Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision
Lawmakers on Tuesday blasted the British government’s decision to allow controversial Chinese telecom firm Huawei to help build its 5G networks, warning that the decision could threaten the long-standing intelligence sharing agreement between the United States and United Kingdom.
“Here’s the sad truth: our special relationship is less special now that the U.K. has embraced the surveillance state commies at Huawei,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
“The Chinese Communist Party has infected Five Eyes with Huawei,” he added, referring to the intelligence sharing agreement which includes the U.S. and U.K., “right at a time when the U.S. and U.K. must be unified in order to meet the global security challenges of China’s resurgence.”
The U.K.’s National Security Council (NSC) decided to continue allowing the use of Huawei equipment in the “periphery” of its 5G networks, while blocking it in “core” networks central to national security.
But that decision was a sharp blow to the Trump administration, which had pressured the U.K. to cut the company out entirely from 5G networks and raised red flags about continued intelligence sharing between the two countries.
American officials have cited concerns that Huawei, which is one of the largest telecom equipment providers in the world, could serve as a source of intelligence for the Chinese government, and they have urged countries around the world to keep the company out of 5G networks.
A senior administration official at the White House told The Hill that the U.S. was “disappointed” by the decision of the British government.
“There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network,” the official said. “We look forward to working with the UK on a way forward that results in the exclusion of untrusted vendor components from 5G networks. We continue to urge all countries to carefully assess the long-term national security and economic impacts of allowing untrusted vendors access to important 5G network infrastructure.”
But on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers were more vocal in their criticism of the U.K.’s decision, and its repercussions for intelligence sharing and the “special relationship.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who, with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), sent a letter to UK NSC members on Monday begging them to vote to ban Huawei entirely, called for the U.S. director of national intelligence to conduct a review of U.S.-U.K. intelligence sharing.
“Allowing Huawei to build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War,” Cotton tweeted. “The short-term savings aren’t worth the long-term costs.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the co-chairman of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, said during an appearance on Hill.TV’s “Rising” program on Tuesday that the UK’s decision on Huawei could mean the U.S. will be forced to reexamine its long-standing and historically close intelligence sharing partnership with the U.K.
“It will force legislatures and members of the executive branch to fundamentally reexamine our intelligence-sharing partnership with the UK, and that would be incredibly regrettable because that relationship has paid dividends in recent years,” Gallagher said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a key critic of Huawei in the Senate, tweeted that it was a “bad decision by the UK and a bad trend from our European partners.”
Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said in a statement that the UK NSC’s decision was “terrible.”
“Allowing Huawei access to any part of your network—core or otherwise—is a recipe for disaster as even a non-core door is still a door to a critical communications network,” Rogers said. “I worry that by the time London realizes this, it will be too late to close the barn door and the digital horses will be in Beijing’s stables.”
In the U.K., British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tried to calm fears over the impact on intelligence sharing between the U.S. and the U.K. Reuters reported that Raab told lawmakers Tuesday that “how we construct our 5G and full fibre public telecoms networks has nothing to do with how we will share classified data,” and that “intelligence sharing will not be put at risk or would ever be put at risk by this government.”
But Raab’s words failed to assuage critics, with former Conservative Party Leader Iain Duncan Smith telling ITV News that it “beggars belief” that the U.K. would choose to allow Huawei equipment in 5G networks.
“We should be taking them out of the system, every one of our close allies across the world, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America, now we hear Czechoslovakia is doing it, even Vietnam does not want Huawei in,” Duncan Smith said.
The U.K. is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network along with the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Both Australia and New Zealand previously decided to ban Huawei equipment from their domestic mobile networks. The U.S. has taken steps to limit federal usage of Huawei equipment, and Canada has not yet made a decision.
The concern in Washington on Tuesday was bipartisan. “I am disappointed by the UK’s decision today, especially since the security risks are so well understood,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “But under current circumstances, I remain committed to working with the UK and other key allies to build more diverse and secure telecommunication options that provide competitive alternatives to Huawei.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) pointed to the Huawei decision as a symptom of American’s diminished status on the world stage.
“America has never been weaker. We have never had less influence,” Murphy tweeted. “Not even our closest ally Britain, with a Trump soulmate in Downing Street, listens to us anymore.”
The full impact on intelligence sharing between the U.K. and the U.S. is not yet known, with at least one key official cautioning that the Huawei decision may not be as detrimental as many believe it will be.
Christopher Painter, the former State Department cybersecurity coordinator, told The Hill on Tuesday that he “doubts it will substantially change intelligence sharing with the U.K.”
“They are too close and old a partner and we share information for our benefit as well as theirs,” Painter added. “There may be additional questions asked about how information will be protected but I don’t expect any real change.”
But ahead of the U.K.’s decision, Republican Reps. Jim Banks (Ind.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.) introduced legislation that would ban the U.S. from sharing intelligence with any countries that allow the use of Huawei equipment in their networks.
Both Banks and Cheney reacted strongly against Tuesday’s decision, with Banks saying in a statement that the U.K. “has made a colossal mistake” and potentially “damaged our ‘special relationship.’”