FOX's oil-for-food special smeared Annan, left out facts


A promotion for a FOX News special report titled Breaking Point: U.N. Blood Money: Kofi Annan Under Fire promised that the hour-long special would deliver "shocking new information" on corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program. Instead, viewers were treated to a host of glaring omissions, dubious sources, falsehoods and distortions, smears, and innuendo.

As the title suggests, the report focused on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. FOX chose to target Annan despite the fact that no specific allegations -- beyond the generic charges of "mismanagement" and "lax oversight" -- have surfaced to connect Annan to corruption in oil-for-food, let alone actual evidence.

Glaring omissions

FOX News anchor David Asman, who hosted the special, repeated numerous times during the show that "Saddam stole billions from the oil-for-food program" and that oil-for-food "was supposed to pay for food and medicine for the Iraqi people, but Saddam Hussein stole billions." He narrated how "questions mounted ... about corruption at the U.N., about the billions Saddam stole," and he ended one segment of the show by reminding viewers, "you've heard how Saddam skimmed billions from the oil-for-food program." FOX News correspondent Eric Shawn emphasized that "[u]nder oil-for-food, the Iraqi people suffered while Saddam Hussein stole billions," and FOX News correspondent Jonathan Hunt noted that "Saddam stole billions right under the nose of the United Nations." Most of these statements accompanied explanations of how Saddam supposedly used this illicit revenue to purchase weapons, finance weapons research and programs, and prop up his regime, threatening the safety of the United States and the world.

But no one found time in the hour-long program even to mention that the Duelfer report -- the final report by the Central Intelligence Agency's Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) on the search for banned weapons in Iraq, which Hunt discussed at length in another context -- estimated that of the nearly $11 billion in illicit income that Saddam obtained from August 1990 to March 2003, only $1.7 billion, or 16 percent, came through oil-for-food. Most of the rest came from so-called "bilateral protocols" -- illegal oil-smuggling agreements with Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and others. Near the beginning of U.N. Blood Money, Asman declared: "This hour, you'll also hear how oil-for-food had in effect financed Saddam's most sinister biochemical weapons plants." Saddam actually had no biochemical weapons plants (see below), but even if such a plant had existed, it would have been "effectively financed" far more generously through this smuggling than through oil-for-food.

Second, even as FOX News reporters and their sources heaped suspicion and innuendo on Annan and other U.N. officials (see "Innuendo" below), no one mentioned the substantial role of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, in overseeing oil-for-food. As Media Matters for America has detailed, all members of the so-called "661 committee" -- the committee established by U.N. Security Council Resolution 661 to monitor Iraq's compliance with the newly established sanctions regime -- had the power to veto any sale of Iraqi oil and/or purchase of goods financed with oil-for-food revenues that it deemed suspicious. The committee was free to scrutinize detailed distribution plans" in which Iraq specified each item it intended to purchase. The committee also had access to the periodic audits of the U.N.-managed escrow account where Iraq's oil revenues were held.

Finally, Asman, Shawn, and Hunt never found time in their hour-long report to explain the central rationale for the creation of the oil-for-food program in Iraq -- namely, the humanitarian catastrophe that occurred under the U.N. sanctions regime prior to oil-for-food. Shawn reported simply: "After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.N. slapped sanctions on Iraq. Those sanctions later became oil-for-food." But he did not mention that an estimated 500,000 children died as a result of sanctions between 1991 and 1998, according to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF). The Oil-for-Food Program, authorized in late 1995 and begun in 1996, was a response to this disaster, as the U.N. Security Council noted in Resolution 986. In 1998, even after oil-for-food had somewhat alleviated the suffering, U.N. humanitarian coordinator Denis Halliday quit his job in protest over the suffering caused by sanctions.

Dubious sources: Richard Spertzel on Iraq's "even more sinister plan"

For its specific criticism of the oil-for-food program, U.N. Blood Money relied heavily on the recollections of Richard O. Spertzel, a highly dubious source with little firsthand knowledge of the oil-for-food program. Spertzel is the former head of the biological weapons section of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), the task force established in 1991 to monitor Iraq's weapons program following the first Gulf War. But his interview with Hunt for U.N. Blood Money suggests that Spertzel's knowledge of the oil-for-food program is limited to having seen oil-for-food officials around during his work in Iraq with UNSCOM. The only evidence he provided was his general impression that U.N. inspectors were lazy and his assertion that "[i]t was such common knowledge it had to be known":

SPERTZEL: We used to joke about the oil-for-food people in Baghdad. The oil-for-food people spent most of their time in the cafeteria, as opposed to being out in field making sure that the material was going to the locations that it was supposed to.

