The story had everything: secret agents, political intrigue, personal betrayal and cash. Lots and lots of cash.
Yet, for all that, a remarkable trial that ended last week in a Manhattan courtroom—a proceeding that implicated figures in the highest echelons of international politics—was barely mentioned in the major American press. If it weren’t for the journalistic wing of the conservative movement, outlets like the National Review Online and The New York Sun, it might not have been covered at all.
Take the events of last Thursday, for example. After two weeks of testimony, a jury took only a few hours to convict a South Korean national, Tongsun Park, of acting as an unregistered agent of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The conspiracy of which he was a part ran for 10 years, ending in late 2002, and helped one of the world’s worst regimes maintain its grip on power.
But The New York Times did not assign a reporter to his trial, its total coverage amounting to a brief wire report on the day following Mr. Park’s conviction. Of the other major national dailies, The Washington Post ran a single news-brief item, the Los Angeles Times not a word.
Given the stakes—and what the Park trial clearly demonstrated about the seamier side of the U.N.—it hardly made sense.
The most innocent explanation is that the major newspapers had simply moved on to other things, frustrated by the apparent complexity and opacity of the oil-for-food scandal, of which the Korean fixer is only one colorful part.
But some critics contend there may have been another factor: a combination of sullenness and embarrassment on the part of what bloggers gleefully disdain as “the mainstream media.”
“The oil-for-food story began on the Op-Ed page of The Wall Street Journal. The U.N. denied it had done anything wrong for the longest time, and most of the press followed its lead,” said James Bone, New York correspondent of The Times of London. “Many of the major newspapers came to the story late and are embarrassed by it.”
(Mr. Bone covered the trial via his own blog, entitled UN Eyes Only, which is carried on his newspaper’s Web site.)
As it turns out, many of the accusations made by the right-wing publications and polemicists who have covered the scandal since the beginning—and who oppose the U.N. on ideological grounds as a meddlesome instrument of global big government—have been accurate.
The U.N. is compromised. It is open to corruption. And it did enjoy a curious and sometimes cozy relationship with the Baghdad regime.
Naturally enough, major American newspapers defend themselves vigorously from criticisms of their coverage.
The New York Times’ foreign editor, Susan Chira, said in an e-mail, “There is absolutely no ideological agenda about the coverage of the oil-for-food trial.”
The U.N. set up the program ostensibly to alleviate the suffering of Iraq’s civilian population under sanctions. Saddam Hussein was permitted to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy humanitarian and medical supplies.
But the program left too many decisions—like to whom they would sell the oil—in the hands of the Iraqi regime. Mr. Hussein and his aides received millions of dollars in kickbacks and wound up enriched and entrenched in power as a result.
The trial of Tongsun Park was one of the first oil-for-food cases to come before a U.S. court. And it revealed for the first time the depth of the chicanery that took place even as the program was being formulated.
During the trial, Mr. Park’s co-conspirator, Samir Vincent, now a cooperating witness on behalf of the government, said he considered himself and Mr. Park “the architects” of U.N. Resolution 986, which set up the oil-for-food program. Both men, it bears repeating, have now been proven to be undeclared Iraqi agents.
The prosecution’s case rested almost exclusively on the story Mr. Vincent had to tell. But what a story it was.
He testified that during a 1996 meeting, Mr. Park asked him for $10 million “to take care of expenses and to take care of some people.” Mr. Vincent understood “some people” to be a reference to the U.N. Secretary General of the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
A version of Mr. Park’s remarkable request was acceded to by Baghdad. Soon, Mr. Vincent found himself in his native country’s oil ministry, being presented with $450,000 in bundles of $100 bills.
The day after his return to the U.S., he handed $100,000 over to Mr. Park in an unnamed Manhattan coffee shop. Two further payments—of $400,000 and $500,000—were made by him to Mr. Park from Iraqi funds, he said.
One document that surfaced at the trial purported to record Mr. Boutros-Ghali expressing regret to the Iraqis that he had been unable to “neutralize” the then chief weapons inspector of the U.N., Rolf Ekéus.
Another of Mr. Vincent’s notes bore a message allegedly to be sent to Mr. Boutros-Ghali through Tongsun Park: “Iraq very appreciative of what he has done and future deals will be even sweeter.”
Mr. Boutros-Ghali denies any wrongdoing whatsoever.
The episodes described during the trial involve the U.N.’s present as well as its past.
Maurice Strong was current Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special envoy to North Korea until the oil-for-food scandal began to lap around his feet last year.
Fresh details about a check for almost $1 million that Mr. Strong was given by Mr. Park emerged at the trial. The court also heard evidence that Mr. Park covered Mr. Strong’s private office expenses for several years.
Mr. Strong, like Mr. Boutros-Ghali, denies any wrongdoing. But, at the least, it is odd that people at the very highest level of the U.N. enjoyed such a close relationship with Mr. Park.
(Three decades prior to his current travails, Mr. Park was caught up in the so-called Koreagate scandal, accused of trying to buy support for South Korea in Congress and eventually testifying in exchange for immunity.)
During the course of the legal proceedings, these puzzling transactions have been laid bare—for anyone interested enough to write about them.
“This case was fascinating to me because it showed the diplomacy we never see,” said Benny Avni, who covered the trial for The New York Sun. “It showed the dirty diplomacy, what is going on behind the striped suits. It showed where the striped suits were being laundered.”
To Mr. Avni, the lack of major media coverage was symptomatic of a lack of interest among many in the press corps in looking too deeply at the U.N.’s failings.
Correspondents with major newspapers, however, bridle at the suggestion that there is anything timid about their coverage of the institution. While noting only that it “wasn’t my decision” not to send a reporter to cover the Park trial, Warren Hoge, The New York Times’ U.N. correspondent, insisted that his paper had been vigorous in its reporting of the oil-for-food story.
“The evidence I can give you is the amount of space we gave it,” he said. “It was page 1 always; it had great space. Just look at the copy. There is not a single suggestion that The New York Times went softly on this story.”
The Times’ early coverage of the oil-for-food program, though, was largely driven by one of its most controversial reporters, Judith Miller. A search of The Times’ online archive up to the date on which Ms. Miller’s final pre-imprisonment article was published yields 54 matches for the terms “oil-for-food” and “Judith Miller,” and 45 for “oil-for-food” and “Warren Hoge.” A LexisNexis search up to the same date showed that 237 New York Sun articles mentioned oil-for-food and that 101 of them were written in whole or part by Mr. Avni.
In the course of emphasizing the toughness of The Times’ coverage, Mr. Hoge also added, “There are some newspapers that do that with a distinct editorial slant. We didn’t do that because we don’t do that.”
Mr. Avni, of The Sun, replied that the U.N. coverage pointed up the advantages of an agenda-driven take on the matter. “If an ideological agenda is shedding some light on some shady and improper business, then good,” he said.
Mr. Avni, declining to “name names,” also recalled a conversation he said he’d had with a Times reporter some months back:
“I said to him, ‘We are covering the U.N. much more aggressively than you are.’ And he said, ‘Right, but we are covering the Bush administration much more aggressively than you are.’ We find faults where we are looking for faults, and they want to find faults where they are looking for faults.”
Claudia Rosett, a former member of The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board, is now a freelance journalist who has become an authority on the oil-for-food scandal. She blogged the Park trial for National Review Online. She contended that emphasis on the ideological affiliations of the media that have covered the story most effectively is, ultimately, detrimental—because it can too easily divert attention from the scandal itself.
“The criticisms we’ve been hearing about the U.N. would have no traction if they were not grounded in fact,” she said. “The reason this has become a scandal is that the accusations have been proven true.”