Is United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon trying to squelch a branch of the world organization whose string of recent reports have drawn member nations' attention to dramatic U.N. failings?

At a closed-door meeting of U.N. diplomats earlier this week, the Geneva-based U.N. investigative group known as the Joint Inspection Unit, whose job is to assess and improve the efficiency and coordination of the U.N. worldwide, issued a highly charged annual report that raised the question.

Buried in the middle of the 52-page document came a remarkably blunt accusation from the JIU's inspectors that Ban had abruptly and secretively changed 40 years of accepted procedure for selecting the JIU's executive secretary — a post, the report sharply noted, that has been vacant for 14 months.

The report added that a Ban-appointed panel had taken the "illegal action" of demanding a bigger hand in the selection of candidates for the job who had already been approved by JIU — a demand in violation, the inspectors said, of U.N. rules and regulations. The report urged the U.N. General Assembly to support the inspection unit and make Ban back down.

In closing, the inspectors, whose prose is normally a model of bland discretion, took a further undiplomatic pot-shot shot at Ban.

"The Unit," they said, "deeply regrets that the Secretary-General, as the Chief Administrative Officer of the United Nations, and thus in charge of promoting accountability as a key element for good management, has not yet taken any action to remedy this uncomfortable situation that negatively affects the operations of the Unit."

• Click here to read the JIU report.

In a terse reply to questions from FOX News about the report, a spokesman for Ban would say only that "the Secretary General has followed all rules and procedures established in accordance with the statute of the JIU, the staff regulations and rules and relevant General Assembly resolutions."

JIU officials contacted by FOX News declined to discuss the report.

Behind the arcane procedural dispute, a significant power struggle was apparently taking place at the U.N.

On one side was the bulk of the U.N. bureaucracy, headed by Ban, which runs the administrative side of JIU's operations through its secretariat, but has no direct say over its reports. In the inspectors' view, that U.N. bureaucracy is now showing signs of wanting to take over the role of evaluating its own performance through what the inspectors call a "new United Nations evaluation entity," part of a recently formed "United Nations Evaluation Group."

On the other side was the tiny group of inspectors, usually financial and administrative experts with deep experience in the U.N. system, who are elected for two-year terms by the U.N.'s member nations — a measure of their importance — and report to the U.N. General Assembly, even though they depend on Ban's Secretariat for financing and administrative support.

The JIU reports are considered an important element of the General Assembly's control over the bureaucracy, though they have not, until recently, received widespread public attention.

And in their report, the inspectors charge that aside from impinging on their administrative autonomy, Ban's bureaucracy is now apparently out to supplant them.

As they put it in a tightly worded paragraph on page 18 of the report: "The Unit made public its position that there was no need to replicate structures that already existed within the system and that the Joint Inspection Unit has the mandate, independence and experience to meet system-wide evaluation needs, lacking only sufficient resources to properly discharge this function."

(The latter comment was an apparent reference to the fact that, as the inspectors put it, their $6.2 million budget has not increased in 20 years. In the report, they ask for a $400,000-a-year increase in 2010 and 2011, and promise to balance that with a 45 percent increase in reporting output.)

What makes the JIU unique is that the unit does not report to Ban and the other top bureaucrats of the world organization, but to the U.N. General Assembly, the 192 member nations that ostensibly supervise U.N. actions — but mostly leave the job to bureaucrats.

The JIU, in other words, is one of the few watchdog elements in the U.N. bureaucracy that is not under the control of the bureaucrats it is intended to scrutinize.

As "external" and independent experts, the JIU inspectors — there are only eleven — are, in fact, the only knowledgeable overseers with a independent mandate to evaluate the U.N.'s hodge-podge of some 35 funds, programs and organizations world-wide. Their responsibility lies with the U.N.'s "owners" rather than its managers. And their recent evaluations of U.N. operations and management have been scathing.

Among them:

• In December, a JIU note to top managers in uncharacteristically blunt terms declared that the U.N.'s $10 billion procurement business — the buying and selling of goods and services for its operations worldwide — was a shambles, in which procedures were not followed, documentation was often missing, and the total amount being spent on corporate consultants was unknown.

