Former Florida congressman Cliff Stearns once spearheaded Congress's response to the risks that plague the nation's information infrastructure, using his influence to warn Americans about the "increased possibility of a devastating cyberattack." Now, he is among the growing number of former U.S. cyber and national security officials who have worked for a Chinese tech giant widely seen as the leading cybersecurity threat in the world.
Huawei, China's leading provider of 5G infrastructure, claims to be a private company that is independent from the Chinese government. But intelligence officials across the globe believe that the company can serve as a conduit for Chinese espionage, which has prompted American allies such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia to restrict or prohibit the firm from operating within their borders. In the United States, Huawei was indicted in January 2019 and American companies were prohibited from doing business with the firm.
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In response, Huawei has launched a two-pronged, multimillion-dollar offensive to assuage the concerns of policymakers and the public, hiring an army of D.C. insiders like Stearns, whose work with Huawei spanned from 2014 to 2018, to convince Congress and the White House to relax sanctions and pouring more than $1 million into advertorials in major outlets, including the New York Times.
Experts say that existing laws prohibit Huawei employees and lobbyists from divulging explicitly classified information to their employers. But Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, warned that companies like Huawei hire former officials explicitly because they offer unparalleled access to stakeholders and information.
"Hiring former senior officials as lobbyists provides access to decision-makers and information—two things that go a long way in navigating swampy government agencies and getting results that benefit their clients," Amey said. "Huawei is spending millions each quarter to protect business opportunities here, and influence peddlers are more than happy to cash in."
Huawei did not respond to a request for comment.
Huawei's lobbying campaign is similar to those conducted by several other Chinese tech firms that are also considered national security threats or human rights violators. ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, has also spent roughly $270,000 since July 2019 to hire several former U.S. officials as lobbyists even as concerns mount about its relationship with the Chinese government. The Chinese telecommunications company ZTE was removed from a federal sanction list after spending millions on a lobbying campaign spearheaded by former Obama administration official Angela Simpson and former Democratic Senate aide Peter Ruffo. Neither Simpson nor Ruffo responded to a request for comment.
Stearns's lobbying firm, APCO Worldwide LLC, helped to advance Huawei's priorities on the Hill beginning in 2010, pushing to expand the company's access to American telecommunications networks. APCO's relationship with Huawei ended in 2019, but the tech giant has cultivated new relationships with D.C. insiders and former national security officials.
They include Samir Jain, an attorney who served as the senior director for cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. Huawei's retention of Jain and his law firm, Jones Day, in March 2019 was widely criticized as an example of D.C. swampiness. Jones Day has brought in at least $60,000 from Huawei since then, according to data from ProPublica. The company has also retained as its chief security officer Andy Purdy, who ran the Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) in the George W. Bush administration. During Purdy's tenure, the NCSD was responsible for assessing cybersecurity threats.
Purdy said in an email that he does not see Huawei as a threat to U.S. national security and said there is nothing inappropriate about his employment at the beleaguered tech firm. Jain and Stearns did not respond to requests for comment.
Purdy makes frequent appearances in the U.S. media to argue Huawei's case. He spoke to Fox Business in February, for example, to deny allegations that the Chinese company could create a "backdoor" to assist in regime espionage.
Experts say these former officials are either purposefully shielding themselves from damning information about the Chinese tech giant or actively misleading the lawmakers and news reporters they are working to persuade.
"They're all informed and smart enough to know about the threat that Huawei constitutes, and yet they still do the work. And so these people are either willfully ignorant of the threat that Huawei and more broadly the Chinese government constitute, or they're just deceptive," said Klon Kitchen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former national security adviser to Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.). "And it's hard to argue that any of the individuals we're talking about could reasonably be thought to be ignorant."