A recent FBI investigation has found that Chinese-made Huawei equipment could disrupt US nuclear weapons communications and can be used to gather intelligence.
On paper, it seemed like a great offer. The National Arboretum in Washington, DC, would receive a lavish Chinese garden if the Chinese government spent $100 million on it in 2017. The project, which included temples, pavilions, and a white pagoda that stood 70 feet tall, delighted local officials who believed it would draw thousands of tourists each year.
However, as US counterintelligence investigators dug deeper, they discovered more warning signs. They pointed out that the pagoda would have been strategically positioned on one of Washington, DC’s highest points, barely two miles from the US Capitol, making it the ideal location for gathering signals intelligence, according to various sources familiar with the incident.
Another worrying development, according to the sources, was that Chinese authorities planned to erect the pagoda using supplies that had been sent to the US in diplomatic pouches, which US Customs agents are not permitted to inspect.
Before building started, the project was covertly terminated by federal officials.
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The FBI and other government agencies have been engaged in a frenzy of counterintelligence work aimed against what senior US security officials said has been a substantial uptick in Chinese espionage on US soil over the past ten years. This action includes the cancelled garden.
Federal officials have resisted what they believed to be obvious attempts to place listening devices close to sensitive military and government facilities since at least 2017, investigated Chinese land purchases near important infrastructure, shut down a prominent regional consulate believed by the US government to be a hotbed of Chinese spies.
One of the FBI’s most concerning discoveries relates to Huawei equipment that is installed on cell towers close to US military posts in the Midwest’s rural areas. According to numerous people with knowledge of the situation, the FBI found that the equipment was capable of intercepting and degrading communications within the Defense Department that were subject to strict security restrictions, including those used by the US Strategic Command, which is in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Despite widespread worries about Huawei equipment being close to US military locations, this investigation’s existence and its results have never been made public. Its beginnings date at least back to the Obama administration. More than a dozen sources, including current and former national security officials, described it; all of them talked on the condition of anonymity because they had no right to do so.
Uncertainty exists regarding the intelligence community’s assessment of whether data was truly intercepted and transferred from these towers back to Beijing. Technically speaking, according to those familiar with the situation, it’s quite challenging to demonstrate that a particular package of data was stolen and sent abroad.
Any attempts to spy on the US are categorically denied by the Chinese government. Huawei also refuted claims that its gear can function in any communications spectrum allotted to the Defense Department.
There is no doubt, however, that the Huawei equipment has the capacity to intercept not only commercial cell traffic but also the highly restricted airwaves used by the military and disrupt crucial US Strategic Command communications, potentially providing the Chinese government with access to the United States’ nuclear arsenal, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation.
“This gets into some of the most sensitive things we do,” said one former FBI official with knowledge of the investigation. “It would impact our ability for essentially command and control with the nuclear triad. “That goes into the ‘BFD’ category.”
“If it is possible for that to be disrupted, then that is a very bad day,” this person added.
Turning doves into hawks
Former officials called the investigation’s conclusions a turning point. According to two sources with knowledge of the situation, the probe was conducted in such a way that several senior policymakers in the White House and other parts of the government were not informed of its existence until 2019.
The Federal Communications Commission started to enforce a rule that virtually forbade small telecoms from using Huawei and a few other Chinese-made equipment brands that same fall.
One former US official claimed, “The existence of the investigation at the highest levels turned some doves into hawks.”
2020 will see the removal of Chinese-made Huawei and ZTE cellular technology from a sizeable chunk of rural America thanks to $1.9 billion in congressional funding.
However, two years later, none of that equipment has been taken down, and rural telecom providers are still awaiting reimbursement from the federal government. The FCC received requests to remove almost 24,000 pieces of communications equipment built in China, but according to a commission update from July 15 (pdf below), it lacks more than $3 billion in funding to fully compensate all eligible companies.
In the absence of further funding from Congress, the FCC claims it intends to start paying approved companies for around 40% of the costs associated with removing Huawei equipment. When the funds will be distributed is not specified by the FCC.
Reuters first reported the existence of the Commerce Department probe.
“We cannot confirm or deny ongoing investigations, but we are committed to securing our information and communications technology and services supply chain. Protecting US persons safety and security against malign information collection is vital to protecting our economy and national security,” a Commerce Department spokesperson said.
Publicizing Chinese threats has increasingly been a top objective for US counterintelligence officers. The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a warning to local and state governments, businesses, and organizations this month about what it claims are China’s covert attempts to manipulate them to affect US policy.
To draw attention to the Chinese threats, FBI Director Christopher Wray recently flew to London for a joint meeting with top British law enforcement authorities.
