The Scandal that Never Was

It is easy to get bogged down in the details of today’s New York Times piece on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on alleged improprieties involving the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) operations in North Korea. The basic story is this: Last year, the United States Mission to the UN accused the UNDP of channeling millions of dollars to the regime of Kim Jong Il. Amidst these allegations, the UNDP, which coordinates development and aid assistance across UN agencies, suspended its operations.

At the time, news outfits predisposed to bashing the United Nations, notably Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, decided that this was the next Oil for Food scandal. In a January 19, 2007 op-ed, Melanie Kirkpatrick “broke” the story by obtaining a letter to the UNDP from an official at the US-UN mission, Ambassador Mark Wallace, that detailed the allegations. Kirkpatrick alleged that hundreds of millions of UN development dollars may have been diverted to the coffers of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The WSJ promptly branded this “Cash for Kim” scandal.

Ambassador Mark Wallace subsequently said that the amount of money alleged to have illegally gone from the UNDP to North Korea was somewhere in the $2-3 million range and was used by Kim Jong Il to purchase weaponry and real estate abroad. To be sure, this is a far cry from the hundreds of millions of dollars floated by the Wall Street Journal. Still, it is not an insignificant sum, and rightly deserved to be investigated.

The senate subcommittee did its due diligence. And what did Senate investigators find? Well, mostly that the initial allegations were baseless. From the New York Times:

At the hearing the chairman, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, pressed Mr. Wallace repeatedly to say whether, with what he knew now, he could still make the same charges he had made last year.

Mr. Wallace said that he did not know the specific amounts of money involved because of the difficulty of tracking transactions in North Korea, and added that they could be even higher than he had estimated.

In an interview outside the hearing room, Mr. Levin expressed frustration at the answer. “I gave him a chance on at least three occasions to acknowledge that some of the points that he made back in May were inaccurate at the time, perhaps based on information that he interpreted, but that nonetheless, he could not make those statements now,” Mr. Levin said.

“That doesn’t mean he lied,” Mr. Levin added. “It does mean that he said things at the time that he now knows are not accurate.”

The real scandal here is that editorialists with an axe to grind at the Wall Street Journal could turn this nonsense into a “scandal” in the first place.