In almost every UN story, there is layer upon layer of absurdity and conundrum. So it is with the chemical weapons samples that just turned up in a UN office cabinet in New York.
There are plenty of questions raised by the UN disclosure Thursday that the UN’s former weapons inspectors for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, who staff a special outfit called UNMOVIC — Hans Blix’s stomping grounds from 2000-2003 –failed to notice until just last week that for more than a decade they’d been storing in a cabinet in their own New York office samples of phosgene — a chemical weapons agent which kills by collapsing your lungs and choking you to death. That follows the discovery earlier this year that the UN Development Program had been keeping counterfeit U.S. cash for more than a decade in its Pyongyang office safe. So what else has the UN got in its closets? That’s the subject of my column today on NRO, suggesting Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon redeem his broken pledge to hold an independent audit of the entire $20-billion-per-year UN global system, which after more than six decades of no serious oversight is by now about as safe and dependable as a suicide-bomber’s backpack.
But there is, of course, much more to the UNMOVIC story itself. Along with such questions as who carried phosgene into the U.S., and then into the UNMOVIC office in midtown Manhattan, and how, I keep wondering what on earth these weapons inspectors for Iraq have been doing for most of the past decade? UNMOVIC was set up originally under a different name, UNSCOM, in 1991, as part of the UN efforts to contain Saddam after the UN – Desert Storm coalition forced him back out of Kuwait, but left him in power in Baghdad. The UN aim was to keep tabs on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal, on the ground, in Iraq. But in late 1998, Saddam kicked out the UN inspectors. They were allowed back into Iraq for a brief stretch before the 2003 overthrow of Saddam. After that, the inspectors who went in were David Kay and Charles Duelfer from the U.S.
UNMOVIC inspectors lingered on in places such as Cyprus and New York, bankrolled on the UN payroll with leftover Iraqi Oil-for-Food revenues, waiting for the Security Council to decide what to do with them. Only this June, four years after Saddam fell, did the Security Council finally vote to disband the operation.
So, for all but a few months out of the past nine years, from 1998-2007, UNMOVIC has not been the oufit inspecting weapons on the ground in Iraq. What have they been doing? I stopped by their offices in New York late last year, specifically to ask that question. They were busy reviewing and cataloguing and observing from afar and waiting to find out what, if anything, they were going to do next. They had a lot of fancy equipment, and a nice view of the East River. They also had plenty of money to pay for whatever they were doing — under Oil-for-Food, the weapons inspections were funded with a .8% cut of Saddam’s more than $64 billion in official oil sales — which worked out to the whopping sum of more than $500 million.
But somehow, over all those years, with all that time, and all that money, they never got around to taking a full inventory of their own cabinets until just last week? Whatever else this phosgene flap is about, it’s one more glaring example of why it’s insane to give any more money to the UN before demanding a full, independent stock-taking that would tell us, for the first time ever, what they’re really doing with what they’ve already got.