Senior UN Official Who Sent US Computers to North Korea ‘Told Me That He Didn’t Care What the US Thought … Didn’t Have to Obey US Laws’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 25, 2016 | 4:19am EST
World Intellectual Property Organization director-general Francis Gurry. (Photo: WIPO/Berrod Emmanuel)

( – The head of a U.N. agency which gets a significant proportion of its budget from U.S. patent applicants transferred U.S.-origin computer equipment with dual-use potential to North Korea, and cracked down harshly on whistleblowers who sought to expose his behavior, U.S. lawmakers were told Wednesday.

Despite the alleged actions and lawmakers’ earlier appeals, the Obama administration allowed Francis Gurry to be re-elected in 2014 for a new six-year term as director-general of the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a joint hearing of three House Foreign Affairs subcommittees heard.

The administration did so, a witness told the hearing, at the request of a close ally, Australia; Gurry, whose career at WIPO spans more than three decades, is believed to be the highest-ranking Australian in the U.N. system.

In one of the more startling disclosures, a witness reported on claims that Gurry sent high-end IT equipment to North Korea in return for its vote of support for his election.

Members of Congress expressed grave concern and called for Gurry’s removal from the helm of WIPO, which Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) described as “the FIFA of U.N. agencies” – a reference to corruption in the global soccer governing body.

Two former senior WIPO officials testified on the transfer of equipment to North Korea and Iran despite sanctions restrictions; secretive agreements to set up satellite offices in China and Russia; and “relentless” retaliation against whistleblowers.

Former WIPO former deputy director James Pooley, an American, said he learned in 2012 that WIPO was shipping powerful U.S. computer equipment, including a server and firewall software, to Pyongyang.

Pooley said the equipment was “dual-use technology that could not go to North Korea without an export permit.” He was further alarmed because the only reason for North Korea to have the firewall was to prevent its citizens from gaining access to the Internet.

“I went to Mr. Gurry and I asked him to reconsider. I explained to him that in the U.S. – where you can go to prison for quite a number of years for doing what we had done here – that it would be seen as unacceptable for a U.N. agency to be doing the same thing,” he said.

“He told me that he didn’t care what the U.S. thought, because WIPO didn’t have to obey U.S. laws.”

When the House Foreign Affairs Committee that year scheduled a hearing on the matter Gurry refused to allow Pooley or another senior official, strategic advisor Miranda Brown to appear, and the hearing was cancelled. Brown also testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

Around the same time, Pooley told the panels, Gurry hired D.C.-based lobbyists “to help him with whatever U.S. political problems he had,” and WIPO paid the lobbyists $193,000 in 2012.

Pooley pointed out that that money, as well as the funds for the equipment sent to North Korea, came out of a budget made up substantially of patent fees paid by U.S. inventors.

Pooley recalled that a group of U.S. lawmakers urged Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 not to support Gurry’s re-election for a second term the following year.

But he said that the Australian government had “made it very clear that it wanted Mr. Gurry to be re-elected.

“As a result, the U.S. agreed to stand on the sidelines during the election process.”

‘Personal fiefdom’

In her testimony, Brown – an Australian – said she was told in March 2012 that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had blocked payment for equipment headed to North Korea.

When she expressed her concerns to Gurry about WIPO engaging in projects with North Korea without prior approval from member states or clearance from the U.N. Security Council sanctions committees, his response was “profoundly disturbing.”

“He said that North Korea is a WIPO member-state like any other and it deserves technical cooperation,” Brown said. “He also said that WIPO is not bound by U.S. domestic or U.N. Security Council sanctions.”

She advised Gurry to stop the shipment, but “he told me to go and fix the payment problem.”

Instead, she immediately reported the matter to the U.S. Mission in Geneva, later providing it with documentation.

Brown said she later heard from WIPO staffers that the computer shipment “was one of North Korea’s requests in exchange for supporting Mr. Gurry’s election” to a first term in 2007.

In response to a question about Gurry’s claim that his agency was not bound by U.N. Security Council resolutions the third witness at the hearing, WIPO Staff Council legal counsel Matthew Parish, called the position “ridiculous.”

“The idea that an agency of the United Nations can lawfully act as an agent for the evasion of U.N. sanctions endorsed by the Security Council – it’s completed absurd,” he said.

Testimony also covered claims that Gurry had responded harshly to whistleblowers, including Pooley and Brown.

He is also alleged to have ordered the secret collection of DNA from staffers, in an attempt to track down the author or anonymous letters accusing him of wrongdoing in the run up to his 2007 election.

“Mr. Gurry’s leadership of WIPO is sadly characterized by secrecy and also an extraordinary vindictiveness towards whistleblowers,” Brown told the hearing. “He apparently sees the organization and its resources as his personal fiefdom, and he expects staff to demonstrate their absolute loyalty towards him and not the organization and its mandate.”

Gurry declined an invitation to attend a briefing, according to Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

Smith said he was “bewildered” by Australia’s handling of the Gurry affair.

He said the Australians were “very close friends and allies,” but “if you have a bad apple, you expunge the bad apple.”

Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade did not respond to queries by press time.

A probe into the WIPO allegations was launched last May by the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, is reportedly complete, but has yet to have been made public.

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