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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.