The Biden administration ignored an explicit warning from the Pentagon about “cybersecurity concerns” tied to Chinese-made drones and drone parts, proceeding with the purchase of such materials from a top Chinese company that the Trump administration blacklisted for national security reasons.
A review of internal government procurement documents by The Washington Times found that the Secret Service went ahead with buying eight commercial surveillance drones manufactured by the Chinese drone-making giant Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) after the Pentagon issued its warning in July.
The Secret Service has declined to comment on the purchases, but the contract has triggered mounting scrutiny from Republican lawmakers over the extent to which the agency has run afoul of restrictions on U.S. government use of equipment from certain Chinese companies — even if that equipment is available for purchase by U.S. citizens via e-commerce companies such as Amazon.
It also has triggered concern among government watchdogs. Purchasing blacklisted technology from China is a “potential weak point” for any agency of the federal government, said Donald Maye, head of operations at the video surveillance research company IPVM, which obtained the government procurement documents showing the Secret Service paid $12,792 for the DJI drones on July 26.
The transaction, which the Department of Homeland Security approved, was made three days after the Pentagon circulated a statement specifically warning that DJI drones “pose potential threats to national security” and stressing that the U.S. military has banned the purchases and use of such materials since 2018.
“The fact that DoD was forthcoming in July to reaffirm that they posed a national security threat, I think, was quite telling, which is why I found it pretty alarming that the United States Secret Service had purchased several drones from DJI,” Mr. Maye said in an interview on Tuesday.
When contacted by The Times on Tuesday, the Secret Service declined to comment on how it uses the DJI drones or why it did not heed the Defense Department’s warning about the Chinese company. Justine M. Whelan, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement via email that “in order to maintain operational security, the U.S. Secret Service does not discuss operational means and methods.”
The Secret Service has not been alone in seeking to acquire blacklisted Chinese surveillance drones over the past year. Federal procurement documents show the FBI sought DJI drones about the same time the Secret Service made its purchases.
The bureau initially circulated a justification document in April that said its evidence response team wanted to acquire 19 DJI drones “in order to train new Remote Pilots.” FBI officials subsequently sent DJI brand retailers a request for quotation, or RFQ, to buy the equipment.
The bureau then made a $59,671 purchase from Adorama Inc., which sells DJI products via the internet, according to a purchase order published on a federal government website. The order, which predated the Pentagon warning about DJI by roughly a week, does not specifically indicate what the FBI purchased.
An FBI official told The Times on the condition of anonymity Tuesday that the bureau “cannot comment on specific operational equipment procured by the FBI, but can assure the public that the FBI, as a general matter, takes all necessary measures to ensure the security and safety of its operations.”
Speculation about why the agencies have purchased DJI products in the Biden era despite Trump administration bans and restrictions has been swirling since Axios first reported the procurements in September. DJI’s Shenzhen, China-based parent dominates the world market for commercial drones, with an estimated 70% of the market.
Engaged in a fierce trade war with China, the Trump administration took on individual Chinese companies that the Biden administration has not always kept up. The Justice Department recently essentially settled a case against a top executive for technology giant Huawei who was detained for years in Canada fighting a U.S. extradition order. A proposal under Mr. Trump to force popular Chinese app TikTok to shut down or sell its U.S. operations has languished under Mr. Biden.
The revelations prompted Rep. Jim Banks, Indiana Republican, to write Attorney General Merrick B. Garland with questions about the Secret Service and FBI’s actions, according to reporting by The Washington Free Beacon. The Beacon noted that Mr. Banks has been pushing for a ban on U.S. government use of DJI drones for more than a year.
After the congressman wrote a letter in July 2020 to then-Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department published a Policy on Funding Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The October 2020 policy effectively bans the department from buying drones from foreign entities deemed to pose threats to the United States.
Other prominent Republicans have pounced on news of the drone purchases as evidence that Mr. Biden is weak on China. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told Axios last month that “there is absolutely no excuse for any government agency to use DJI drones.”
Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who served in the Trump administration, challenged the Biden administration’s attitude toward China on Fox News and spotlighted the purchase of the drones.
