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Appropriators Outsource Probe Into Oil-for-Food

In a departure from Congressional protocol, House-Senate appropriations conferees have agreed to outsource a study of the United Nations and its controversial oil-for-food program to a federally funded think tank rather than taking up the investigation within Congress, potentially opening a split in the House Republican leadership.

In the omnibus appropriations bill passed in November, appropriators asked the U.S. Institute of Peace — a federally chartered organization — to review the United Nations’ now-defunct oil-for-food program.

While several Congressional subcommittees have been poking around the scandal-plagued program for months — including one well-publicized probe led by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who chairs the Government Affairs subcommittee on investigations — the Appropriations panels carry unusual weight in U.N. circles.

That’s because segments of the leadership believe the U.N. will only take Congress seriously if the world body realizes it risks losing the funding it receives from the United States — roughly 23 percent of its budget.

“If they’re going to worry about anyone, it’s [the appropriators],” one top House Republican leadership aide said.

The worry among some Republicans is that the loss of control over the appropriators’ report would be tantamount to losing its leverage, not to mention “audit authority” that would enable lawmakers to demand information.

“I’m confident we’ll revisit this,” the aide said, signaling that leadership might press appropriators to launch an inquiry.

Others, however, say that complaints about the decision are misplaced.

“Basically, what [appropriators] wanted was a variety of perspectives, and that doesn’t come from one place,” said John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

“I don’t see how asking the U.S. Institute of Peace to study it buries the issue,” he added.

The oil-for-food program was created by the United Nations roughly a decade ago so that ordinary Iraqis would not be forced to suffer under sanctions that had been imposed on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime following the 1991 Gulf War.

By the time it was ended, following Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, it had become the target of allegations of widespread corruption that had undercut its purpose while further enriching Hussein and his hand-picked beneficiaries and starving the Iraqi population.

Under the program, Iraq was able to sell oil on the international market, with proceeds going into a fund run by the United Nations. The world body would then use the money to buy food and medical supplies for the Iraqis. But the rules gave Hussein a relatively free hand, which he allegedly used to bribe foreign officials and line his own pockets.

Such cheating by Hussein — and the apparent inability or unwillingness of U.N. officials to stop it — particularly irked the Bush administration and other Republicans because it likely lengthened the reign of a dictator that they ultimately used military force to oust.

However, observers say that Bush is in a bind right now regarding the United Nations. Despite its unhappiness with the oil-for-food program, the Bush administration now needs U.N. help to administer national elections in Iraq.

Bush personally has said little beyond expressing his view that the world body should investigate the matter thoroughly. Republicans on Capitol Hill, however, have not shown the same restraint.

Believing that the program bolstered pre-war resistance to American policy on Iraq, many Members have called for sanctions against the world body. Coleman has already called for the resignation of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who has been implicated because of apparent payments to his son, Kojo, by a key contractor.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have both introduced resolutions calling on Congress to withhold U.N. funding unless the world body cooperates fully with the oil-for-food probes.

Against this backdrop, half-measures are scorned in some Capitol Hill circles.

“They’re supposed to be ‘peaceful’ people” at the U.S. Institute of Peace, one senior GOP strategist said. “None of which gives me any confidence about” having the organization study the U.N.”

A spokeswoman for the institute, Kay King, said the mandate from Congress was “a first” for her organization. But she added, “We are happy to take this on.”

George Ward, a former ambassador to Namibia who will coordinate the institute’s task force, said he does not expect to conduct an “investigation,” per se.

“I think of it more along the lines of a study and fact-finding,” Ward said in an interview. “The object is sort of an actionable agenda for change.”

In another unusual move, the conferees even specified which think tanks should be permitted to take part in the task force. They included the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hoover Institution and Heritage Foundation.

It is unclear why appropriators asked an outside group to study the oil-for-food matter. But sources on the spending committees indicated that the task force was the brainchild of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who happens to be one of the Institute for Peace’s chief patrons.

Wolf’s office did not respond to calls. But Wolf, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, judiciary and related agencies, laid out his support for the task force in a statement posted on his Web site.

“It is my hope that the task force will develop ways to ensure that the United Nations can better deal with human rights violations around the globe and eliminate corruption,” Wolf said.

Currently, five subcommittees across Congress — four in the House alone — have taken up investigations of the oil-for-food program, or an aspect of it.

“This thing is a world-wide scandal,” said a source at the House International Relations Committee, dismissing the suggestion that there might be overlap among the various probes. “There is a lot to go around.”

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