House panel votes down measure to force DHS to detail ZTE threat

House panel votes down measure to force DHS to detail ZTE threat
© Greg Nash

The House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday voted down a Democratic resolution that would have forced the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide lawmakers with more information about the threat posed by Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE.

While Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulGOP lawmakers urge State Dept. to label cartels as terrorist organizations House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen MORE (R-Texas) said he shared concerns about the potential security threat posed by ZTE, he explained that it would be “inappropriate” to try to force DHS to provide the information. McCaul also described the resolution as redundant, given that the department has already provided committee staff with some of the information behind closed doors.

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The measure, offered by ranking member Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonLawmakers quiz officials on 2020 election security measures Hillicon Valley: House panel takes on election security | DOJ watchdog eyes employee texts | Senate Dems urge regulators to block T-Mobile, Sprint deal | 'Romance scams' cost victims 3M in 2018 Hillicon Valley: Dems pounce on Trump fight with intel leaders | FBI taps new counterintelligence chief | T-Mobile, Sprint tap former FCC Dem commish to sell merger | Dem bill would crack down on robocalls | Family sues over Uber self-driving fatality MORE (D-Miss.), would direct DHS to deliver a series of documents to the committee on the threat posed by ZTE, including information on whether the department or its contractors use ZTE products and what threats those products pose to the federal government.

ZTE has attracted massive attention in Washington since President TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE abruptly directed Commerce Department officials to take steps to get the Chinese phone-maker “back into business,” after U.S. penalties had forced the company to shutter its U.S. operations. Commerce barred American firms from doing business with ZTE in April after the company violated sanctions on Iran. 

Lawmakers, including some Republicans, have raised concerns about Trump’s effort. Many have cited the potential security threat posed by the Chinese company.

“The president’s cavalier approach to cybersecurity is disturbing and this committee should do its part to make sure that his decisions do not jeopardize national security,” Thompson said Wednesday. 

“My resolution of inquiry would give us the information that we need to do oversight to ensure that this fast-passed activity driven by the president does not put our security at stake,” Thompson added. He also accused DHS of being slow to respond to congressional document requests. 

While McCaul similarly voiced concerns about products made by ZTE and Huawei, another Chinese telecommunications firm, he urged the committee to vote to report the resolution unfavorably.

McCaul revealed that he wrote to DHS Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenImmigrant advocacy groups seek restraining order to block Trump asylum policy The Hill's Morning Report - Trump faces mounting challenges to emergency declaration 2,000 asylum seekers return home, decide to stay in Mexico: report MORE last month asking the department to provide an assessment of threats posed by ZTE and Huawei. He added that committee staff recently met with DHS officials who “reiterated that they’re not aware of any existing DHS contracts with ZTE or Huawei.” 

McCaul also announced that DHS, Department of Defense and FBI officials will brief members on the threats posed by ZTE and Huawei in a classified setting on June 13. 

“I plan to work really closely with you in aggressively pursuing our oversight responsibilities on this matter,” McCaul told Thompson. 

The committee voted 16-11 along party lines to report the resolution unfavorably out of the committee.

Trump’s effort to send a lifeline to ZTE comes amid efforts in Congress and his own administration to restrict ZTE’s presence in the federal government out of concern for national security. The House-passed defense policy bill, for instance, includes a provision that would bar the federal government from procuring technology produced by ZTE.

Meanwhile, the administration is said to be closing in on a deal to roll back sanctions on ZTE.