Late last week, British media reported the details of a particularly tense phone call between President Trump and UK PM Boris Johnson. During the call, Trump effectively chewed out Johnson over the UK's decision to allow Huawei equipment to be used during the construction of "non-core" segments of the country's 5G network
Though Johnson tried to play down the significance of the decision, there's no question that he had willingly risked a serious break in his relationship with Trump and Washington. We suspect Trump was so enraged because he has frequently bragged about striking a "big, beautiful" trade deal with Johnson. As the Vindman twins can attest, Trump doesn't tolerate embarrassment.
It's possible Johnson might be willing to abandon Huawei, but such a decision is not without cost. Using Huawei's equipment would allow telecom companies to save money building the network, as parts by rivals Ericsson and Nokia are far more expensive than equipment made in China. Perhaps Johnson is simply waiting to cash in this chit.
For whatever reason, the Trump Administration isn't giving up on its pressure campaign. Instead, it appears to be cranking up the pressure.
To wit: On Tuesday, WSJ published an expansive report tying together what appear to be the broad strokes of the threat that Huawei poses to national security.
In other words, Britain tried to call America's bluff, but President Trump and the administration are coming through with the goods.
Not that there was ever really any doubt. Dutch intelligence, Microsoft, American intelligence and others have uncovered and shared evidence that Huawei exploited so-called 'backdoors' in their systems. We've noted the results of these investigations repeatedly over the years.
Now, it appears the administration has sanctioned a leak to smear Huawei and further underscore the Pentagon's warnings to America's allies that Huawei represents a serious national security threat.
"Highly classified" US intelligence that was shared with European allies last year included details of Huawei's capabilities, including exploring how it covertly infiltrates mobile-phone networks via "back doors" designed for use by local law enforcement. Typically, governments ask that all telecoms systems include a "back door" to allow law enforcement access. But in the equipment Huawei builds, the Huawei apparently Huawei has reportedly had this capability for more than a decade, according to WSJ.
US officials say Huawei has built equipment that secretly preserves the manufacturer’s ability to access networks through these interfaces without the carriers’ knowledge. The officials didn’t provide details of where they believe Huawei is able access networks. Other manufacturers don’t have the same ability, they said.
"We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world," said national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
"Huawei does not disclose this covert access to its local customers, or the host nation national-security agencies," another senior U.S. official said.
Per WSJ, US officials stopped short of detailing explicit examples of Chinese spies or state-sponsored hackers exploiting these backdoors, and wouldn't say if they had any evidence of this nature.
In response to Washington's allegations, Huawei has claimed it would never cooperate with the Chinese government to spy on foreign customers. Few take the company seriously, especially considering its founder's association with the PLA.
The intelligence cited by WSJ has been shared with American allies for months, and some of it was recently declassified to allow more flexibility regarding who can see it (though some of the material remains "highly classified"). This is presumably how it got in the hands of two WSJ reporters.
Washington has been sharing the intelligence with allies for months, and declassified part of it last week to allow for wider distribution, according to U.S. officials. It hasn’t yet been publicly disclosed or reported.
Though it's also possible that Matthew Pottinger, the Trump Administration's point man on Asia and a former Wall Street Journal reporter (coincidence?), handed the scoop to his former employer, possibly via an old friend who's still an editor over at WSJ's Midtown newsroom.
Pottinger has apparently been tasked with leading the effort to convince America's European allies to listen to the administration's warnings, and put their bitterness about Trump's aggressive trade policies and opposition to the EU as an entity aside.
Matthew Pottinger, a U.S. deputy national security adviser, traveled to Berlin in late December to share the intelligence with senior officials in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, according to U.S. and German officials.
Foreign capitals have had to weigh Huawei’s alleged threat to national security against what many carrier executives say is its high-quality gear and competitive pricing.
If the UK is a lost cause (and that's not a sure thing yet), the Trump administration's next major flashpoint in the campaign against Huawei is coming during the next few weeks, when the German legislature is expected to vote on a bill that would give Huawei full access to Germany's 5G market in exchange for additional "security guarantees." Beijing and Huawei have promised clients the company would undertake a "pledge" not to aid the Chinese government in surveillance. Some European leaders appear inclined to take Beijing's word for it and roll the dice to cut costs.
Perhaps they're using their disdain for Trump to justify allowing Chinese state actors unfettered access to their civilian and military communications networks.