Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei Technologies sought to gain access to National Security Agency computer networks this year in a failed cyberespionage attack, U.S. officials said.
The company, which the U.S. government has linked to China’s military, sought to penetrate NSA networks through a U.S. defense contractor, officials familiar with intelligence reports said of the attempted cyberattack.
The attempted network penetration was discussed in mid-August during a meeting of an interagency security group called G-FIRST, for Government Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams.
The identity of the defense contractor could not be learned.
A Department of Homeland Security official declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing defense contractor issues. He referred questions to the Pentagon. The Homeland Security Department coordinates the G-FIRST group.
NSA spokesman Mike Halbig said: “We have nothing for you on this allegation.”
“While Huawei is challenged to respond to The Washington Times’ vague inquiry, the suggestion that a globally-proven and trusted $40 billion vender of commercial telecommunications gear would risk its very existence by attempting, in some unspecified fashion, to somehow ‘access’ a government network through some unidentified third party, would seem nothing short of absurd,” Huawei spokesman Bill Plummer told Inside the Ring in a statement.
The National Security Agency is the government’s premier cyberwarfare and cyberintelligence-gathering agency, and analysts say it is one of the highest priority targets for China’s aggressive cyberespionage efforts.
The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military stated in 2010 that Huawei and two other Chinese telecommunications companies “maintain close ties to the [People’s Liberation Army] and collaborate on R&D.”
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence warned in a 2012 report that the U.S. government and private U.S. companies should not use Huawei equipment because of cyberespionage concerns.
Disclosure of the Huawei cyberpenetration attempt follows the release of NSA documents leaked by renegade contractor Edward Snowden revealing that the agency conducted cyberespionage operations against Huawei.
Briefing slides labeled “top-secret” and made public in March showed that the NSA has been able to exploit weaknesses in Huawei computer equipment to spy on so-called hard-target countries, including China, Pakistan and Iran.
“Many of our targets communicate over Huawei produced products. We want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products — we also want to ensure that we retain access to these communication lines, etc.,” one NSA slide states.
The slide also noted that Huawei’s widespread infrastructure “will provide the PRC with [signals intelligence] capabilities and enable them to perform denial of service type attacks.”
U.S. officials also said the Commerce Department is investigating accusations that Huawei provided U.S.-origin modems, routers and other network equipment to Cuba in violation of U.S. sanctions on the communist-ruled island state.
CIA secrets in Benghazi
The CIA is closely watching the unfolding federal prosecution of the ringleader of the Sept. 12, 2012, terrorist attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi over concerns that the case will lead to the disclosure of one of the enduring secrets of the Benghazi affair: a covert CIA operation in the city.
The superseding indictment released Tuesday adds charges to the case against Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Benghazi leader of the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Shariah, for the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.
According to the new indictment, the terrorist plot was organized because Mr. Khattala thought the diplomatic compound was being used to gather intelligence, a practice he regarded as illegal.
After 20 armed men attacked the compound and burned it, the intruders stole computers revealing the location of the CIA annex in Benghazi. The group then went to an Ansar al-Shariah camp in Benghazi and attacked the annex on Sept. 12.
Count 15 of the new indictment specifies that the terrorists destroyed the annex and during the raid killed CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
By including the annex in the indictment, the Justice Department faces the prospect of having to disclose the CIA activities that took place in Benghazi — if the case goes to trial.
Legal observers say convictions of the new charges could result in the death penalty, so prosecutors may be calculating that Mr. Khattala will seek a plea bargain that will avoid a trial and thus forestall damaging intelligence disclosures about the CIA operations.
Avoiding an open-court explanation of the CIA operation would be nearly impossible during a trial because the indictment states that Mr. Khattala’s primary motivation for the attack was countering U.S. intelligence activities in Benghazi.
A former senior intelligence official close to the CIA said the annex was operating under a March 2011 presidential intelligence “finding” that authorized the agency to conduct a covert action program to train and arm Libyans opposing strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
The former official said investigators looking into the Benghazi affair likely will discover that some of the weapons used in the Sept. 11 attack were supplied to rebels during the CIA operation.
Despite numerous U.S. government inquiries on Benghazi, details of the CIA operation there have not been disclosed.
During a Senate hearing on Jan. 23, 2013, Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton whether the U.S. government used the annex for the “procuring of weapons, transfer of weapons, buying, selling, anyhow transferring weapons to Turkey out of Libya.” Mrs. Clinton told him to ask the agency that operated the annex.
U.S.-Chinese security ties erode
The Obama administration has made military and other security-related exchanges with China a high priority and a centerpiece of Pentagon foreign activities.
But a forthcoming report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission reveals that security relations between Washington and Beijing have deteriorated amid dangerous Chinese encounters at sea and air with U.S. ships and surveillance aircraft.
“With a few exceptions, the U.S.-China security relationship deteriorated in 2014,” the late draft of the annual commission report states. “The rhetoric of a ‘new type of major-country relationship’ embraced by both countries in 2013, has not had a warming effect on bilateral ties and mutual suspicion and distrust persist.”
The problem is both countries’ conflicting visions for Asia. While the United States seeks a stable and prosperous region, China wants to push out the United States and set up a “security architecture” led by China with the United States playing a limited role.
Specifically, the report linked declining ties to China’s “destabilizing, unilateral, and coercive actions in the South and East China Seas, and China’s willingness to engage the United States in confrontational and dangerous air and maritime encounters.”
Those encounters included the near collision in the South China Sea in December of a Chinese amphibious ship that stopped within a few hundred feet of the bow of the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser. Several dangerous aerial intercepts of U.S. surveillance aircraft also took place this year, including the near collision in August between a Chinese Su-27 and a P-8 where the Chinese jet did a barrel roll over the surveillance jet and came within 30 feet of its wing.
Other provocative Chinese actions included the imposition of an air defense zone over the East China Sea and the movement of an oil rig into Vietnam’s claimed maritime waters.
The commission report said it was not clear whether the Chinese military provocations were ordered by local commanders or by higher-level officials in Beijing.
“Regardless, the [People’s Liberation Army] has demonstrated a pattern of provocative, aggressive, and dangerous behavior aimed at the U.S. military in maritime East Asia that creates the risk of miscalculation, escalation, and loss of life,” the report states.
The commission attributed China’s increasing anti-U.S. posture to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who “appears willing to cause a much higher level of tension in the bilateral relationship than past administrations have.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.