House Hearing Will Probe U.N. Agency’s Illicit Tech Transfers to Iran, North Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | February 23, 2016 | 4:26am EST
World Intellectual Property Organization Director-General Francis Gurry. (Photo: WIPO/Flickr)

( – U.S. lawmakers will hear testimony Wednesday on claims that the sitting head of a U.N. agency covertly transferred U.S.-origin computer equipment to Iran and North Korea. In a crackdown on whistleblowers, he allegedly ordered the clandestine collection of staffers’ DNA in a bid to track down the author of anonymous letters of complaint.

The explosive allegations against the head of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Francis Gurry, are also the subject of an internal U.N. oversight investigation, whose findings are expected to be released shortly.

Wednesday’s joint hearing of three House Foreign Affairs subcommittees comes almost four years after the committee canceled a scheduled briefing on the allegations of illicit technology transfers to Iran and North Korea – in apparent violation of UN-imposed sanctions – after Gurry refused to allow two senior WIPO officials to testify.

The two, former deputy director James Pooley and former strategic advisor to Gurry, Miranda Brown, are now scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s event.

A third witness and fellow whistleblower, is Moncef Khateb, former president of the WIPO staff association. Khateb was allegedly fired by Gurry a day before he was he due to deliver a speech to WIPO staff, critical of Gurry’s leadership.

WIPO is a low-profile but important Geneva-based body dealing with patents and intellectual property (IP). Gurry, an Australian, was re-elected “by consensus” in 2014 to a second six-year term at the helm which runs through 2020.

Before his re-election, five U.S. lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the administration not to back a second term, arguing that Gurry’s “erratic and secretive behavior and colossal lack of judgment must disqualify him from receiving support from the U.S. government.”

The five said WIPO’s shipments of U.S.-made computer equipment to Iran and North Korea “would have put any U.S. citizen behind bars, but when caught in the act, Gurry did not stop or even apologize.”

“Instead he claimed that U.S. law was of no concern to him or WIPO. Then he refused to allow WIPO witnesses to testify in a bipartisan investigation being conducted by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs,” they wrote.

(Gurry at the time justified his decision by saying neither Pooley nor Brown had the competence or knowledge to testify about the North Korea and Iran technology transfers.)

One of the five signatories to that letter, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairs the committee’s Middle East subcommittee, which joins the subcommittees responsible for the Asia-Pacific and international organizations, chaired by Reps. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) respectively, in holding this week’s hearing.

“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,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

She said Gurry had won a second term “despite his clear violation of WIPO rules and of U.N. sanctions aimed at preventing Iran and North Korea from getting their hands on sensitive dual-use technology.”

Ros-Lehtinen said with the witnesses who had previously been prevented from testifying appearing on Wednesday, members will be able to “assess future action to safeguard against potential violations of U.S. sanctions and export controls and other breaches of U.S. national security policy by WIPO and other U.N. agencies.”

Member states' flags outside World Intellectual Property Organization offices in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: WIPO/Flickr)

‘Toughest global sanctions ever’

Unlike most U.N. agencies, most of WIPO’s funding does not come from member states’ contributions but rather from fees levied by WIPO for registering patents, trademarks and industrial designs.

A small proportion of its budget does come from its 188 member states; the Obama administration has requested $1.169 million for WIPO in its fiscal year 2017 request.

Last September, WIPO became the first U.N. agency to lose 15 percent of its U.S. contribution after the State Department was unable to certify that it was implementing best-practice whistleblower protections, in line with U.S. law.

Gurry stands accused of overseeing the discreet shipment of computer equipment to North Korea and Iran – regimes subject to U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions related to their nuclear activities.

The equipment shipped to Pyongyang, valued around $118,000, was to upgrade database systems and printing facilities in the office responsible for the Kim regime’s IP rights.

WIPO sent equipment worth about $80,000 to Iran, to update computer systems in advance of receiving WIPO’s proprietary software, which is used by IP offices around the world.

The agency did so without the knowledge of its member-states or the relevant U.N. sanctions committees, then-U.S. assistant secretary of state Esther Brimmer said in 2012.

She said that was troubling, “given that the United States had led the efforts in the U.N. Security Council to impose the toughest global sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea, in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program.”

Gurry is also accused of wrongful behavior within the agency where he has worked in various capacities since 1985.

Shortly before he left WIPO in 2014, Pooley – an American and Silicon Valley patent attorney – filed a confidential “report of misconduct” which, according to leaks, included allegations that Gurry ordered the covert collection of staffers’ DNA in an attempt to root out the authors of anonymous letters accusing him of financial impropriety.

Gurry denied the accusations.

In May 2015 the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), a body set up in 1994 to identify fraud, waste and mismanagement at the U.N., launched an investigation.

That probe is now reportedly complete, although the results have yet to be made public. On Monday, The Register, an IT industry news service, reported that according to “sources in Geneva” the investigation “has come down heavily against” Gurry.

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