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Worst Coverage Ever?
Reporting on the UN Oil-For-Food Program is Rife
With Conservative Talking Points and Glaring Omissions

by Joshua Holland
August 4, 2004

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If you don’t read the conservative press, you may not have heard of the UN oil-for-food scandal. ‘Oil-for-food’ was a United Nations-administered program that allowed Saddam Hussein to sell oil despite the sanctions against him. The proceeds of the sales were for humanitarian relief, but Hussein and his cronies also manipulated the system and skimmed off billions for their own purposes.

For conservatives, the story is all about the UN. That’s because the ‘scandal’ confirms the long-held belief that Turtle Bay is occupied by thoroughly corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats. And the affair doesn’t just sully the UN; if the sanctions program proves to have been deeply flawed, the argument to go to war takes on greater weight in hindsight.

But the simple and largely unreported fact is that there is no UN oil-for-food scandal. What we know from a number of sources, including an oft-cited GAO report [PDF], is that there was a Ba’ath Party oil-for-food swindle, in which Iraqi officials extracted ‘overcharges’ and kickbacks from big multinationals, then laundered the loot through a number of foreign banks. And then there’s a rumor that some UN officials were involved.

The media’s coverage of the affair has embraced the conservative view. The reporting has been awful, with factually tenuous claims widely covered and vital context largely ignored. The ironic result of such skewed reporting is that progressives, not wanting to pile onto the UN, have had no taste for getting to the bottom of this immense corporate scandal.

How bad has the reporting been? I used a Lexis-Nexis search of daily newspaper stories published in the U.S. over the past six months, and drew an (almost) random sample of 60 articles, which I read from beginning to end. 

It was immediately clear that this story is the darling of the conservative media: despite drawing from thousands of publications, 35 of the 60 articles were from Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Ten of the articles were written by fellows at conservative think-tanks. Often the stories were then syndicated into the mainstream press.

The editorial slant explains why 33 of the 38 people quoted in the sample were either Republican officials or, again, right-wing think-tankers. 17 members of Congress were quoted: 15 Republicans and 2 Democrats who agreed with them.

One person you would expect to hear from about the largest humanitarian relief program in the world is Dennis Halliday, the former UN Undersecretary for humanitarian aid. But not one of the 60 articles I read quoted him. That might be because he went on CNN and said bluntly:

“This is a very minor issue, and the fact is, the scandal, if there is one, lies with the member states, not the secretary. It's the member states who setup Oil For Food. They setup the conditions. They monitored. They ran the 661 committee [which oversaw and had veto power over every sale]. They knew every damned contract.”

French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte noted in the LA Times that the full contracts were only circulated to the United States and Britain, which had expressly asked to review them. But the Security Council’s oversight was mentioned in only 5 of the 60 articles sampled.

Ignoring that kind of context is a disservice to readers. Yet few articles mentioned that the UN’s alleged complicity in the scandal is based on a charge made by Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC). The exile group reportedly uncovered documents in the Iraqi oil ministry that implicated a number of players. But, as Joshua Marshall noted, Chalabi “apparently deemed [them] too important to let anyone outside his circle see.” It is unclear what the status of the documents is today.

The timing of the allegation is also suspect. The story emerged during a power play between Chalabi and UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was trying to push the returned exiles out of the interim government and replace them with “mainly technocrats.”

38 articles in the sample devoted at least two paragraphs to background, but just 5 of those gave the reader any sense of the story’s history and context. And I was very generous in my evaluation, crediting for example William Safire for writing: “Speaking power to truth, [the media covers] dark suspicions…that the scandal was ‘drummed up’ by the doves' Iraqi villain, Ahmad Chalabi.”

Safire’s gripe aside, basic standards of journalism dictate that a source as dubious as the INC be identified. But most papers simply attributed the story’s break to an “Iraqi newspaper.”

There was similarly shoddy reporting of the charge that Benon Sevan, the director of the oil-for-food program, accepted a bribe. While 33 articles reported the allegation, just 14 of those mentioned Sevan’s immediate and unequivocal denial.

Almost a quarter of the stories advanced the frankly laughable proposition that opposition to the war in Iraq, especially by France and Russia, was based on their fear of losing a cash cow. But using a frequently cited estimate by The Times of London, sales under the program would represent something like six tenths of one percent of Russian exports and one quarter of one percent of French exports. Contrast that with exports to the United States--6.1 percent and 7.8 percent respectively--and the charge becomes too ludicrous for a credible journalist to repeat.

Many stories echoed a NY Daily News editorial line: “Unquestioned is that very little of this relief ever ended up in the bellies of Iraq's hungry children….” But that’s ‘unquestionably’ incorrect; the record of oil-for-food's humanitarian success is not in dispute:

“[T]he programme provided a basic food ration for all 27 million Iraqis. From 1996 to 2001, the average Iraqi's daily food intake increased from 1,200 to 2,200 calories per day. Malnutrition among Iraqi children was cut by half during the life of the programme...”

According to the GAO, just over 93% percent of the oil-for-food money went where it was supposed to go. But the fact that the program saved lives was mentioned in only 3 of the 60 articles sampled. Not a single article mentioned the half million children under the age of five who died under rigid sanctions before the relief program began.

I could continue. But the point is that this kind of slanted reporting has consequences.  Seeing a right-wing smear campaign against the UN, Congressional Democrats have shown little appetite to investigate the oil-for-food program. The unfortunate result is that there are two congressional investigations led by Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Henry Hyde (R-IL), and Shays has already suggested that his committee will focus primarily on the UN’s  ‘systemic’ problems, not on the corporations that paid kickbacks and dubious ‘surcharges’ to the Iraqi regime.

But Democrats should seek a full and complete investigation into the real oil-for-food scandal: a scam linking greasy oil barons, multinational corporate raiders, money-laundering bankers and one of the most brutal dictators of recent memory.

We should find out why, despite the howling from many conservatives, the Bush administration has itself been accused of obstructing the investigation. We should ask: ‘what information don’t they want to come out?’ It’s speculation, but perhaps it has to do with the $23.8 million dollars in contracts that Halliburton subsidiaries submitted to the oil-for-food program in 1998 and 1999 during Vice President Cheney’s leadership.

But we’ll never know the answers if Democrats don’t ask the hard questions. If they don’t, the investigations will drag on, lead to nothing and eventually die. Then, only conservatives’ “proof” of the UN’s duplicity will remain.

Joshua Holland is Editor-in-Chief of the USC Trojan Horse, the University of Southern California’s “fiercely progressive voice of reason.”

Joshua Holland is Editor-in-Chief of the USC Trojan Horse, the University of Southern California’s “fiercely progressive voice of reason.” He can be reached at:

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