HUNT: So the whole U.N. oil-for-food team was something of a joke?

SPERTZEL: It certainly was among the UNSCOM inspectors.

HUNT: So everybody knew this, within the U.N.?

SPERTZEL: It was such common knowledge it had to be known.

Spertzel also worked for the ISG, the CIA-led task force that searched for banned weapons in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion. But in his interview with Hunt, Spertzel made claims that are unsupported by the Duelfer report. Hunt reported that Spertzel "stunned us" with the revelation that Iraq had "secret labs to make deadly weapons of assassination and terror, a nerve gas sarin, and a biological poison Ricin in spray form" and that "Spertzel believes an even more sinister plan was being cooked up by Saddam to put the poisons on department store shelves across the United States and Europe." These descriptions were interspersed with clips of Hunt's interview with Spertzel, in which he depicted this vivid and horrifying scenario:

SPERTZEL: Released into a closed area the limitation would be how many people are there.

HUNT: So, literally you could walk into Madison Square Garden, squeeze that aerosol?

SPERTZEL: Absolutely. If that were released in a closed area such as Madison Square Garden or some of your smaller shopping malls, it would have a devastating effect.

HUNT: Killing hundreds, thousands?

SPERTZEL: Killing hundreds of thousands.


SPERTZEL: Some of the photographs that were obtained from this same laboratory had multiple shapes of perfume spray bottles, I presume where he could mimic different brand names. Can you imagine somebody going into a department store and spraying a little bit of a perfume to see whether they like the scent, only instead of perfume they're getting a face full of sarin?

HUNT: Again, that would kill?

SPERTZEL: And that would kill within -- within a few minutes, and if this were to appear at a couple different locations, imagine the economic impact in the U.S. People would be afraid to buy anything.


HUNT: And that was something that he was working on?

SPERTZEL: That was being actively pursued as late as March 2003.

But the Duelfer report's Chapter 5 cites only a single Iraqi intelligence source on Iraq's alleged plot to smuggle poison onto European or American department store shelves, and this source claimed that they could not implement the plan because they lacked the chemical agents:

A former IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] officer claimed that the M16 directorate [IIS Directorate of Criminology] had a plan to produce and weaponize nitrogen mustard in rifle grenades, and a plan to bottle Sarin and sulfur mustard in perfume sprayers and medicine bottles which they would ship to the United States and Europe. The source claimed that they could not implement the plan because chemicals to produce the CW [chemical weapons] agents were unavailable.

Similarly, the report's "Key Findings" on Iraq's chemical weapons capability undermine Spertzel's suggestion that the laboratories posed a realistic threat to the United States:

ISG uncovered information that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) maintained throughout 1991 to 2003 a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for intelligence operations. The network of laboratories could have provided an ideal, compartmented platform from which to continue CW agent R&D [research and development] or small-scale production efforts, but we have no indications this was planned. (See Annex A.) ISG has no evidence that IIS Directorate of Criminology (M16) scientists were producing CW or BW [biological weapons] agents in these laboratories.

Following Spertzel's description of the secret laboratories, he assented to Hunt's suggestion -- in a highly leading question -- that this capability was "tied together" with corruption in oil-for-food, but no one explained how. Here's the exchange:

HUNT: I assume the U.N. and the secretariat should have done more to stop Saddam acquiring weapons and to oversee the oil-for-food program far more efficiently because the two are tied together.

SPERTZEL: The two are tied together. I think they let the world down, no question about that.

Falsehoods and distortions: Iraq's military infrastructure under oil-for-food

Hunt misleadingly reported that "somehow under oil-for-food, Saddam was able to build underground bunkers, like this one, so hardened that even dozens of missile strikes on the palace above it didn't seem to damage it at all." But there's no evidence that Saddam used oil-for-food money to build bunkers; in any case, oil-for-food was never intended to prevent Saddam from building bunkers, only to alleviate the Iraqi people's suffering while maintaining the sanctions regime.

Hunt continued with an outright falsehood:

More worrisome, the Iraq Survey Group found that supposed humanitarian imports under oil-for-food gave Saddam the ability to restart his biological and chemical warfare programs at a moment's notice.

