Yesterday, in advance of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to London, Bruce Newsome wrote of America’s consternation at Britain’s ignoring its warning about allowing Huawei access to the UK’s cyber infrastructure. Today he looks back at the history of Huawei’s links with the UK and its encouragement by British politicians and officialdom.
THE Huawei scandal has been a long time coming. Huawei started selling software to British telecommunications companies in 2000. It has been supplying hardware since 2003. Within years, the US went public with warnings about Huawei’s links with Chinese espionage, so Tony Blair is the first prime minister to blame for not controlling the risks.
Here’s an irony: in May 2010, David Cameron entered No 10 after criticising Tony Blair’s highly personal, centralised and opaque decision-making. Cameron established a National Security Council (NSC) and a National Security Adviser, but the NSC brought more of the government’s decision-making into a secret forum that is dominated by the Prime Minister and his/her favoured appointees.
Here’s a second irony: while Cameron criticised Blair’s unmeritorious appointments and the incumbency of Blair’s appointees, the NSC displays plenty of incumbency from 2010 to 2019. Cameron’s most favoured appointee was Theresa May, who served as Home Secretary throughout his premiership. When she succeeded as PM, May promoted a favourite from her time as Home Secretary to become National Security Adviser (Mark Sedwill); thence she appointed him simultaneously Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service. He is capable of seeking more authorities for himself, such as to argue with the then Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, about who has ultimate authority over defence!
The National Security Council’s top civil servant for cyber security remains the same person that Cameron appointed in 2011, Derek Smith, who previously had served as a press officer. In 2012, he told a technology magazine that the government had no concerns about Huawei. I’ve seen no evidence that he’s changed his mind.
Here’s a third irony: while Cameron claimed to improve national security after Tony Blair’s administration, Cameron and his cronies became enablers of Huawei. Cameron came into office after security flaws had been found in Huawei’s software and hardware. In December 2010, Cameron’s government and Huawei – to their credit – jointly established the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre at Banbury, Oxfordshire, to monitor Huawei’s products.
To its shame, Cameron’s government then allowed several civil servants to switch employers. In January 2011, Sir Andrew Cahn resigned from Cameron’s Trade and Investment Department in order to chair Huawei’s new British advisory board. Months later, the civil service’s chief information officer, John Suffolk – who had opened the centre at Banbury – asked Cameron for clearance to join Huawei UK. Cameron agreed, subject to a standard condition that he should not lobby or work for government for at least two years.
That was the same year that competitors from America to Australia revealed backdoors in Huawei’s servers, through which Huawei China could capture foreign traffic. Huawei Australia hired Australia’s former foreign minister Alexander Downer to lobby on its behalf. Nevertheless, in March 2012, Australia banned Huawei from its national cyber infrastructure.
Yet, in September 2012, Cameron and Huawei’s founder met to confirm Huawei UK’s expansion, on Huawei’s promise to spend £1.3billion on operations and procurement in Britain over five years. Cameron justified the deal partly as confirmation of Britain’s openness to China.
In October 2012, the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security expressed concerns about links between Huawei and China’s military, but the Cabinet Office deemed Huawei no threat. In June 2013, the same committee reported that Huawei’s employees were inspecting Huawei’s hardware, instead of civil servants from GCHQ (the government’s cyber espionage and security agency). Cameron’s administration offered no immediate response, but committed to one of those long and unnecessary reviews for which British government has become infamous over the last 20 years.
In December 2013, following more foreign revelations of Huawei’s insecurity, Cameron defended his deal with Huawei, but refused to commit to further monitoring. Instead he said: ‘We also have a very good way of defending ourselves in terms of cyber security. I think we’re one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of the action we’re taking on cyber security, and I’ve made sure we’ve put extra money into it.’ Then why did he need Huawei at all?
Also in December 2013, his government’s review of Huawei’s centre at Banbury finally reported, 14 months after the Parliamentary Committee had prompted it. The report recommended that GCHQ should chair the selection of Huawei employees for the centre. How amazing that the government wasn’t already monitoring whom Huawei sent to the centre.
Months later, Cameron’s administration belatedly established a new board to oversee what Banbury was supposed to be doing, with representatives from two of Huawei’s competitors (Vodafone and BT, both of which have removed Huawei’s hardware from their networks since their first procurement in 2005) but also representatives from Huawei.
Huawei reinvested in its lobbying. In 2014, the government asked Huawei UK’s chief executive to be quoted in a brochure for potential foreign investors that ‘the British government is very helpful to Huawei’. In 2015, Cameron’s Chancellor, George Osborne, visited China, promising that Britain would act as China’s ‘best partner in the West’.
Also in 2015, Huawei UK appointed to head its board Lord Browne, the former chair of BP, who was ennobled by Tony Blair’s administration and served David Cameron too. At the same time, it raised Sir Andrew Cahn and Dame Helen Alexander, formerly leader of the Economist Group and Confederation of British Industry (now deceased) to be independent non-executive directors.
Cameron resigned as PM in June 2016, following the popular vote for Brexit and against his campaign to remain in the EU. In 2017, he started to raise $1billion (£765million) for a fund to invest in China. In October 2017, Cameron met May’s Chancellor Philip Hammond to discuss it. In December 2017, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments approved Cameron to act as an interlocutor between the British and Chinese governments. He was not allowed to lobby without official consent until two years after he stepped down as PM, ie June 2018. By late 2018, Cameron was so vigorous in this mission that hacks quipped that his ‘courting of Beijing – not Brexit – could prove to be his most toxic legacy’. He could not relax, since the fund fell behind schedule: on the day of Gavin Williamson’s sacking, it emerged that the UK-China Fund has not completed its first round of fund-raising.
Cameron’s favourite civil servants remain involved on Huawei’s board and executive suite. For instance, John Suffolk, Cameron’s former chief information officee, is Huawei UK’s senior vice president for global security and privacy, and also deputy chair of the centre at Banbury. In March, GCHQ reported that the centre found hundreds of vulnerabilities in Huawei’s products during 2018 and concluded that Huawei represented ‘significant risk’ for British users. Naturally, experts like myself bet that the British government would use this report as the final justification for an ‘internal’ decision against Huawei’s involvement in 5G (internal would look better than appearing to bow to US pressure). However, on 23 April, May’s NSC chose Huawei for Britain’s 5G.
On that same day, Suffolk was speaking at a conference organised by Huawei, to assert that Huawei UK ‘stands naked’ in front of officials at Banbury and that there is ‘no such thing as a zero-risk [internet] connected business . . . So let’s be realistic.’ David Cameron is also understood to have met Gavin Williamson that day.
Yes, let’s be realistic: May’s government has chosen – in opposition to the rest of the Five Eyes alliance – in favour of Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G, while her government was being lobbied by the May administration’s predecessors who are now employed by Huawei or lobbying for more Chinese investment. Yes, May has put Chinese investment before British security, but so did her predecessors.