Every 12 hours, the FBI, according to Wray, launches a new counterintelligence probe into China. Wray estimated the number of probes to be around 2,000. And that’s without even mentioning their cybercrime, where they have a more extensive hacking operation than all other major countries put together and have stolen more of the personal and corporate data of Americans than all other countries put together.
Wray responded, “We’re concerned about allowing any company that is beholden to a nation state that doesn’t adhere to and share our values, giving that company the ability to burrow into our telecommunications infrastructure,” in response to a question about why Huawei equipment is still largely in place atop cell towers close to US military bases despite years of national security concerns raised about the company.
He mentioned that the DOJ has indicted Huawei for racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets in 2020.
“And I think that’s probably about all I can say on the topic,” Wray said.
Chinese tech in the American heartland
FBI agents were keeping an eye on a worrying pattern along sections of Interstate 25 in Colorado and Montana as well as on routes into Nebraska as early as the Obama administration. Some of the most secluded military facilities in the US, including an archipelago of nuclear missile silos, are connected by the bustling corridor.
Small, rural telecom companies had been mounting cheaper, Chinese-made routers and other equipment on cell towers all along I-25 and in other parts of the region for years. These smaller carriers are the only ones that offer cell coverage in the majority of these sparsely inhabited regions of the west. And many of them switched to Huawei for more affordable, dependable gear.
The biggest regional operator in the area, Viaero, signed a deal with Huawei to start supplying the equipment for its transition to 3G in late 2011. Ten years later, it has Huawei technology installed on all 1,000 of its towers, which are spread throughout five western states.
According to a source familiar with the inquiry, FBI investigators examined the Huawei equipment in order to determine that it could identify and interfere with DOD-spectrum communications despite having received FCC certification.
“It’s not technically hard to make a device that complies with the FCC that listens to nonpublic bands but then is quietly waiting for some activation trigger to listen to other bands,” said Eduardo Rojas, who leads the radio spectrum lab at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “Technically, it’s feasible.”
To prove a device had clandestine capabilities, Rojas said, would require technical experts to strip down a device “to the semi-conductor level” and “reverse engineer the design.” But, he said, it can be done.
And there was another big concern along I-25, sources familiar with the investigation said.
Scouring the country for Chinese investments
By the time the I-25 investigation was briefed to the White House in 2019, counterintelligence officials started searching for additional locations where Chinese companies might be purchasing land or offering to develop a piece of municipal property, like a park or an abandoned factory, occasionally as part of a “sister city” arrangement.
One former US official claimed that after the I-25 probe started, authorities in Utah shut down a risky commercial deal that was close to extremely sensitive military testing facilities. In addition to other things, the military operates a test and training range for hypersonic weapons in Utah. More information was not provided by the sources.
Additionally concerned by what sources said to be a variety of espionage and influence operations in Houston, federal officials closed the Chinese consulate there in 2020.
It can be challenging to distinguish the difference between espionage and a legitimate economic opportunity at times, according to Bill Evanina, who ran the National Counterintelligence and Security Center until early last year.
“What we’ve seen is legitimate companies that are three times removed from Beijing buy [a given] facility for obvious logical reasons, unaware of what the [Chinese] intelligence apparatus wants in that parcel [of land],” Evanina said. “What we’ve seen recently — it’s been what’s underneath the land.”
“The hard part is, that’s legitimate business, and what city or town is not going to want to take that money for that land when it’s just sitting there doing nothing?” he added.
A complicated problem
After the I-25 investigation’s findings were presented to the Trump White House in 2019, the FCC mandated that Viaero and other telecom companies who receive government funding to offer cell service in remote regions “rip and replace” their Huawei and ZTE hardware.
Since then, the FCC has stated that the price might be more than double the $1.9 billion authorized in 2020, and the agency is only preparing to reimburse companies for a small portion of their expenses without a further provision from Congress.
Lenkart asserted that “rip and replace is a very blunt and inefficient remediation” given the enormous strategic risk.
According to a current FBI official, the agency is providing significantly more detailed defensive briefings to US businesses, academic institutions, and state and local governments than in the past, but agents are still up against it.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re a lifeguard going out to a drowning person, and they don’t want our help,” said the current FBI official. But, this person said, “I think sometimes we [the FBI] say ‘China threat,’ and we take for granted what all that means in our head. And it means something else to the people that we’re delivering it to.”
“I think we just need to be more careful about how we speak about it and educate folks on why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
The “rip and replace” policy has continued to be highly controversial in the meantime.
“It’s not going to be easy,” DiRico said. “I’m going to be up nights worrying about it, but we’ll do what we’re told to do.”
Read the update given below: