For years, Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei have backed projects to install their equipment near U.S. military installations and critical infrastructure. According to a new report by CNN, federal investigators who have reviewed these projects believe such telecommunications equipment could intercept or even block out critical strategic communications like those used to control the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Federal officials have been investigating Chinese land purchases near critical defense infrastructure for years. According to multiple current and former officials and FBI agents who spoke with CNN, the equipment sold by Huawei for use in ostensibly civilian projects could also tap into the highly restricted airwaves being used by key U.S. military organizations like the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which manages the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“This gets into some of the most sensitive things we do,” one former FBI official told CNN. “It would impact our ability for essentially command and control with the nuclear triad. That goes into the ‘BFD’ category. If it is possible for that to be disrupted, then that is a very bad day.”
The proliferation of Chinese telecommunications equipment around the U.S. complicates efforts to protect sensitive national security infrastructure.
Huawei has been installing its equipment in key U.S. locations since at least the early 2010s. Huawei has secured numerous contracts along stretches of Interstate 25 and traffic corridors that connect parts of Nebraska, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming — an area of the country that is heavily populated with nuclear missile silos.
In late 2011, Huawei signed a contract to provide 3G communications equipment for Viaero — a major communications provider for Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming. Just over a decade later, Huawei has installed its equipment on Viaero’s entire fleet of around 1,000 cell towers.
In addition to Huawei’s telecommunications equipment, Viaero has also installed high-definition surveillance cameras on its towers to provide 24/7 live-streamed weather and traffic footage. Investigators told CNN they believe this footage also provided key insights into U.S. military activities in the area. Three sources familiar with the matter said investigations live-streams from these towers were being viewed in China.
Viaero CEO Frank DiRico told CNN it never occurred to him the cameras could be a national security risk.
“I was never told to remove the equipment or to make any changes,” DiRico said.
DiRico said he first learned of government concerns about Huawei equipment from newspaper articles rather than any briefing by the FBI or other national security officials.
DiRico said he doesn’t question new calls from the government to remove the Huawei equipment he already has in place, but said he’s skeptical Huawei is currently able to exploit its equipment or the live-stream cameras on the cell towers.
Huawei has denied its equipment can be used for the espionage or sabotage purposes some federal officials described to CNN.
“All of our products imported to the U.S. have been tested and certified by the FCC before being deployed there,” Huawei said in its statement to CNN. “Our equipment only operates on the spectrum allocated by the FCC for commercial use. This means it cannot access any spectrum allocated to the [U.S. Department of Defense].”
“For more than 30 years, Huawei has maintained a proven track record in cyber security and we have never been involved in any malicious cyber security incidents,” the statement said.
While Huawei has repeatedly denied any nefarious behavior, one former official told CNN that even the existence of a high-level investigation into Huawei has “turned some doves into hawks” on China policy.
By 2019, the White House was briefed on the installation of Huawei equipment on cell towers along I-25 and throughout the intermountain west. By that point, U.S. counterintelligence officials had been scouring for tools of potential Chinese spies and saboteurs throughout the country for some time.
While FBI officials mainly described investigations focused around I-25 and the surrounding traffic corridors in the American midwest and intermountain west, one Chinese project may have even tried to capture or disrupt critical communications coming out of Washington D.C.
In 2017, the Chinese government proposed a $100 million garden at the National Arboretum in D.C. While the project attracted local officials with the prospect of a potential new tourist attraction, investigators told CNN they saw numerous warning signs. A 70-foot tall Pagoda that would have served as a major focal point of the new garden would have been placed at one of the highest vantage points in all of D.C., potentially allowing it to intercept tons of communications. Investigators saw another warning sign about that garden project in the fact that its Chinese backers wanted to ship the parts in diplomatic pouches, which are excluded from inspections by U.S. customs officials.
Federal officials who reviewed the proposed Chinese garden proposal for the National Arboretum ultimately stopped the project before construction could begin.
While the federal government is more aware of these security vulnerabilities, much of the risky Chinese-made telecommunications equipment still needs to be replaced.
The effort to remove and replace Huawei equipment around the country could cost about $4 billion, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could only cover a fraction of the costs for the companies impacted.