This is false. The Duelfer report does not say that Iraq successfully obtained material for its weapons program under the guise of "humanitarian" imports. The report says only that the "Iraq's acceptance of the Oil-for-Food (OFF) program was the foundation of Iraq's economic recovery and sparked a flow of illicitly diverted funds that could be applied to projects for Iraq's chemical industry." The report does not say that Iraq successfully obtained weapons material under the guise of "humanitarian" imports.

Smears: Kofi Annan and the Rwandan genocide

Shawn began a discussion criticizing Annan's role in efforts to confront the 1994 Rwandan genocide by declaring that oil-for-food "isn't the only time Annan played a central role in a United Nations debacle." even though it's far from clear that Annan "played a central role" in oil-for-food. The Rwanda discussion included clips of an interview with retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, who commanded the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda beginning in December 1993. Shawn's report misleadingly suggested that Annan was callously indifferent to the genocide and forbade Dallaire to act:

SHAWN: The U.N. force was commanded by Canadian General Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire learned from an informant that Hutu militia had targeted all Tutsis for "extermination." Dallaire requested permission from Annan's office to try and stop the atrocity.

DALLAIRE [clip]: And so I was quite surprised to get a message back fairly promptly telling me that I was well outside of my mandate.

SHAWN: And so the U.N. peacekeepers did nothing. Annan never passed Dallaire's information on to the Security Council. Once the killing began it went unchecked until mid-July. By then the Hutus had slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis.

In fact, Annan's role as Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations was simply to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 872, which explicitly laid out the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda's (UNAMIR) mandate. The resolution authorized the mission to enforce the Arusha Peace Agreement of August 1993 between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels, who had been fighting since 1990. The mandate did not permit the force to intervene to take preemptive action against the threat of new violence. Annan has expressed regret for the United Nations' failure to act more aggressively against the genocide, but ultimately, only the Security Council could have authorized U.N. military action. Indeed, the Security Council passed Resolution 909 on April 5, 1994, two days before the genocide began, but it merely extended the time period for UNAMIR's previously established mission.

As for Annan's alleged failure to "pass Dallaire's information on to the Security Council," Annan in fact instructed Dallaire to inform two Security Council members of the impending threat of violence in Rwanda. The United Nations' independent inquiry into its actions regarding the Rwandan genocide explained (select "English") that on January 11, 1994, Dallaire requested permission to act preemptively based on information from an informant about possible violence against both the U.N. mission itself and against Tutsis. Annan's reply to Dallaire, in which he informed Dallaire that his plan to intervene was beyond the mandate of the U.N. mission, also instructed Dallaire to meet with Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and inform him of the situation. Finally, Annan's cable instructed Dallaire: "Before the meeting with the President, the Ambassadors of France, Belgium, and the United States were to be informed and asked to make similar demarches." The subsequent reply to Annan confirmed Dallaire "met with the heads of mission of France, Belgium, and the United States" to tell them of the impending threat [pp. 10-12]. These events occurred on January 11-13, 1994, but the genocide did not begin until April 7.

Shawn introduced the segment on Rwanda by explaining that Annan "was the under-secretary-general in charge of U.N. peacekeeping ... when the Security Council dispatched 2,500 mostly Belgian troops to Rwanda to keep the peace between the warring Hutus and Tutsis." In fact, the 2,500-member U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda, or UNAMIR, included only about 400 Belgians along with 940 Bangladeshi and 840 Ghanaian troops.


Though no allegations of corruption have surfaced against Annan, a picture of Annan flashed on the screen in the first minute of U.N. Blood Money as the announcer explained that "Saddam stole billions from the oil-for-food program, and now, word he got help inside the U.N." The picture appeared just as the announcer uttered the words "he got help inside."

The program also included a series of suggestions that Annan deserves blame for corruption in oil-for-food despite the absence of evidence against him:

For example, Asman explained: "The biggest question of all: Where does the buck stop in this scandal? The answer for a growing number of people is that it stops with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan."

Similarly, Claudia Rosett, whom Asman identified simply as "Claudia Rosett with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies," asked: "The big question is how much did Kofi Annan know? ... How deeply involved was he in the aspects that were clearly corrupt? Why did he not tell us much, much sooner things that were wrong with it?" But she, too, produced no specific evidence against Annan. Rosett is a former Wall Street Journal editorial board member and a regular columnist for the Journal's website, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies is a conservative think tank that has been attacking the United Nations since long before corruption in oil-for-food came to light. Foundation President Clifford D. May wrote in March 2003 that "U.N. fecklessness has been responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent victims."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Oil-for-Food Program, United Nations
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