Just like the tip-off which led to the MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK, it was a simple telephone call to The Telegraph that started the political drama that has blown Whitehall, Westminster and the media ‘commentariat’ apart. Former Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, hotly denies leaking any details of the Government’s dealings with Huawei, but amid the uproar over the sacking we seem to have entirely lost sight of the real scandal it exposed.
If ever there was a case for leaking something – whoever was responsible – the Huawei telecoms scandal is it. This is a case that goes to the heart of the UK’s national interest: awarding a fat contract, with serious security implications, for the new 5G (fifth generation) high-speed advanced communications systems, to an unreconstructed Communist state. The UK is offering a potentially hostile government the chance to infiltrate our most sensitive national communications. Theresa May, against the advice of her senior defence and security Cabinet ministers, wants to hand over the development of Britain’s digital infrastructure – including sensitive intelligence traffic – to a company that is nothing less than a front for Chinese intelligence.
Much worse, the decision stinks of political corruption. It turns out that the three fat cats of Huawei in the UK – Lord Browne, Dame Helen Alexander and Sir Andrew Cahn – will all benefit financially from being hired by the company. Palms have been greased. Huawei has bought its way into Britain’s elite: all three have close links to the cosy Westminster and Whitehall political-financial cabal, as well as both Tory and Labour party leaders.
The main cheerleader lobbying for Huawei turns out to be a Tory MEP, Nirj Deva, who encourages Huawei to turn up in MEPs’ offices uninvited, handing out cards and invitations. ‘It’s unbelievable; full on lobbying …’ complained a Brussels insider.
There is no doubt that Huawei has serious form over collecting secret intelligence and mis-using its computer hardware.
The battle over the latest 5G technology is becoming a 21st-century arms race. These new systems are much quicker than the current networks, allowing for rapid data downloads and controlling the sophisticated AI robots and self-driving cars that will dominate our future.
The fear in Washington is that if China, through Huawei, can gain access to these networks, it will give the PRC the capability to attack and disrupt UK communications. There are already concerns over the networks being used for spying and surveillance, as well as Huawei handing over critical information about Western countries to the Chinese government
Vodafone recently revealed that Huawei had supplied it with computer hardware with secret ‘backdoors’ that allowed Huawei unauthorised access to the carrier’s communications network in Italy. Vodafone asked Huawei to fix the backdoors. Huawei said the problem was accidental, but the backdoors weren’t fixed the next time Vodafone checked.
These computer ‘backdoors’ are easy to understand. You can put anti-virus software on to your computer or smartphone to prevent anyone from accessing your data or spying on you. But if the hardware has been built to respond to its maker, then your ‘front of house’ software apps are worthless. The machine is nicking your information out of the backdoor and spying on everything you do or say without you realising. That’s what Huawei does.
Worse, Huawei works directly for the Chinese government. Last December their Chief Financial Officer, Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver. She was charged with covering up Huawei’s links to a firm that was secretly trying to sell equipment to Iran in defiance of US sanctions. She now faces extradition to America.
The arrest of Meng and calls for her extradition quickly involved officials in Beijing. What was a supposedly ordinary businesswoman’s arrest suddenly became an international incident. China issued a formal diplomatic protest and the official Xinhua news agency attacked Canadian PM Justin Trudeau for ‘letting this nasty thing happen’
Washington knows what is going on. ‘Communications now networks form the backbone of our society and underpin every aspect of modern life,’ said Garrett Marquis, the spokesman for the National Security Council. ‘The United States will ensure that our networks remain secure and reliable.’
The USA has urged its allies not to use Chinese equipment. Washington fears that Huawei’s equipment would enable China to spy on the USA or its allies and use cyber attacks to disrupt industries like power, transportation and manufacturing. Rob Joyce, a senior adviser at the US National Security Agency, warns that allowing Huawei to supply 5G technology was like handing China a ‘loaded gun’. The USA has even threatened to withdraw from cooperation with its allies if they install Huawei equipment on telecommunication networks. Australia quickly banned Huawei, citing the fact that Chinese law forces technology companies to hand over network data to help the Chinese government with ‘intelligence work.’
A recent study by London’s Royal United Services Institute said it would be ‘naive’ and ‘irresponsible’ to allow Huawei access to Britain’s 5G networks. But tin-eared, soon-to-be-replaced Prime Minister May thinks she knows better – or she has been got at. The big danger is that her decision is risking UK’s national security – and the country’s special relationship with the USA – because the Huawei scandal has already thrown Britain’s unique relationship with US intelligence into jeopardy
The USA means business. The State Department raised the stakes by threatening to stop sharing intelligence if the UK pushed ahead with Huawei’s involvement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns that America, which is the lead member of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing group, will refuse to share information with the UK if it decides to use Huawei technology in sensitive areas. Washington ‘would not be able to pool its findings with countries that decide to use Huawei equipment for fear it would not be secure.’
This development is a bombshell. To journalists, the ‘special relationship’ conjures up all kinds of ill-informed drivel. However, to professionals it means just two deadly serious things: intelligence and nuclear policy.
The ‘special relationship’ started in August 1941 with the Atlantic Charter, an agreement between Churchill and Roosevelt to share intelligence. Since then those intelligence links have become deeply entrenched.
The secret treaty was renewed by the BRUSA Agreement (1943) and the UKUSA Agreement (1946) between the UK and the USA. Since then, this alliance of intelligence operations has widened to include Australia, Canada and New Zealand, cooperating with the UK and the USA, mainly in signals intelligence, and known as the ‘Five Eyes.’
Britain ‘punches above its weight’ globally for two principal reasons: as a victor in 1945, plus its nuclear and intelligence power. That guarantees a seat at the UN Security Council. Take away access to global intelligence and that looks vulnerable. Britain gets access to the US Fort George G Meade’s above top-secret signals intelligence and shares its own sigint ‘take’ with the USA. Ironically a lot of that comes from the British Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus, with their extraordinary reach and propagation over the Middle East and Russian Federation. GCHQ officers are deeply embedded in the US NSA signals intelligence agency and vice-versa.
The old Joint Air Reconnaissance Centre, now the Defence Intelligence Fusion Centre (DIFC) in Cambridgeshire, gets free access to much of the top secret US satellite product. MI6 shares its human intelligence with the CIA at Langley and MI5 relies heavily on counter-jihadi terrorist intelligence from the FBI, plus a number of US intelligence agencies. The brutal truth is that the UK needs access to US intelligence far more that the US needs to share its own product with Britian. To defy the White House over intelligence is the equivalent of chucking the crown jewels into the Wash.
And for what? To save the Treasury a few bob and to enrich Mrs May’s sleazy political chums? Whoever leaked the Huawei scandal was doing Britons a favour.
‘Intelligence’ can have several meanings: this one is madness.