Former head of CIA: Huawei engaged in espionage for Chinese state

Former CIA chief Michael Hayden accused the Chinese telecom company Huawei of colluding with the Chinese government.

Gary Cameron/ Reuters/ File
General Michael Hayden is pictured in his office in Washington in May 2013. The former CIA director accused Chinese telecom company Huawei of colluding with the Chinese government.

Hard evidence exists that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has engaged in espionage on behalf of the Chinese state, according to the former director of the CIA.

“At a minimum, Huawei would have shared with the Chinese state intimate, and extensive knowledge of the foreign telecommunications systems it is involved with,” says General Michael Hayden in an exclusive interview the Australian Financial Review that was published on Friday.

Mr. Hayden served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009 and the National Security Agency from 1995 to 2005.

Huawei responded, calling Hayden’s comments “tired, unsubstantiated, defamatory remarks,” according to a statement that Huawei global cyber security officer John Suffolk e-mailed to Reuters.

“Our customers have the right to know what these unsubstantiated concerns are,” Mr. Suffolk wrote, calling on Hayden and other critics to present hard evidence along with their grievances. “It’s time to put up, or shut up."

Huawei is one of the world’s largest telecom companies. The company is a supplier of equipment including routers and Ethernet cords, and also hosts cloud storage.

"Industrial espionage by the Chinese has probably now become the core issue in the Sino-American relationship," says Hayden. "It is not an irritant. It is not a peripheral issue." Huawei, he says, is an example of one of these industrial actors. 

Hayden openly admits that the US "[steals] other countries' secrets," but, he says, the key difference between Chinese spying and US spying is the intent. The Chinese "steal secrets to make [their] citizens rich," he says. 

During his interview, Hayden says the burden of proof falls on Huawei to show that the company does not work in collusion with the Chinese government.

“There’s no transparency around who appoints the board of directors or controls the ownership of the business. And there’s no independent Chinese government oversight committee that could give us continuing confidence that Huawei ... would not do what they promised not to do,” Hayden says.

In 2011, the US Commerce Department blocked a bid from Huawei to build a national emergency wireless network, citing concerns about the company’s ties to the Chinese government. This prompted Huawei to publish an open letter to the US government denying security concerns, and requesting an investigation into the government’s claims.

Last year, the US House Committee on Intelligence released an investigative report that found explanations of the relationship between the telecom company and the Chinese government to be unsatisfactory.

Huawei founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei was part of the People’s Liberation Army as well as a former military engineer.

Mr. Zhengfei denied that Huawei agreed to conduct espionage on behalf of Chinese security agents. “We don’t do this. We definitely say no to such topics,” Zhengfei said in an interview with New Zealand media outlets in May. An excerpted version of the interview was published on a blog maintained by Scott Skyes, the Head of International Media Affairs for Huawei.

Huawei was also excluded from bidding for a contract with Australia’s broadband network in 2012.

In the United Kingdom, Huawei has supplied British Telecom with equipment since 2005. On Thursday, Britain’s national security advisor announced that a review will be launched of Huawai’s services in the country. The company has a cyber-security evaluation center, but recent concerns have arisen that Huawei’s equipment could be used by Beijing to spy on the United States, according to the Guardian

During Hadyen's interview, the former CIA director recalls reviewing Huawei's briefing papers several years ago, when the company was trying to firmly establish itself in the United States. The briefs "said all the right things," Hayden recalls. 

"But God did not make enough briefing slides on Huawei to convince me that having them involved in our critical communications infrastructure was going to be okay." 

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