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• Another JIU report to the General Assembly issued last December warned that the United Nations' management of all worldwide treaties and programs for environmental protection was approaching chaos, while "sustainable development" agencies were getting the lion's share of new funds. Once again, the inspectors reported that U.N. agencies were unable event to tell how much money the U.N. is spending on managing its environmental actions.

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• Yet another JIU investigation, which was forwarded to the General Assembly in November 2008, found that regional offices of the World Meteorological Organization, touted as key units in the growing array of U.N. tools to fight "climate change," were of "questionable" value, while the organizations' entire strategic planning system and internal budget procedures were a mess.

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• A JIU report issued last summer found that a helter-skelter network of U.N. "liaison" offices around the world have taken on increasing important in U.N. internal communication, even though they suffered from lack of oversight, sometimes bizarre staffing policies, "known cases of serious mismanagement," without spelling out details.

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Not by coincidence, the spate of critical reports about the quality and output of U.N. management comes at a time when the bureaucracy that carries out the work of world-wide hodge-podge of some 35 U.N. funds programs and organizations, plus Ban's Secretariat, is actively centralizing itself, and spreading its authority further than ever before in history.

Among other things, along with its previous peacekeeping and anti-poverty roles, the U.N. is seeking expanded world-wide roles in such areas as environmental regulation, "sustainable development," "climate change," global "food security," and planetary water and energy management.

It is also demanding that the world dig deeper into its collective wallet to pay for all those expanded efforts, most recently in the form of a $750 billion "Green New Deal" to revive the world economy, being touted anew this week by the United Nations Environment Program prior to a G-20 summit of world leaders in London on April 2..

The fact that the expansion is taking place on a global, or "system-wide" level is one reason that JIU reports have taken a more critical turn, as those "system-wide" efforts fall directly under the inspectors' mandate.

As it expands, meantime, the U.N. is creating a much more centralized bureaucratic shape, topped by a kind of central committee of top bureaucrats, chaired by Ban, and known as the Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), which meets twice yearly to harmonize efforts across the entire U.N. system.

The CEB, composed of the top executives of the various U.N. funds, agencies and programs, has in the past few years spawned a further network of internal coordinating committees and networks in such areas as procurement, human resources and legal affairs.

One of those networks is the United Nations Evaluation Group, or UNEG, the focus of JIU inspectors' explicit concern in the annual report. Created in 2007 from an inter-agency working group with the same name, the network of evaluation within the U.N. bureaucracy declared from the outset, in an official paper delivered in April 2007, that it considered the JIU's inspection efforts were not "adequate as a system-wide evaluation function."

Composed of 43 U.N. member organizations, UNEG declared that it was going to build on a "common, U.N. system-wide set of norms and standards for evaluation." These norms and standards, "the paper declared, "are currently being adapted and used by U.N. system organizations as appropriate for their particular evaluation needs."

What makes UNEG different, however, are less its norms and standards than its governance. It is composed of organizations that report to the U.N.'s own top managers, rather than the General Assembly, with Secretary General Ban at the apex. The organizations themselves set the UNEG program, and its budget comes from the U.N. evaluation bureaucracies themselves. Members are explicitly told that formal voting on issues should be rare, and that consensus should prevail..

• Click here to see UNEG's "Principles of Working Together."

While UNEG has a chairman, to be elected from its membership every two years, its "Executive Coordinator," who will prepare budgets and coordinate work programs, is designated to be an employee of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the U.N.'s anti-poverty agency, which has increasingly taken the lead as the U.N.'s overall coordinator of development programs around the world. UNDP will pay the administrative costs of the evaluation group, and manage its website.

UNDP, as it happens, has had its own share of oversight scandals over the past few years, including a long and bruising battle with the Bush Administration over its programs in North Korea.

A lengthy independent panel report commissioned by UNDP showed last year that the agency had seriously violated its own rules and regulations in handing over foreign currency to the regime of Kim Jong-Il, even as North Korea exploded an illegal nuclear device.

The report also found that UNDP had flouted the U.N.'s own anti-proliferation sanctions against Kim by handing on to North Korea "dual-use" technology that could also be used for nuclear military programs.

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The independent panel report showed no evidence that UNDP's internal evaluation experts had ever found weaknesses in the agency's payment and supply systems in North Korea, even though they involved violations of the most basic principles of financial accounting, as well as other U.N. procedures.

George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.