Biden Intel Nominee Grilled for Huawei Work

Christopher Fonzone worked at top Huawei lobbying firm

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May 19, 2021

A Biden administration nominee for a senior intelligence post admitted to doing contract work for Chinese tech giant Huawei while employed at the company's top lobbying firm.

Christopher Fonzone, the nominee for the director of national intelligence's general counsel position, would join the DNI office from Sidley Austin LLP, one of Huawei's top lobbying firms in the beltway. Fonzone told Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) he did work for the Chinese tech company—widely considered a national security threat—while employed by the firm.

"My firm asked if I would help address some questions on how U.S. administrative law works," Fonzone told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. "I did a very small amount of analysis with respect to that question [for Huawei], less than 10 hours."

In 2019, Huawei disclosed it had hired Sidley Austin to handle a portfolio ranging from export controls to national security matters. Huawei did not detail the extent of the relationship with Sidley Austin but said three lawyers from the firm would register to lobby for the Chinese tech giant. Analysis from Nikkei Asia at the time indicated that Huawei hired the law firm to evade the Trump administration's bid to sanction the company for its ties to the Chinese Communist Party and military.

Sasse said that if confirmed, Fonzone's work for Huawei undermines America's ability to stand up to China.

"This is straightforward: You can get a Senate-confirmed national security position or you can work for the Chinese government and its national champions like Huawei, but you can't do both. Mr. Fonzone has earned praise for his national security experience—but that experience should have led him to politely decline an assignment to help Huawei," Sasse said in a statement. "America's message to the world should be clear: Technological ties with the Chinese Communist Party are a national security risk. That message is undermined if we begin confirming high-ranking national security personnel who spent time in the private sector helping the CCP or those companies."

Through April 2021, Huawei has retained the services of Sidley Austin. The firm is representing embattled Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada in 2018 for fraud, in connection to a U.S. federal investigation. Department of Justice prosecutors have accused the firm of sharing sensitive information with the executive. Since January 2020, the Department of Justice has worked to extradite Wanzhou to the United States for financial crimes. 

Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.

Fonzone has worked in the firm's privacy and cybersecurity shop since 2017, with some of his work focusing on matters related to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The federal government uses CFIUS to flag investments from foreign countries that could potentially threaten national security. On multiple occasions since 2008, CFIUS has flagged attempted investments by Huawei.

Neither Fonzone nor Sidley Austin responded to requests for comment.

Fonzone's relationship to the foreign tech giant could draw further scrutiny from the Senate. Senate Select Intelligence Committee chairman Mark Warner (D., Va.) has introduced legislation to beat Huawei in the 21st century telecommunications race and has cited China's financial support for the tech company as a national security challenge. Fonzone would likely need to disclose the nature of his work at Sidley Austin to the Senate committee before his nomination hearing. DNI Avril Haines testified before Congress in April to discuss the grave nature of the China tech challenge, saying that Beijing now contests American leadership on multiple fronts of the tech race.

Countries worldwide have sounded the alarm about Huawei as a tool of the Chinese Communist Party's repressive domestic and international espionage programs. A Dutch newspaper said Huawei may have been able to spy on 6.5 million users of a Netherlands mobile phone network since 2010, including on Chinese dissidents and calls made by the then Dutch prime minister. Facial recognition software tested and developed by Huawei also could be used to identify Uyghur Muslims as a means to further China's oppressive crackdown on the ethnic minority group.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.