Officials from three U.S. agencies are now reviewing their records over the past three years to see if permission should have been granted for a major American computer company to ship "sensitive" technology to Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism.
FOX News originally reported that after years of harsh talk and escalating rounds of sanctions against Syria for supporting terror and seeking weapons of mass destruction, the United States is quietly supporting a United Nations program to supply the regime with sophisticated surveillance equipment and computers to monitor its borders.
That surreptitious support emerged in the course of a FOX News investigation that began after a surprise Israeli air strike on September 6 destroyed a mysterious Syrian facility that many experts believe was a North Korean-style nuclear reactor.
But as the Syrian government enters the closing stages of the $9 million program to upgrade its customs and border operations computer systems, officials from the National Security Council, the Commerce Department and the State Department are investigating the matter.
One of the vendors involved, according to obtained documents, is Cisco Systems, which received a special export license from the Commerce Department 14 months ago to ship routers, switches and other high-tech gear to Syria. Senior Bush Administration officials tell FOX News that the Executive Board for the U.N. Development Program, which coordinated the work, was only asked to approve a broad "country program" for Syria, including a single reference to the modernization of its ports and customs operations.
The gap between the Bush Administration’s anti-Syrian rhetoric and reality emerges in the book-keeping of the $5.2 billion United Nations Development Program, the U.N.’s flagship development agency, which has come under heavy fire for its improper funneling of cash to the regime of North Korean dictator and nuclear proliferator Kim Jong Il.
This time the issue is UNDP’s ties — and those of the U.S. and the European Union — to the Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashir Assad, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. for its sponsorship of international terrorism, destabilization of Lebanon and its shipping of terrorists and weapons to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the relationship raises questions.
"The United States government is working very closely with a number of different countries around the world in order to upgrade their customs and border monitoring capabilities," he said. "It's important development in fighting the war on terror. Now when you're talking specifically about Syria and this kind of equipment, it raises some questions. And because these questions have been raised, we're going back and taking a look to see exactly what steps were followed on our side, in granting licenses, and on the UNDP side, what steps were followed in terms of requesting those licenses."
U.N. Development Program documents show that prior to the issuance of the license, there was concern about the applicability of U.S. sanctions. A program procurement officer wrote in October 2005 that "due to sanctions, Cisco may not be able to supply the items such as routers, switches etc. directly to Syria."
Syria’s own ties to North Korea and its clandestine attempts to gain weapons of mass destruction were dramatically underlined on Sept. 6, when Israeli Air Force F-15s blasted the secret nuclear facility.
According to Bush Administration statements, Syria is a pariah state. It has been under escalating forms of U.S. economic, financial and trade sanctions since 2003, culminating in a broad ban on the export of U.S. goods to the Assad regime in May 2004, as a result of its alleged terrorist activities. Export controls on goods intended for Syria are in the same category as those on exports to Iran, North Korea and Sudan, likewise designated for their support for international terrorism.
They are backed up by other presidential executive orders that slapped U.S. financial sanctions on a variety of Syrian government officials, banks, and companies for being involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, association with al Qaeda, and destabilizing activities in Iraq and Lebanon. The most recent order was signed in August.
All of which makes especially mysterious UNDP’s purchase and supply to Syria of more than $2.1 million worth of computers, servers, local and wide area networking equipment, networked surveillance cameras and other high-tech goods, under the bland heading of “Modernization of Syrian Customs Directorate.”
The money for the goods comes from the Syrian government itself, part of an $8.1 million construction and equipment deal that has been going on quietly since Feb. 1, 2005. UNDP is spending some $480,000 of its own on the deal, and it expects to refund nearly $1.6 million in unspent funds to the Syrian government.
The deal also involves the purchase of some $2 million worth of specialized software from another U.N. branch, the Geneva-based United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
According to UNDP, the customs modernization deal is entirely on the up-and-up. A UNDP spokesman told FOX News in response to e-mailed questions that it “will benefit the business environment and the private sector through transparency, trade facilitation, simplification and consistency of procedures, efficient clearance of goods, remote filing and national entry processing.”
The customs upgrade has been mentioned in UNDP official documents that have been approved by a 36-nation executive board, which includes the United States.
