familiar with the investigation. "It's not fair to accuse the United States of being responsible because they didn't see these audits as they are now seeing them and they [U.S. officials at overseas missions] would have acted, we believe, had they seen them."
Nile Gardiner, a fellow on Anglo-American security policy and a U.N. observer at the Heritage Foundation, said the key issue should be "the role played by U.N. officials who had responsibility for overseeing the program."
Gardiner said Volcker was not commissioned to investigate Security Council members — of which the United States is one — and noted that the commission's briefing paper summarizing the audits categorically states that U.N. officials had responsibility for oversight of the oil and humanitarian contracts.
"This is where the corruption took place — this was the U.N.'s responsibility, not the responsibility of the United States," Gardiner said. "Volcker should be sticking to the task at hand, which is the responsibility of U.N. officials."
Audits released by Volcker's panel earlier this week show a systemic failure by the United Nations to adequately oversee the program, resulting in contractors overcharging the U.N. by millions of dollars.
Congressional Pressure Is 'Service to Everybody'
Several congressional committees are also probing mismanagement and allegations of corruption that surround the program. Lawmakers who have been vocal about Oil-for-Food have largely stuck to raising questions about the activities of U.N. officials or French government and business officials and have not yet challenged the U.S. role.
But the attention to what's going on at the United Nations is a welcome development, even to those who generally support the U.N.'s activities.
Former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, said the congressional pressure has done a "service to everybody."
"Now it's a real opportunity for the U.N. to strengthen some of its systems and straighten" itself out, Worth said.
Many say it can only help the effort of getting to the bottom of just who was responsible for what failures in the relief effort.
"I think it's in everybody's interest to have this as transparent as possible," Wirth said. "The U.N. has now, after some fits and starts, made available some of its audits and I think that's terrific … I think the United States has to cooperate."
He added: "Sunshine is the best antiseptic … if you get these issues out in the open, sometimes they get embarrassed, sometimes they trip, but that's OK."
Fear the 'Whitewash'
But there is fear among U.S. and congressional officials that the Volcker report due out later this month could be a "whitewash" of the United Nations.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth (search) told FOX News that Volcker has not been given the proper tools to conduct an investigation. Danforth said the rules imposed on Volcker by U.N. officials created "tremendous handicaps" for the investigation.
"I think we all hope that it's not a whitewash," the congressional staffer familiar with the investigation said, adding that the report should be a "very hard look at what happened."
If it is in fact a whitewash, Gardiner said, "there will be hell to pay in terms of retaliation by Congress — there's little doubt about that."
"Such is the level of congressional scrutiny that any attempt to whitewash the U.N.'s role in this will be met with immediate condemnation."
But fingers shouldn't be quick to solely point at the U.N., some say. The enormity of the job the United Nations had in Iraq is often underestimated, Wirth said, and these audits are probing the complexity of that job while Saddam Hussein was in power, Iraq was under sanctions and 27 million people were suffering from malnutrition.
"Oil-for-Food is becoming a way for people to see what a tough job the U.N. has to do," Wirth said. "This is not like running a school lunch program in Des Moines. This is a really complicated venture."