Senators want Commerce to help U.S. firms ditch ZTE


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A bipartisan trio of senators has asked the Department of Commerce to clarify that U.S. companies are welcome to remove products from their networks made by controversial Chinese telecom company ZTE.

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, along with Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, say they strongly support the department’s April “denial order” barring ZTE from buying U.S. technology components for seven years.

However, the senators are concerned that the order is ambiguous to the point of hindering the removal of ZTE gear from U.S. infrastructure. On Monday, they wrote Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross asking his department to issue guidance and waivers to help U.S. companies clear their networks of ZTE software and hardware.

U.S. officials have long warned that the Chinese government could leverage technology built by ZTE and fellow Chinese telecom Huawei to spy on Americans – accusations the companies deny.

The Commerce Department issued the denial order after ZTE violated an agreement that penalized it for flouting U.S. sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The order forced ZTE, a top maker of smartphones, to halt major business operations.

The senators’ pressure on Commerce comes as the Trump administration has tried to persuade lawmakers to drop their opposition to a U.S.-China trade deal that would revive ZTE’s access to U.S. suppliers if the company pays a large fine, sets up a compliance board, and fires senior executives. The proposed deal drew bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill, with Cotton, Rubio, and Van Hollen co-sponsoring a provision blocking the deal that passed the Senate last week.

The senators say the order’s prohibition on “servicing” ZTE equipment “has created uncertainty” over whether U.S. telecom operators can replace that equipment with products from other suppliers. The sternly worded letter calls Commerce’s alleged “reluctance” to clarify the denial order “patently unjust” to customers and “profoundly unfair” to suppliers that have done no wrong in the ZTE saga.

Rubio told CyberScoop last week that U.S. officials are warning American tech companies about the risk from ZTE through classified briefings, but that the companies have prioritized market access over security concerns.

“[I]t is clear that Chinese state-directed telecommunications companies like ZTE and Huawei are used by the Chinese government and Communist Party for espionage and intellectual property theft, and therefore pose a direct threat to the national security, people, and economy of the United States,” the senators wrote.

You can read the full letter below:

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Chris Van Hollen, Commerce Department, espionage, Huawei, marco rubio, supply chain security, tom cotton, Wilbur Ross, ZTE