Opinion - Tech

The White House needs to clarify its position on Huawei

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump’s comments on Huawei on Monday, set aside those made by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin create a problematic situation for the White House’s stance against the company.
  • The White House needs to clarify its position on Huawei immediately, specifically whether American actions against the company fall under economic or national security concerns.
Trump to CNBC: I think we'll be leading in 5G shortly

President Donald Trump's comments on Huawei on Monday seem to conflict with statements made just hours earlier by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, creating a problematic situation for the White House's stance against the company.

Mnuchin, speaking to CNBC on Sunday from Japan, said that Washington's concerns about Huawei are "national security" issues separate from trade that will be "resolved one way or another."

Then, Monday morning, Trump called into CNBC's "Squawk Box" and said, "I do see it as a threat. At the same time it could be very well we do something with Huawei as part of trade negotiation with China. China wants to make a deal. They want to make a deal much more than I do."

Classified dangers, clarity needed

The White House needs to clarify its position on Huawei immediately — specifically whether American actions against the company fall under economic or national security concerns. Otherwise, the administration's moves could undermine years of strong assertions from the intelligence community that Huawei's equipment is too dangerous to the nation to run inside our borders.

Separate from past trade talks, U.S. officials have said that Huawei's potential involvement in U.S. national infrastructure is, itself, too risky ever to allow, making it especially problematic to say this seemingly intractable position could change for economic reasons.

The case against Huawei is made even more complicated because much of the intelligence backing up the executive branch's moves against the company is still private and classified and has never been made available to the public.

That case includes broad assertions that Huawei has direct ties to the Communist government in Beijing and that the company was established to create technical equipment capable of fulfilling China's spying aims. A well-known 2012 intelligence report outlined these allegations in broad, general terms, with few specifics. The information from that report is still widely used as the basis for allegations against Huawei today.

Meanwhile, Huawei has denied all of these accusations, insisting it is privately owned and not beholden to Beijing.

Why we need new facts now

Huawei's problems are now more important than ever as we get closer to a 5G-powered future and navigate an increasingly fraught relationship with China.

Since the December arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver, we've learned that the Department of Justice alleges Meng facilitated fraud by doing business with Iran and then lied to banks about the origins of the proceeds.

But the allegations do not involve spying, nor do they cover any specifics about the company's ties to the Chinese government.

Huawei issues are 'separate from trade': US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Another federal court case, involving Huawei's alleged theft of trade secrets from T-Mobile, was already adjudicated years ago in civil court. It describes an isolated conspiracy to copy a robot used for mobile device testing. No grand conspiracy there, either.

These cases don't support the idea that Huawei is the result of a decades-long conspiracy to create a China-sponsored, nationally driven, tech-based spy program that could undermine American infrastructure.

The 'it's obvious' argument

It's puzzling why the government or lawmakers haven't given us more specifics.

There are other "obvious" cases of cyber treachery for which the U.S. government has been able to tease out specifics for public consumption.The proof is in the sweeping hacking indictments we've seen in the past two years out of the Justice Department — starting with the 12 Russians identified as allegedly conspiring to influence the 2016 election.

Those allegations put an end to any speculation that Russia had not really attempted to influence the 2016 election. The conspiracy allegation in that document is clear and brightly lit, describing precisely how the Justice Department believes the hackers executed their plan, with the support of the Kremlin.

Another example: the June 2018 indictment of a North Korean cybercriminal named Park Jin Hyok. In this document, the FBI and partner investigators pinpointed backdoors driven by malicious software in technical equipment, and describe how Park allegedly colluded with his home government, even operating under the umbrella of a government-backed shell company.

The Justice Department has produced similarly stunning documents on Chinese and Iranian hackers. Many of these indictments draw clear lines between the sponsorship of the government and the espionage or theft activities of those accused. Similar additional facts would help illuminate why we are taking such strong, unprecedented action against Huawei.

The 'it's classified' argument

Writing off the vast majority of intelligence on Huawei and its alleged spying activities and government ties as "classified" would be acceptable if we weren't already in a "national emergency" — and if we hadn't been making these same assertions under the same umbrella for the better part of a decade.

Remember, the Russian hacking indictment above — including the full investigation — for the most part took place over the course of just two years. Americans who remember the 2002 Iraq-Niger yellowcake claims will understand that simply saying something is classified or adding a small sample of proof just doesn't have the heft that it used to.

The 'never Huawei' argument

Several government officials have made the argument publicly and privately to me that "proof" is not really the point — allowing the equipment at all is too big of a risk because of the nature of technology infrastructure.

According to this point of view, allowing a foreign power to produce critical technology that powers all of American infrastructure is too risky and future software updates to that equipment would present too massive an avenue for infection.

This is a pragmatic argument. It would be solid policy. If the White House is saying our dealings with China, especially around technology, are too fragile to allow a company from there to sell us the equipment that provides the spine of our power grids and water plants, then let's say that.

But that's not the argument the Trump administration, or any prior administration, has made. They have asserted that Huawei, specifically, has systematically conspired to both steal American companies' intellectual property and give themselves unlimited, global spying power, among other misdeeds.

These have been widely general allegations, spelled out over years, with very few commensurate facts to back them up.

That time has changed. The executive order and national emergency changed it, and the White House's wavering stance on why we need a national emergency continues to reinforce this. We need specifics — any specifics, more specifics — on what underlies the Huawei fears as soon as possible.

WATCH: Trump says Huawei issue could be part of a China trade deal

Trump: Huawei issue could be part of a China trade deal