By msnbc.com and NBC News
The U.S. State Department is investigating the shipment of computers and other sophisticated high-tech gear to the governments of Iran and North Korea by a United Nations organization, despite U.S. and U.N. sanctions against the nations for their alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons, a spokesman confirmed Thursday.
Fox News, which first reported the North Korean sale last month and the subsequent investigation on Thursday, said that the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, sent 20 Hewlett-Packard Compaq desktop computers to Iran’s Industrial Property Office and sophisticated computers and data-storage servers to North Korea.
The computers were apparently sent to Iran and North Korea to help them better enforce U.N.-sponsored treaties on trademarks and other aspects of intellectual property, including the worldwide patent system.
Fox said WIPO, which sent experts to both nations before the shipments to orchestrate the deliveries and make payments, carried out the sale to North Korea using complicated methods that seemed designed to bypass safeguards imposed after previous controversies involving U.N. shipments to North Korea:
“Among other things, procurement and payment for the WIPO goods appears to have been arranged between WIPO’s Geneva headquarters and China, bypassing the U.N. offices in North Korea. Those North Korean offices operate under a special oversight regime established after the last scandals erupted in 2008 over financial and technology transfers in North Korea, to ensure that money and goods do not end up in the regime’s nuclear programs.”
The payment, however, was halted by Bank of America after officials realized that delivering computers to North Korea likely violated U.N. sanctions against supplying technology to the country.
A memorandum written by a WIPO attorney and addressed to the agency’s director general, Francis Gurry, said the computers sold to North Korea did not violate the U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.
At a briefing Thursday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell declined to discuss the specifics of the case, but confirmed an investigation is under way.
“We’re reviewing their development projects both for Iran and the DPR,” he said. “We’re working with both the Director General and other member-states to institute reforms that will ensure future development projects are properly reviewed prior to being approved and implemented. And we’re working in New York to ensure that the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committees play a more active role in advising international organizations on how to remain compliant with UN sanctions.”
Asked if the incident undercut the United Nations’ credibility and the effectiveness of the sanctions, Ventrell said, “I don’t know enough about where we are in terms of the evidence that’s coming … forth in terms of this review. What I do know is that the Obama administration has, for our national security interests, engaged very constructively and broadly with the U.N. And we think that that’s shown real results for our national security whether it comes to Iran’s sanctions or North Korea or a number of other issues.”
Catherine Chomiak, an NBC producer at the State Department, contributed to this report.