(The mention consists of a half-dozen words at the end of a single sentence in a dense 12-page document. As the UNDP spokesman noted, by way of explanation in response to FOX News questions, “UNDP’s Executive Board approves country programs, not specific projects.” Purchase of goods for the project was specifically approved, per UNDP procedures, by Akiko Yuge, head of UNDP’s Bureau of Management, and by the organization’s No. 2 official, Associate Administrator Ad Melkert.)
Most importantly, UNDP’s high-tech undertaking is covered by a U.S. export license from the Department of Commerce, Industry and Security for the sensitive Cisco goods, meaning that the U.N. organization can export them without penalty under U.S. law. The license, which is granted to Cisco, is numbered D357459. It was issued on Sept. 6, 2006 — exactly one year before the strike on the mysterious Syrian nuclear facility.
What’s going on?
It appears that UNDP, the U.S., and yet another partner in Syria’s “customs modernization,” the European Union, have been engaged in a game of incentive diplomacy with the Assad regime, quietly laying the building blocks for a broader trade-for-peace framework with Syria and its neighbors while talking tough and brandishing trade and financial cudgels that are less than meet the eye.
The 2004 U.S. trade sanctions were renewed with fanfare in May 2005. They were renewed with additional sanctions targeting specific officials of the Syrian regime in May 2006; those sanctions were renewed yet again on May 8, 2007.
But the September 2006 U.S. export control license is a strong sign that the original 2004 export controls, which allow a presidential waiver for exports “in support of activities of the U.S. government,” among other things, have been allowed to develop a loophole big enough for a high-tech overhaul of Syria’s borders — and perhaps other holes as well.
If so, they are holes that the Bush Administration is not anxious to discuss. Repeated requests by FOX News to the Department of Commerce, Industry and Security to glean information on the high-tech exports and their legality were initially met with silence. And even though UNDP has freely answered questions posed by FOX News about the nature of the customs project and its history, sources within the organization report that UNDP staff have been grilled as to how FOX came to learn sensitive details of the project in the first place.
It may be that the biggest reason for the silence in Washington is the bombing of Syria’s suspected nuclear facility — an action that Israel has not admitted or discussed. The existence of the facility — which had been under construction for an estimated two or three years — apparently involved clandestine cooperation with North Korea, a view widely accepted in diplomatic and national security circles.
The now-destroyed secret facility casts a large shadow of skepticism over any notion that a program of trade improvement, trade preferences and technology transfers is enough to induce the Assad regime to give up terrorist meddling and cease any quest for weapons of mass destruction.
Moreover, it underlines the extent to which the negotiators of the trade-for-peace strategy may have been lulled into believing that their approach would contain the proliferation appetite of the Syrian regime.
Indeed, the design and construction of the secret Syrian facility was evidently taking place during all the time that the customs modernization project was itself being negotiated and built. The facility was evidently well underway by the time the Bush Administration issued its export certificate for UNDP to ship embargoed components of the system to Syria.
Even though UNDP and the Bush Administration had significant roles in the customs project, the biggest player is clearly the European Union. Ever since 2004 — the same year the Bush Administration announced its trade embargo against Syria — the E.U. has been dangling a strategy of enhanced trade relations with countries on the southern edge of the Mediterranean as part of a “European Neighborhood” policy aimed at expanding the E.U.’s economic sphere of influence.
The big stumbling block was Syria. Due to Syrian human rights violations, intrusiveness in Lebanon and support for terrorist activity in Iraq and elsewhere, E.U. officials have been unable to complete bilateral agreements with Syria that would seal their overall partnership.
Instead, they have apparently proceeded piecemeal. UNDP officials told FOX News that their own customs project was designed to be “complementary” to an even costlier — roughly $11 million — European Union customs modernization package for Syria. According to UNDP, “the E.U.’s work is on internal work process of customs” — essentially software — which would have kept E.U. fingerprints off politically sensitive technology transfers.
Questions sent by e-mail to the European Union’s customs project supervisors in Syria went unanswered.
UNDP expects it will have finished its part of the customs modernization in three to four months’ time.
George Russell is executive editor of FOX News. FOX News' James Rosen contributed to this report.