The U.N. appointed commission probing the Iraq Oil-For-Food scandal is demanding the return of investigative files given to a U.S. Congressional Committee. Commission chairman Paul Volcker warned that release of the files could place the lives of witnesses in grave danger.
At a hastily-called news conference Friday, Mr. Volcker said he had telephoned the chairmen of three Congressional panels to urge them not to interfere with his U.N. authorized probe of the oil-for-food program. "These are matters, I know, of great and legitimate interest to the public at large, in other countries as well as the United States. In the limited time ahead, our aim remains to provide a full and accurate story of the management and results of the Oil-for-Food program. That work must not be impeded," he said.
Two of the Congressional committees this week subpoenaed documents in the possession of former Volcker Commission investigator Robert Parton. Mr. Parton, a lawyer and former U.S. FBI agent, has already turned the files over to the House International Relations Committee.
Mr. Parton resigned from the Volcker team last month, contending that an interim report on the oil-for-food program had downplayed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's role in the scandal.
Mr. Volcker Friday charged Mr. Parton's release of the documents had violated the terms of his employment contract. He demanded that all files be returned to his independent inquiry committee, or IIC. "That the IIC files, that may include confidential interviews and raw staff drafts, be promptly returned to the IIC, which is the rightful owner. This is critical to the Committee's continued work with witnesses, governments and organizations who have placed their trust in our confidentiality," he said.
Mr. Volcker offered to release Mr. Parton from his pledge of confidentiality and allow him to air his grievances about the conclusions of the investigation once the documents are returned.
He suggested the Congressional subpoenas are illegal, and should be withdrawn. But said his main concern in asking for return of the files was the safety of people in Iraq and elsewhere who have provided sensitive information to investigators. "I do not limit that concern to Iraqis, but that is a simple rather glaring and obvious example. I mean, we're not playing games here, we're dealing, and let me just emphasize this, in some cases with lives," he said.
But the chairman of the U.S. House international relations committee, Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, reportedly rejected Mr. Volcker's demand. The Associated Press late Friday reported that Congressman Hyde issued a statement saying he appreciated the gravity of Mr. Volcker's concerns, but that his committee was obligated to continue its inquiry.
The U.N. oil for food program was set up in the mid-1990s to provide food and medicine to help Iraqis cope with United Nations sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait. But investigations have documented how Saddam manipulated the program, using billions of dollars in oil profits to reward friends and to buy influence, including at the United Nations.