WASHINGTON, D.C. – The head of a United Nations agency illegally and deliberately shipped sensitive American technology with potential military uses to the dictatorships ruling North Korea and Iran in exchange for votes, and then retaliated against the UN officials who exposed it, the U.S. Congress heard in testimony from whistleblowers.
Lawmakers at a recent hearing before the House Foreign Affairs joint subcommittee sounded incredulous as two former senior officials with the UN World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, described the transfer of U.S. technology by a top UN official to two of the planet’s most notorious regimes.
Some of the technology was what is known as “dual use,” meaning it could have military applications. At least one piece of equipment was useful in helping the regime block Internet access, one of the whistleblowers said.
The transfers were also unlawful under U.S. law and likely under UN Security Council resolutions as well.
And the entire ordeal represented a serious threat to U.S. national security, according to lawmakers and other sources.
The system is, in many ways, the problem, it was revealed. But the specific perpetrator in this case, according to the whistleblowers, was Francis Gurry, an Australian national who was re-elected to another term as director-general of WIPO in 2014, despite mushrooming scandals surrounding his tenure including the technology transfers.
Separately, the UN agency chief was caught secretly plotting to open WIPO offices in Moscow and Beijing without approval from member states. An office of the UN agency was also considered for Iran.
The Australian government also came under fire from outraged U.S. lawmakers, who fumed about why the longtime U.S. ally would back Gurry despite his lack of concern for American and international security exhibited by the illegal technology shipments.
Hearing Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., was among those expressing outrage about the developments.
Among other concerns, he blasted the claim that UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea and Iran applied to UN members states but not UN agencies such as WIPO.
Smith said he was “bewildered” and “shocked” by the revelations. “We are going to do a great deal of follow up on this,” he added.
After the hearing, Smith told WND that Congress was planning to do much more to address the scandals surrounding the UN, including the technology transfers, the persecution of whistleblowers, the lack of accountability, and the lack of transparency.
“Funding will be used as leverage,” he pledged in response to a question by WND. “A lot of times it’s the only thing that gets their attention.”
Smith also said lawmakers were working on various resolutions about the scandals and would not be letting up until the issues were dealt with.
Tech for tyrants
Miranda Brown, who served as strategic advisor to WIPO chief Gurry until being forced to resign by the retaliation, first stumbled across the technology transfers to North Korea March 14 of 2012, she told lawmakers at the hearing.
“I received a phone call from a WIPO staff member working in the procurement area who informed me that ‘there was a problem with a payment for a shipment of computers to North Korea’,” Brown explained.
“At first I thought this was a joke,” she said. “But I soon realized that the staff member was serious, as he explained that the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had blocked the WIPO/UNDP [UN Development Program] payment by the Bank of America, for the computers.”
At that stage, Brown continued, it was not yet clear whether the computers had already been shipped to the North Korean authorities, but she decided to “immediately” try to stop the transfer.
“I called Mr. Gurry and counseled him against WIPO engaging in any project with North Korea without the prior approval of the member states of WIPO, specifically including the U.S., and without clearance by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee,” she said, adding that she felt it would violate U.S. law and UN Security Council sanctions.
“Mr. Gurry’s response was profoundly disturbing: he said that ‘North Korea is a WIPO member state like any other and it deserves technical cooperation’,” Brown recalled. “He also said that ‘WIPO is not bound by U.S. domestic or UN Security Council sanctions’.”
Instead of halting the scheme, Gurry ordered her to sort out the payment problem, she explained.
Later, she discovered that Gurry, who personally approved the shipments, had been promised support from the two regimes in his re-election bid in exchange for the technology. He won by one vote.
Eventually, Brown decided to inform U.S. authorities of what was happening, and for that, she was severely retaliated against by Gurry.
“I felt I had a responsibility, as a UN staff member, to blow the whistle and report a UN agency that was supplying high-end American IT equipment to North Korea, in violation of U.S. domestic sanctions and without consulting the UN Security Council sanctions committees,” she said.
Congress got involved at that point.
Lawless UN agency
One of the claims purporting to justify the transfers was that WIPO was not a member state, and therefore not bound by UN Security Council resolutions.
Brown emphasized that she was not a legal expert, but noted that the intent of the resolutions were for the measures barring technology transfers to rogue regimes to be binding on everyone.
Matthew Parish, the founder and managing director of Gentium Law Group, which represents the WIPO staff council, went further in his own responses to the committee on the issue.
The legal explanation purporting to excuse WIPO’s tech transfers to rogue regimes despite the sanctions was “completely absurd,” Parish told lawmakers.
“The idea that an agency of the United Nations can lawfully act as an agent for the evasion of UN sanctions endorsed by the Security Council is ridiculous,” he added. “Nobody could defend that for even 30 seconds, it’s crazy.”
Attorney James Pooley, former WIPO deputy director for innovation and technology, gave additional insight into the technology that was transferred, its purpose, and the dangers posed.
“I should point out that none of this equipment was necessary for the operation of the North Korean patent office,” Pooley said, debunking the official justification for the transfers. “Over the entire 33 year span of its membership in WIPO, North Korea submitted a grand total of 25 international patent applications.”
“And I knew that the computers were ‘dual-use’ technology that could easily have been applied to telemetry calculations or other military use,” he added. “But I was also alarmed by the firewall, which had only one purpose: to keep North Korean citizens from gaining access to the Internet.”
If somebody bought that technology in the United States and sent it to the Iranian and North Korean regimes, “they’d go to prison for a long time,” he said.
Pooley also revealed that in 2012, WIPO leadership had hired a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., for close to $200,000. The purpose was apparently to shut down U.S. investigations.
