Ex-NSA chief: Huawei spies for China, Snowden security leak 'most destructive' in U.S. history

Michael Hayden, who has headed both the CIA and NSA, says the media need to give government a chance to explain PRISM

China-based network hardware company Huawei poses an "unambiguous national security threat" to the United States, according to former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden in an interview with the Australian Financial Review.

Hayden, who is a retired four-star Air Force general, also deemed Edward Snowden's exposure of the PRISM program "the single most destructive leak of American security information in our history," adding that Americans will be far more comfortable with the nation's secretive surveillance programs "once the media gives us a proper opportunity to explain exactly what it is the U.S. intelligence community does for its people."

Hayden isn't the first U.S. official to raise doubt about Huawei's trustworthiness as a business partner. Late last year, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee released a damning report about Huawei (and ZTE), saying the companies posed a national security threat to the United States because of their potential to spy and steal data on behalf of the Chinese government. The committee also "strongly encouraged [U.S. companies] to consider the long-term security risks associated with doing business with [the company]" and advised "U.S. network providers and systems developers ... to seek other vendors for their projects."

The U.K. government has some misgivings about Huawei as well and is launching a review of the vetting process it uses for Huawei products. In particular, the U.K. government is upset that Huawei was able to sell networking products directly to major network operator BT without proper vetting. The company has a Cyber Security Evaluation Centre in the United Kingdom, but it is under direct control of Huawei; the U.K. wants to staff the evaluation team with employees from the British intelligence agency to head off any potential Chinese espionage using Huawei equipment.

But Hayden was more direct in accusing Huawei of spying for China: "Two or three years ago, Huawei was trying to establish a pretty significant footprint here in the United States. ... I reviewed Huawei's briefing paper, which said all the right things. ... But God did not make enough briefing slides on Huawei to convince me that having them involved in our critical communications infrastructure was going to be OK," Hayden said. "My conclusion was that, no, it is simply not acceptable for Huawei to be creating the backbone of the domestic telecommunications network in the United States, period."

AFR interviewer Christopher Joye asked Hayden point blank whether "it is reasonable to assume that hard evidence exists that Huawei has engaged in espionage on behalf of the Chinese state."

To that, Hayden replied, "Yes, that's right. And, at a minimum, Huawei would have shared with the Chinese state intimate and extensive knowledge of the foreign telecommunications systems it is involved with. I think that goes without saying. That's one reality."

Hayden also had some choice words about former NSA contractor Snowden. "He's certainly not a hero," said Hayden. "The word 'traitor' has a very narrowly defined legal meaning that he may not in the end quite meet. I personally think Snowden is a very troubled, narcissistic young man who has done a very, very bad thing."

Snowden, by Hayden's reckoning, leaked details about the PRISM program "because of his ideological embrace of transparency as a virtue. ... It is a little like the Boston bombers. The issue [in the Boston bombings case] is at what point does Islamic fundamentalism flip over and become a genuine national security threat?" Hayden said. "Likewise, at what point does a cultural tendency toward transparency flip [as in the Snowden case] over to become a deep threat inside your system? They are similar issues."

Whatever his motives, Snowden's leaks have already made the United States more insecure, according to Hayden. "The Snowden leaks have the potential, if not already the reality, to be the most single most destructive leak of American security information in our history," Hayden said. "Snowden is attempting to reveal the underlying architecture of the U.S. intelligence-gathering network. We've lost cups of water before. We've lost buckets of water. Yet this is a guy who is exposing the very plumbing that pipes the information. He's exposing the methods through which we access information."

Beyond criticizing Snowden for exposing PRISM, Hayden chastised the media for "[mangling] this story so badly that Americans don't quite understand what it is that their government is or is not doing."

"When the media gives us a proper opportunity to explain exactly what it is the U.S. intelligence community does for its people, then I think we can make Americans very comfortable," Hayden said.

This story, "Ex-NSA chief: Huawei spies for China, Snowden security leak 'most destructive' in U.S. history," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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