A senior U.S. Congressman says investigators looking into the U.N.-administered Iraq oil-for-food program have uncovered evidence of massive wrongdoing. The lawmaker staunchly defended Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Congressman Tom Lantos says he is appalled by what he has learned about sloppy administration of the Iraq oil-for-food program.
Speaking to reporters Monday after a meeting with Secretary-General Annan, the California Democrat says investigators are still trying to understand all the workings of the complex scheme. But he predicted that blame for the humanitarian program's massive fraud and corruption would spread from the United Nations to a long list of individuals and governments, including the United States.
"It is clear that we are dealing with a gigantic fiasco, unprecedented in United Nations history, and clearly responsibility will have to be assumed by individuals in several countries and within this organization," said Mr. Lantos.
Congressman Lantos, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, says it is premature to make specific charges. He said he would wait for the report of a high-level investigation led by former U.S. Central Bank chief Paul Volcker, although his committee is also conducting a wide-ranging probe into oil-for-food abuses.
But he singled out Russian and French politicians as being heavily involved in fraudulent activities, and said the U.S. State Department is likely to come in for severe criticism for not doing enough to halt the corruption.
"The issue is a complex one and there is plenty of blame to go around," he added. "The U.S. State Department bears some of the responsibility for its failure to prevent and call attention to abuses. But I don't think it is realistic at all to assume that the United Nations is innocent with respect to this whole series of shady, questionable and illicit activities."
The California Democrat predicted that the United Nations would have to conduct what he called "a serious housecleaning" when oil-for-food details become known. He said he had urged Secretary-General Kofi Annan to cooperate with congressional committees after the Volcker report is released.
But at the same time, Congressman Lantos staunchly defended Mr. Annan, predicting he would be the one to lead the cleanup of the organization.
"I have expressed to Secretary-General my full confidence in the Secretary General's ability, integrity and honesty and his extraordinary public service," said Mr. Annan.
Mr. Lantos's visit to U.N. headquarters came as new allegations are surfacing about involvement of scores of U.S. as well as European oil traders of using the oil for food program to arrange favorable deals with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Some congressional investigators allege that tens of billions of dollars may have been illegally skimmed from oil for food proceeds.