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Republicans press Biden administration on use of Chinese comms equipment near US military installations

<i>CNN</i><br/>Republicans are pressing the Biden administration on the use of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment near sensitive US military installations.
Republicans are pressing the Biden administration on the use of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment near sensitive US military installations.

By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

Top Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are pressing the Biden administration on the use of Chinese-made telecommunications equipment near sensitive US military installations, in a signal of what the powerful committee may pursue if the GOP claims the House in November.

Rep. James Comer, the ranking member, and Rep. Glenn Grothman, the top Republican on the panel’s national security subcommittee, are demanding a classified briefing from the Pentagon about the military’s network security and its ability to protect against foreign espionage threats that the equipment may pose. The committee is also requesting a briefing from the Federal Communications Commission on its as-yet incomplete initiative to remove the equipment, according to letters the two agencies sent Tuesday and exclusively obtained by CNN.

CNN has previously reported that a sprawling FBI investigation dating back to the Obama administration ultimately determined the Huawei-made equipment atop cell towers near US military bases in the rural Midwest was capable of capturing and disrupting some highly restricted Defense Department communications — including those used by US Strategic Command, which oversees the country’s nuclear weapons.

Huawei equipment is used by many smaller telecommunications companies across the country and in 2020, Congress approved $1.9 billion to fund an FCC program to “rip and replace” it amid fears that it could be used to spy on Americans. But two years later, none of that equipment has been removed and rural telecom companies are still waiting for federal reimbursement money.

“Committee Republicans are concerned that Huawei cellular equipment near military installations could pose a serious threat to Department network and operational security,” the two lawmakers wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “It is troubling that Huawei equipment has not been removed from US networks, raising questions about whether it may have access to Department networks and provide the CCP with a significant informational advantage.”

The lawmakers are requesting both briefings no later than October 25.

It’s unclear if the intelligence community determined whether any data was actually intercepted and sent back to Beijing from these towers. Sources familiar with the issue say that from a technical standpoint, it’s incredibly difficult to prove a given package of data was stolen and sent overseas.

The Chinese government strongly denies any efforts to spy on the US. Huawei, in a statement to CNN, also denied that its equipment is capable of operating in any communications spectrum allocated to the Defense Department.

But top intelligence officials have publicly warned that China is exploiting a variety of different tools to gather data and intelligence and exert influence on a wide variety of targets within the United States.

“The services continue to collect on our classified information,” Michael Orlando, the acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Agency, said at an intelligence conference in Georgia earlier this month. “But we’ve also seen them target every government agency that doesn’t have classified information. We are seeing them target every sector of our economy.”

“We’re seeing a whole host of tools that [China] has used as a whole of government effort to acquire our talent, our technology and our data,” he said.

How to address the perceived risk posed by Huawei technology has bedeviled administrations of both parties for years.

After the results of the counterintelligence investigation were briefed to the Trump White House in 2019, the FCC ordered that telecom companies who receive federal subsidies to provide cell service to remote areas – companies like the provider around the US military assets in the Midwest – must “rip and replace” their Huawei and ZTE equipment.

But for three years now, that equipment has remained in place — frustrating some national security hawks who say it poses an unacceptable risk.

“The fact that Huawei communications equipment remains in the United States is a threat to our national security since we know the CCP uses this company’s technology for massive surveillance operations,” Comer said in a statement. “Congress has provided resources to remove Huawei infrastructure from the cellular network and the FCC must act quickly to address this national security nightmare.”

According to the FCC and some of the companies subject to “rip and replace,” the problem is funding: Since it was launched in 2019, the program’s estimated cost has ballooned to $5.6 billion, up from initial estimates of around $2 billion.

Even as the rip and replace program struggles to allocate adequate reimbursement funds, the commission is now poised to ban all future telecom equipment produced by Huawei and ZTE from the American market in an expanding crackdown against perceived national security risks from China, CNN has previously reported.

A vote to approve the measure is expected before mid-November, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Asked for comment, an FCC official confirmed the proposal’s existence and told CNN that, if approved, it would update agency rules surrounding its list of providers deemed to be unacceptable national security risks.

All electronics that can emit radio frequencies must undergo an FCC authorization process before they can be sold in the US. The long-established process is intended to keep devices out of the US market that may produce harmful signal interference. But under the draft order the FCC would, for the first time, apply a national security interest to the equipment authorization process, the person said.

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