The Cable

State Department defends U.N. agency as Ros-Lehtinen attacks

The State Department said Tuesday that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a U.N. agency, didn't violate sanctions by giving U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea, rebutting a charge by top lawmakers in both parties that the agency is stifling congressional attempts to investigate the matter.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and her Democratic counterpart Howard Berman (D-CA) cancelled a scheduled committee briefing today on the matter and accused WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry of refusing to allow to senior WIPO staffers to testify.

"Director-General Gurry is obstructing this Committee's investigation of WIPO's transfer of U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes under international sanctions-a transfer that occurred on his watch," both lawmakers said in a joint statement. "By refusing to commission an independent investigation and by obstructing an investigation by the Congress of the United States, whose citizens provide so much of the funds that keep WIPO operating, Director-General Gurry sends the message that he is not committed to transparency, accountability, and reform."

Questioned about the situation at today's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration shares congressional concerns about the alleged transfer of U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea. But she also said that the administration doesn't think WIPO broke U.N. rules.

"Our own preliminary assessment -- but we are still seeking more information from WIPO -- is that there doesn't appear to have been a violation of U.N. sanctions," she said. "However, this has now been referred to the sanctions committee for them to make their own determination."

WIPO shipped 20 Hewlett-Packard Compaq desktop computers to Iran in either late 2011 or early 2012 and gave North Korea more advanced computers and data storage devices. The transfers were financed through the Beijing office of the U.N. Development Program.

Nuland said the administration couldn't determine whether the WIPO transfers had violated U.S. law until WIPO comes back to the administration with more information. She also said the administration does not agree with Ros-Lehtinen that WIPO is stonewalling on the issue.

"We have seen a number of positive steps from WIPO with regard to their procedures going forward that are important. For example, they have agreed to a commission that will have an external and independent auditing ability with regard to their projects to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future," Nuland said.

Last week, Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote to the administration to say that WIPO's own internal investigations would not be enough to satisfy congressional concern over the technology transfers.

"We will accept nothing less than an independent investigation, full cooperation, and complete accountability," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Berman wrote in the July 20 letter.

"We have written to WIPO demanding an independent, external investigation of how WIPO could have provided sophisticated U.S.-origin technology to rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran. Instead, the WIPO leadership has announced that it will institute a mere 'review,' which falls far short. What's needed is an immediate and credible investigation," they wrote.

In a July 19 statement, WIPO's Gurry reiterated that the transfers were being referred to the U.N. sanctions committee for guidance and that new measures would be put in place to examine future transfers before they take place.

"While the legal advice received with respect to the technical assistance provided to DPRK [North Korea] and Iran was that the technical assistance was not in breach of U.N.sanctions, it is hoped that the measures outlined above will provide assurance that the organization is treating this matter with the seriousness that it warrants," he said.

The Cable

Top Senators can’t explain Romney’s Syria policy

As the crisis in Syria deepens, top senators in both parties are unable to explain presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's policy on dealing with the country's deepening civil war.

Romney, who leaves Tuesday evening on a three-nation foreign trip, barely mentioned Syria in his foreign-policy speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Reno, and then only as a criticism of President Barack Obama's "reset" policy with Russia.

"I don't know what it is," said Senate Armed Services Committee member John Cornyn (R-TX) when asked to comment on Romney's Syria policy. After The Cable explained it to him, Cornyn said he needed more time to study the issue. Other top senators were similarly befuddled.

On his campaign website, Romney criticizes Obama for reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the past but stops short of calling for any direct action to force Assad from power such as directly arming the opposition, as his surrogates like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) are demanding, or establishing "safe zones" for the Syrian opposition, as many of his campaign's foreign policy advisors are calling for.

"Mitt Romney believes the United States should pursue a strategy of isolating and pressuring the Assad regime to increase the likelihood of a peaceful transition to a legitimate government. We should redouble our push for the U.N. Security Council to live up to its responsibilities and impose sanctions that cut off funding sources that serve to maintain the regime's grip on power," the campaign website reads.

But the Obama administration is already pursuing a more aggressive strategy than that, announcing this week that it is abandoning the diplomacy track at the U.N. and ramping up various levels of support to the Syrian opposition. CIA teams are also reportedly vetting rebels fighters and aiding in their efforts to get weapons from countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Administration officials say that increased communications and intelligence assistance is also on the way.

Romney has said repeatedly that the United States should "work with partners" to arm the Syrian opposition but has stopped short of calling for Washington to give the rebels direct, lethal aid. On July 19, after the U.N. Security Council again failed to impose punitive measures on the Assad regime following Russian and Chinese vetoes, Romney again criticized the administration's policy without saying what he would do differently.

"Russia's veto again shows the hollowness of President Obama's failed ‘reset' policy with Russia and his lack of leadership on Syria," Romney said. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations. Under this President, American influence and respect for our position around the world is at a low ebb."

On Monday, Romney told CNBC, "I think from the very beginning we misread the setting in Syria... America should've come out very aggressively from the very beginning and said Assad must go. ... The world looks for American leadership and American strength."

On Capitol Hill, senior Republicans and Democrats alike were at pains to describe Romney's policy on Syria, much less say whether they supported it or not.

"I think we need to have a robust discussion about that," Cornyn said. "There's also the concern that Syria is much more difficult than Libya was, for example. So I think the discussions need to continue about what the appropriate response is. I'm interested in learning from others what their response is."

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who admitted last week that he didn't know what Romney's Afghanistan policy was, couldn't name any specifics of Romney's Syria policy Tuesday and instead launched into a monologue about America's role in the world.

"Syria is a really complicated problem in a really complicated part of the world and anybody who says you can have a Syria policy separate and apart from the rest of your foreign policy doesn't know what foreign policy is made of," Kyl told The Cable. "I know that Governor Romney sees the complexities of the world and appreciates the need to have a strong America that has the flexibility to act in complicated and difficult and very troublesome situations like Syria."

Kyl declined to say whether he supported arming the Syrian opposition or establishing safe zones inside Syria, or whether he believed that Romney was supporting either option.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said he supported the administration's efforts to facilitate the movement of arms to the Syrian opposition and he believes the United States should work with Turkey and NATO to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.

But Levin could not say what Romney's Syria policy was or whether it was substantively different from what the administration is doing now.

"I don't know what his position is and his positions change so frequently, it's hard to keep track," Levin said. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't have one, or that he doesn't have two or three for that matter."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable he has very specific criticisms of the Obama administration's Syria policy and very specific requests, namely that the administration use American military power to protect Syrian civilians and directly arm the opposition to help topple Assad.

"I'm pained every day that goes by and more and more Syrians get killed. We may be doing something through the CIA, but not a lot. Now the Syrians are using fighter plans and threatening to use gas," said Lieberman. "What I'd like to see is the Obama administration lead the coalition of the willing to go after the Assad regime directly, and I think that would end this pretty quickly."

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