EXCLUSIVE: While Congress protests, US helps UN agency with 'independent' probe into high-tech shipments to North Korea

Amid protests from congressional leaders from both parties, the Obama administration is helping an obscure United Nations agency create an investigation into whether it shipped computers and sophisticated servers to North Korea, in violation of the U.N.’s own sanctions against the communist regime.

The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, told Fox News on Friday that a “full independent external inquiry” into the murky issue would start next week. The “modalities and terms of reference of this inquiry,” a WIPO spokesman declared, “have been completed in close consultation with the U.S. Department of State.”

A State Department spokesman subsequently told Fox News that “we are aware” of the inquiry and that it was being conducted by a “very credible investigator.”

The same spokesman underlined that the State Department “has taken this issue very seriously since it came to our attention in March” and that “we have been working with WIPO to get to the bottom of this,” a process that has involved “asking and pressuring” the U.N. organization for answers. Nonetheless, the spokesman did not bring up the existence of the inquiry until Fox News asked about it.

The WIPO announcement came after a briefing by senior State Department officials yesterday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, held behind closed doors.

After that session, committee aides complained that legislators “on both sides of the aisle” remain frustrated by the muffled approach that the Obama Administration is taking to the controversial transfer of technology the nuclear-ambitious regime in North Korea, despite U.N. and U.S. sanctions against the communist government, and said the lawmakers were told nothing that they could not have heard in open session.

“They’re deliberately being reticent,” an aide told Fox News, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They have yet to commit to appear before us in open session, or to provide documents to us,” he added, using the excuse that the crucial paperwork had not yet been received.

Nor, according to the aide, did the State Department officials agree in response to committee demands to help pressure WIPO to send two of its senior officials to testify in Washington, a course of action demanded by the committee and rejected by WIPO early last week.

The hearing and the complaints came only a day after the chairman of the House committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and ranking member Howard Berman, a California Democrat, sent a letter to the head of WIPO, Francis Gurry, accusing him of failing to provide “full cooperation” to U.S. legislators, “in default of your commitments and in default of your responsibilities as an official of an international organization.”

The committee members repeated a previous demand that WIPO allow WIPO deputy director general James Pooley and senior advisor Miranda Brown be allowed from testifying in Washington. WIPO has blocked both from appearing, saying that they “did not have any involvement in or direct knowledge of this assistance program.”

Click to read the committee letter.

For its part, WIPO told Fox News that it “continues to respond promptly and in good faith to all the requests for information and documentation received from the U.S. government,” before revealing that imminent startup of the “independent external inquiry” with State Department collaboration. The inquiry, WIPO said, expects to report its findings on September 10.

According to the U.S. legislative aides, Foreign Affairs Committee members learned little in their meeting that they did not already know about the puzzling transfer of computers by WIPO, ostensibly part of a program to modernize North Korea’s ability to access the U.N. organization’s global archive of patents.

Among other things, the committee aides said, Administration officials claimed that they had not yet received the documentation that the committee demanded to see about the controversial shipment, which was revealed by Fox News last April.

The staffers were venting their frustration after a session with Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs Esther Brimmer, whose bureau handles U.N. matters in Washington. Brimmer was backed up through a video link with Betty King, the U.S. Ambassador to U.N. organizations in Geneva.

Neither the U.S. nor the U.N. sanctions committees concerned with the issue were informed in advance of the shipment, which took place either late last year or early in 2012. The equipment was sent to Pyongyang by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), via its China office, a method that appeared designed to avoid heightened oversight over UNDP activities in North Korea following an earlier controversy involving the transfer of sensitive equipment and cash to the communist regime.

That incident also culminated in the formation of an “independent external “ panel of investigators, who were chosen by UNDP.

Even though WIPO had not yet announced that an “independent external inquiry” was about to begin shortly, a State Department spokesman had already declared last week that it “doesn’t appear” that WIPO’s actions -- which involved sending the equipment and paying for it via China, to avoid heightened U.N. oversight -- amounted to a U.N. sanctions violation, though WIPO had asked a U.N. sanctions committee to rule—retroactively—on the issue.

When it comes to whether stricter U.S. sanctions against North Korea have been violated, the State Department spokesman who spoke to Fox News today underlined that the determination ultimately would be made by the U.S. Commerce Department, after State had gotten the requisite information from WIPO. Getting that information, the spokesman said, was “much like a dialogue,” in which WIPO has been “forthcoming.”

Nonetheless, the spokesman added, “This is not simple stuff. It’s complicated. The answers aren’t there yet.”

Adding to the confusion and apparent disarray surrounding the handling of the issue, a second State Department spokesperson separately emailed Fox News a one –sentence reply to a number of questions sent yesterday about the controversial shipment and the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

That statement, in full, declared: “We share the Committee’s concerns and are continuing our own inquiry into the facts surrounding this issue.”