Geneva-based international attorney Edward Flaherty, who served as counsel to the UN whistleblowers, said WIPO and its senior management had gone “rogue.”
“It should be a movie it is so beyond the pale,” he told WND after the hearing, calling WIPO leadership “arrogant.”
The entire saga illustrates that the UN “clearly” has no concern for U.S. national security, he added. “Nor apparently did the U.S. State Department judging by its failure to act against WIPO.”
Flaherty said the State Department could have stopped Gurry’s re-election but refused to do so, “which can only be seen as a gross dereliction of its duty.”
Lawmakers weigh in
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers sounded shocked and outraged about what the whistleblowers were saying.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., in reference to the ongoing corruption scandals swirling around the soccer organization, called WIPO the “FIFA of UN agencies.”
He slammed the UN, WIPO leaders, and even the Australian government, noting that a congressional resolution was being worked on to express lawmakers’ opinion on the issues.
“What Mr. Gurry did is contrary to the national security interests of the United States,” Sherman added, blasting the attempted later abuse of a “loophole” to justify the technology transfers.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said it was not the first time that UN agencies were caught unlawfully transferring U.S. technology hardware and software to dictatorial regimes under international sanction.
In fact, he said, another external report found that UN shipments of such equipment to Pyongyang dated back to at least the year 2000.
Since 2006, there have been at least three deliveries of technology to the North Korean regime, he added, citing the report.
Salmon also blasted as “unconscionable” the lack of proper procedures to ensure that American technology was not shipped to rogue regimes under sanctions.
“It should be a reasonable expectation that a UN body would follow UN Security Council resolutions,” he said. “I don’t think that’s outlandish.”
“WIPO’s transfer of dual-use technology should have undergone at least some level of scrutiny,” Salmon added. “The risk that North Korea could use this technology to assist in its development of nuclear missile capabilities is a risk we don’t want to take.”
The congressman also noted that Pyongyang had already conducted cyberattacks on other governments and organizations.
“It’s totally unacceptable that WIPO might be the organization that provided the computers from which they conducted the attacks,” he said.
“We must ensure that we prevent these mistakes from occurring again,” Salmon concluded, praising the whistle blowers who exposed the schemes.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was also fiercely critical of WIPO and the corruption.
“Since I began investigating WIPO’s illegal transfers of sophisticated U.S.-origin computer equipment to Iran and North Korea almost four years ago, the situation at WIPO has only gotten worse,” she said.
“WIPO’s Director General Francis Gurry, who was running the secret transfer program, was reelected in 2014 despite his clear violation of WIPO rules and of UN sanctions aimed at preventing Iran and North Korea from getting their hands on sensitive dual-use technology,” the congresswoman from South Florida continued, noting that Gurry had obstructed the investigations and retaliated against those exposing the activities and the attempted cover-up.
Separately, during the hearing, she lashed out at Gurry’s plans to set up WIPO offices in Beijing and Moscow.
“Hosting WIPO offices in these countries [Russia and Communist China] poses an enormous security risk for the confidential and proprietary information included in patent applications, and further damages the credibility of WIPO,” she said, adding that the UN agency’s mission is supposed to be protecting intellectual property, not destroying it.
“This is just incredible,” the lawmaker said.
WND first reported on the UN tech-for-tyrants scandal in 2013 after learning that, despite the growing storm surrounding the technology transfers, WIPO was again providing “technical assistance” to the communist regime in North Korea.
“It’s extremely disturbing to see that WIPO once again provided technical assistance to North Korea,” she told WND in a statement at the time, blasting Gurry and WIPO for the earlier transfers and withholding the information from member states.
“I’ve been calling on WIPO to make much needed reforms so it operates in a more transparent and efficient manner, yet it would appear that none of these reforms have been made as it continues to disregard the fact that North Korea is one of the world’s worst offenders of intellectual property and is a continual counterfeiter,” Ros-Lehtinen added.
“It’s long past due for WIPO to make some wholesale changes.”
During and after the hearing, lawmakers vowed to take action, and the whistleblowers offered multiple proposals on how Congress might help.
“Some kind of resolution by Congress would be extremely helpful,” said Pooley, the attorney and WIPO whistleblower.
He also called for reconsidering the issue of diplomatic immunity for executives of international organizations, which protects Gurry and other UN officials from prosecution even for criminal activities such as those alleged in the current scandal.
Flaherty, the attorney who served as counsel to the UN whistleblowers, was also adamant on the issue of diplomatic immunity.
“Immunity equals impunity,” he explained. “The current system of absolute immunity clearly leads to abuses such as those found at WIPO, and oil-for-food, and the Ruud Lubbers scandal, peacekeeper sexual abuse, and more. It must be changed.”
He called on Congress to use the “power of the purse” to cut off U.S. funding to “rogue” UN agencies and international organizations.
A “freedom of information act” is also needed for such outfits, he told WND. If a UN agency refuses transparency, its funding should be cut.
Without the types of reforms needed, the organizations involved may “continue to commit acts inimical to U.S. interests, made all the more galling by the fact that the U.S. is funding these traitorous acts.”
Finally, noting that there have only been “baby steps” toward real reform so far, Flaherty called for accountability for wrongdoers and real protection for whistleblowers.
Smith, who chaired the hearings, told WND afterward that the UN appeared to be out of control and that Congress would be considering and taking additional action in the months ahead.
He was familiar with a broad range of scandals plaguing the UN, including the rape of children by peacekeeping troops, retaliation against whistleblowers who exposed it, and much more.
Using as much funding as necessary as leverage to secure real reforms is on the table, he added.
So far, Gurry has refused invitations to testify before the committee, Smith noted.