The Wall Street Journal’s news section published a major investigation of the oil-for-food program on May 2, 2002, charging that Saddam had siphoned money from the program for his war chest and that U.N. auditors were lax. Annan’s name wasn’t mentioned, but shortly after Bush went before the U.N. General Assembly in September 2002 to make the case for going to war, Claudia Rosett, a commentator writing on the Journal’s editorial page, led a two-barreled attack on Annan for being a “ditherer” over the war and ethically tarnished in presiding over the oil-for-food program. After major combat in Iraq ended, other conservatives, including William Safire, began focusing on the oil-for-food program as well.
Annan took a very long time to respond, suggesting, to his critics, that he didn’t take the matter seriously. It wasn’t until April 2004 that Annan named an independent commission, led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to investigate oil-for-food, with a freewheeling mandate to look at the questionable behavior of U.N. officials monitoring the program, examine whether Security Council members were aware of the corruption, and take a hard look at his own and Kojo’s roles.
The secretary-general was so convinced that he had nothing to hide that he didn’t initially hire a personal attorney—he met with investigators twice without legal advice before friends intervened.
The criticism of Annan grew louder last year even as the Volcker commission began its work, but the complaints primarily focused on his handling of other issues. Whether preoccupied by the inquiry or haunted by the deaths of his colleagues in Iraq, Annan seemed to have lost his once-vaunted political instincts.
As a longtime U.N. bureaucrat, Annan has always had a reputation for being reluctant to fire employees and for being extremely loyal; mention the latter quality now and he interrupts to say, “Loyal to a fault?” That is, indeed, the rap. Ruud Lubbers, the U.N.’s high commissioner for Refugees, was accused of groping several women in December 2003, and investigators found the complaints valid. But Annan consulted outside lawyers who concluded that the U.N.’s internal investigation wouldn’t hold up in court. He officially cleared Lubbers in July, a decision that sent shock waves through the organization, essentially conveying the message that Annan, the renowned human-rights champion, was a member of the old-boys’ club. “Kofi didn’t go back to the investigators and say, ‘Get more goods, you haven’t made your case,’ ” says one high-ranking staffer. An Annan pal says bluntly, “He should have just fired the guy.” Only this winter, when newspapers printed the affidavits describing Lubbers’s boorish behavior, did Annan force Lubbers out.
Another sign that Annan’s political judgment was out of whack came on the Sunday before the November 2, 2004, presidential election, when he sent letters to the U.S., Great Britain, and Iraq, urging the countries not to send forces to go after rebels in Fallujah. “We were thunderstruck,” says a senior American official. “It was hard to see this as anything but an effort to interfere with the electoral process.” Annan insists that he wasn’t trying to tilt the election toward John Kerry, but he admits that the Fallujah letter was a mistake: “In retrospect, maybe the timing was not the best.”
The dark atmosphere at the U.N. grew darker after Bush’s reelection, as congressional committees investigating the oil-for-food scandal began to churn up information about Saddam’s looting. “There were weeks when Kofi seemed disturbed, bothered, unfocused,” says a prominent diplomat and Annan backer. Annan became increasingly worried and withdrawn. Staffers and diplomats grumbled that it took forever for him to make decisions.
In December, in the diplomatic equivalent of a substance-abuse intervention, Annan sat through two separate confrontational meetings (the first with top staffers at the home of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette and the second with friends and informal advisers at Holbrooke’s Central Park West apartment) as people told him in excruciating detail all the ways in which he was screwing up. Annan was urged to make amends with Washington, clean house, and be more forceful in his leadership.
At the same time, the secretary-general’s heartbreak over Kojo was intensifying. Annan got a call from Fred Eckhard, telling him that, according to news reports, Kojo had deceived him; the Cotecna checks had kept coming for years. “It hit him like a rock,” said an aide who was with Annan when he got the news. Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, promptly demanded Annan’s resignation. “I was taken aback and puzzled,” Annan says, in a soft voice. He called Kojo, and a series of angry father-son conversations ensued. The Volcker report subsequently revealed that, according to Kojo’s financial records, Kojo conspired to hide the payments by disguising them as money wired to him from three separate companies and other sources, a sum estimated to be about $400,000.
Annan received more bad news in December. The Volcker commission was also quizzing his chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, about shredding documents. Riza insisted to Annan and the commission that the documents were duplicates—that he’d agreed to the shredding after secretaries complained their files were full. The news of the shredding wouldn’t become public until the Volcker report came out in March, but Annan knew that the revelation would be damaging. Did he worry that everyone would think “cover-up”? “Exactly,” he says. “Cover-up, and remember the eight minutes in the Nixon tapes.” Annan decided to purge his staff in late December, sending Riza, 70, into retirement, getting rid of many of his closest advisers, and bringing in Mark Malloch Brown, the forceful and witty British head of the U.N. Development Program and a former political spinmeister, as his new chief of staff.
Still, Annan couldn’t shake the blues this winter. It’s been an open secret for months in the U.N. that he has been melancholy and unable to hide his distress. “He’s put on a brave front and tried to soldier on,” says Pakistani ambassador Akram. “He’s been under pressure for so long. It affects his mood.” The entire diplomatic community and staffers, it seems, have been swapping stories about how distracted Annan has been. After Annan met with Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice in London in March, word spread quickly that he had stumbled over his talking points, an embarrassing and uncharacteristic faux pas. His every gesture is under a microscope, from the slump of his usually erect shoulders to each nuance of his body language. “Watch his hands,” says a sympathetic ambassador. “The more nervous he gets, the more his hands are all over the place. They betray him.”