“The Biden administration, through the FBI and Secret Service, purchased from DJI, which is a company that the Trump administration actually flagged in 2017,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “Department of Homeland Security said that that specific company was using its drones for the purpose of providing information on U.S. critical infrastructure to the Chinese Communist Party. And that was moderate confidence that that was taking place, which is why our administration took all of those out and basically advanced a policy where we wouldn’t use that Chinese technology.”
Indeed, in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security assessed with “moderate confidence” that DJI was providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government. In December 2020, meanwhile, the Trump administration added DJI to the Commerce Department’s “Entity List,” which generally blocks Americans from investing in foreign enterprises deemed to posed national security threats and places restrictions on certain foreign people and companies.
After Mr. Biden took office this year, White House officials said the administration was expanding — not reducing — the scope of the Trump-era restrictions. But in June, the Federal Register indicated that the administration had “modif[ied]” the restrictions relating to DJI, although the specific nature of modification was not made clear.
The federal government has since pursued the DJI products despite growing generalized concern about hacks and ransomware attacks that have targeted America’s critical infrastructure.
The Department of Defense warned in July that its position on DJI had not changed. “The Department of Defense (DOD) position is that systems produced by Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) pose potential threats to national security,” the department said in a July 23 statement. “Existing DOD policy and practices associated with the use of these systems by U.S. government entities and forces with U.S. military services remain unchanged contrary to any written reports not approved for release by the DOD.”
After the Department of Defense issued its warning, federal procurement documents show the Secret Service purchased DJI Mavic 2 Pro and DJI Phantom 4 Pro drones. The drones are not exotic: Both the Mavic and Phantom systems can be purchased on Amazon.com for about $1,000 and $2,500, respectively, and are small enough to carry in a suitcase.
GSA Advantage, the federal government’s “online shopping superstore,” includes a listing for a DJI drone from a contractor, although it displays the country of origin as Mexico, not China.
Some sources claim that U.S. agencies may be acquiring the DJI drones to analyze them and learn their capabilities. It is not uncommon for law enforcement and security entities to procure technology in support of simulating threats for testing and training purposes, one law enforcement official told The Times on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Maye expressed skepticism Tuesday that the federal government would make public the procurement of technology it intended to test for countermeasures, given the information America’s adversaries could learn from publicly available procurement documentation.
“If you look in the actual solicitation document, you can see they list the justification, and it’s, I think from my view, quite clear that it’s not for research purposes or for countermeasures,” he said.
If the FBI and Secret Service purchased blacklisted Chinese drones to develop countermeasures, Mr. Maye said, they have made America’s adversaries aware of precisely which technology is now a part of their arsenal.
“If you understand cybersecurity and suppose you are a nefarious actor who has the ability to exploit these products, you can rest assured that that person, if they want to exploit it and take advantage of the Secret Service’s ability to operate, they’re going to try to do it,” he said.
Links to China
DJI spokesperson Adam Lisberg said DJI drones and products are built to protect customer data and users do not have to share data with third parties such as foreign governments.
“Our cybersecurity protocols are built on keeping private data in our customers’ hands and away from the internet, and they have been repeatedly validated by both U.S. government testers and independent cybersecurity experts,” Mr. Lisberg said in a statement. “We don’t know why some people persist in falsely claiming otherwise, but they have never presented solid evidence to back up their theories, and the professionals who use drones understand that their data is protected and that DJI products remain the most reliable, powerful and efficient drones for critical jobs.”
But a published March 2020 analysis by cybersecurity firm River Loop Security of one DJI product, a photo- and video-editing app called DJI Mimo, made “several troubling discoveries.” Among them is the product’s reliance on analytics tools by another Chinese company, MobTech, “which openly cooperates with the Chinese government.”
Much of DJI Mimo’s data, the firm reported in its analysis, “is sent unencrypted to MobTech, and thus is easily visible to any entity positioned to view the user’s network traffic. For instance, the Chinese government, which operates the Golden Shield Project (a.k.a. The Great Firewall of China), could intercept all of this data. Based on what we could see, the user is not informed and is unable to prevent this data transmission.”
Mr. Banks’ letter to the attorney general, meanwhile, expressed concern that DJI drones could be used to spy on Mr. Biden. DroneXL, a blog covering drone technology, said a drone observed in June 2020 by CNN reporter Jim Acosta flying over the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House resembled a DJI drone.