UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Kofi Annan lashed out at the media after a year of unrelenting attacks on the United Nations and criticism of his management of the $64 billion Oil-for-Food program in Iraq, calling one critic "an overgrown schoolboy."
He criticized reporters Wednesday for what he said was unfair coverage of his role in the Oil-for-Food program and insisted reporters missed the big story. That, he said, was the more than 2,200 companies and invididuals from some 40 countries that paid kickbacks or illegal surcharges to Saddam Hussein's government to get contracts.
An 18-month investigation led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker cleared Annan of influencing an Oil-for-Food contract that went to a company which employed his son, Kojo, but was strongly critical of his management of the program.
At Annan's year-end news conference, he honed in on one of his most persistent critics, James Bone of The Times of London, who for months has raised questions at the daily U.N. briefing about the secretary-general and his son's knowledge and possible involvement in the Oil-for-Food scandal.
On Wednesday, Bone mentioned a Mercedes-Benz which Kojo imported into Ghana using his father's diplomatic immunity to avoid taxes and customs duty, and said some of the secretary-general's version of oil-for-food related events "don't really make sense."
"I think you're being very cheeky," Annan interrupted. "Listen James Bone, you've been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many, many months and years. You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving and please let's move on to a serious journalist."
Annan said his greatest regret was failure to prevent the war in Iraq.
"One thing that I would have liked to see done is for us to have done everything that we could have done to avoid a war in Iraq," he said. "That has brought such division within this organization and the international community. That is one thing that I must say still haunts me and bothers me."
He called last year really difficult," but said "I'm in great shape, raring to go next year."
The secretary-general's rare outburst Wednesday came in the throes of a battle over the U.N. budget and management reforms in the U.N. General Assembly as Annan heads into the final year of his 10-year term at the helm of the United Nations.
"I'm not afraid of criticism," he said. "Some criticisms have been constructive and helpful and I accept that. Some have been out of place and have really gone beyond the zone of all reasonableness, and you wouldn't expect me or anybody in this house to accept that."
Bone walked out and said later: "The Volcker report raises many serious questions about the integrity of the U.N., and it's important that public officials paid with taxpayer money answer these questions fully and without accusing the press."
At the end of the conference, the president of the U.N. Correspondents Association told Annan that Bone had a right to ask a question and was not an embarrassment.
"You have the right to ask all questions you want to ask," Annan replied. "I reserve the right to refuse to answer questions I don't want to answer. But there is a certain behavior and a certain mutual respect which we have to respect."
In his final year as U.N. chief, he said his three priorities will be the fight against poverty and disease, peace and security, and reform of the United Nations as well as terrorism, Iraq, Lebanon-Syria relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We also should keep a very close eye" on the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and developments in Congo, he said.
Annan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations in 2001, said his first five-year term was easier. "There's always a second-term curse ... and one overcomes it and moves on," he said.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Wednesday the search for a successor to Annan will be a top priority next year and Washington is looking for "a superior administrative officer."
Annan had advice for the next secretary-general.
"They need thick skin — thick skin," he said. "They need a sense of humor, and they should laugh inside and outside, and at themselves."