Three Republican members of Congress are urging Defense Secretary Ash Carter to investigate the security risks to American facilities and military forces in South Korea posed by a Chinese telecommunications company’s role in a new wireless network in the country.
“The United States cannot risk having its sensitive or classified information compromised by foreign Chinese spyware that could provide a means for Chinese authorities to access American data,” Rep. Steve Chabot, Sen. Mark Kirk and Sen. John Cornyn stated in the Dec. 22 letter. Mr. Chabot chairs the House Small Business Committee. Mr. Kirk lost his re-election race in Illinois in November, but Mr. Cornyn of Texas is the Senate Republican whip.
The concerns are focused on Huawei Technologies, which has been linked to the Chinese military and intelligence services by the U.S. government.
According to the lawmakers, South Korea’s government is in “active discussions” with Huawei for a contract to build a nationwide 5G — for fifth generation — wireless network.
“Huawei has been under intense scrutiny from the U.S. government given its close ties to the Chinese government,” the lawmakers said, noting a 2012 House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence probe that concluded that “Huawei may have deliberately incorporated vulnerabilities in its equipment that could be exploited by the Chinese military and security services,” according to the letter.
Additionally, the federal government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which monitors foreign acquisitions of U.S. assets, was urged by the committee to ban Huawei from government contracts.
“The findings of this report have led to a de facto ban on Huawei’s participation in major telecommunications projects in the United States and Australia,” the members said.
Huawei’s role in the South Korean network also raises cybersecurity concerns. The network will support “highly sensitive areas” such as U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic facilities, including an advanced telecommunications network in Jeju-do, an island off the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, the congressmen said.
The lawmakers warned that allowing Huawei to take part in the network “presents potential security concerns about China’s increasing network penetration across sensitive areas of the East China Sea.”
The new 5G network also could give China access to thousands of internet-linked devices called the “Internet of Things” in the region. “As such U.S. military, intelligence, diplomatic or civilian personnel that connect to a Huawei-backed 5G network could have their data compromised,” they stated.
The letter also quoted former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, who warned that Huawei in the past has “shared with the Chinese state intimate and extensive knowledge of foreign telecommunications systems it is involved with.” The congressmen asked Mr. Carter to “investigate the cyber security implications of Huawei’s potential participation in the South Korea’s 5G network” and to raise the security concerns in discussions with South Korean leaders.
Huawei spokesman William Plummer said the company is a leading provider of telecommunications infrastructure equipment that is “world-proven and trusted.” Huawei gear is used in over 170 markets, including Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin and North America, he said.
“These are demonstrable facts,” he said. “These are not rumors, innuendo, hearsay, or any other type of groundless suggestions that cannot and have never been proven.”
New counter-disinformation center
The fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill signed into law by President Obama last week contains a provision calling for a new U.S. government program to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation. The Global Engagement Center will be located in the State Department and must be established in the next six months.
“The purpose of the center shall be to lead, synchronize and coordinate efforts of the federal government to recognize, understand, expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests,” the law states. The center will seek to integrate efforts to track and evaluate disinformation, analyze foreign narratives, and disseminate “fact-based” narratives aimed at countering the lies and deception.
The center will have an operating budget of up to $60 million for 2017.
The legislation also will allow the center to provide funds to civil society groups, media content providers, nongovernmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies, and academic institutions. The funds will be used to refute disinformation and media manipulation.
The center, however, will be temporary and close down on Dec. 23, 2024.
The center will replace some functions of the defunct U.S. Information Agency, which was shut down in 1999. Its functions were transferred to the State Department and critics say its effectiveness has been limited by diplomats more concerned with not upsetting U.S. foreign relations than countering foreign lies.
The new center was the result of efforts by Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat.
“Our enemies are using foreign propaganda and disinformation against us and our allies, and so far the U.S. government has been asleep at the wheel,” Mr. Portman said in a statement. “But today, the United States has taken a critical step towards confronting the extensive, and destabilizing, foreign propaganda and disinformation operations being waged against us by our enemies overseas.”
The bill follows aggressive Russian influence activities that have included cyberattacks against U.S. political figures and what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was a covert program designed to affect the outcome of the presidential election.
Mr. Obama has ordered an intelligence review of the Russian influence operation. The Washington Post reported this week that the president may soon impose sanctions on Russia for the election interference.
Europe braced for returning terrorists
A State Department security report is warning that large numbers of Europeans who traveled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State terror group are set to return to their home countries, posing an increased terrorism threat.
“Over the past five years, an unprecedented number of Europeans have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight or train with terrorist groups operating in the conflict zone,” the Dec. 22 report said. “However, since many remain in the theater their eventual return may prolong the heightened risk environment which has come to be known as Western Europe’s ‘new normal.’”
A total of 21 of the 50 Islamist attacks in Western Europe since 1994 involved Europeans who received terror training abroad.
“The 21 attacks include most of the high-profile, mass-casualty Islamist terrorist attacks that Western Europe has experienced since Islamist terrorism first emerged in the region approximately two decades ago, including the 2004 bombings in Madrid (191 killed); the 2005 bombings in London (52 killed); the 2015 attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris (12 killed); the November 2015 attacks in Paris (132 killed); and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels (32 killed).”
The truck attack in Nice, France in July that killed 86 was carried out by an Islamist with no foreign training or fighting experience.
Foreign training “suggests that combat and military training received overseas may increase the lethality of perpetrators,” the report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council said.
Syria and Iraq were the main foreign terrorist training grounds with up to 7,000 Europeans traveling there since 2014.
The report said European governments are concerned that progress in attacking the Islamic State in its Syrian and Iraqi bases will force more European terrorists back to the continent. Some 2,100 European fighters already have returned home, and to date three attacks were linked to these returning Islamic State terrorists.
European authorities have claimed that asylum seekers from the Middle East have not been not used for infiltration by terrorists. But the State Department said “there is evidence that some have, including members of the cell behind the November 13 attacks in Paris.”
Asylum seekers in Germany also conducted terrorist attacks, including a July 18 ax attack in Wurzburg, a July 24 suicide bombing in Ansbach, and the December 19 truck ramming of a Christmas market in the heart of Berlin.
The danger of attacks in Europe will require increased security vigilance “as the heightened ‘new normal’ risk is expected to persist for the time being,” the report concluded.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.