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Rubio Warns DeVos: Tech Partnerships May Open Door to China Espionage

Customers shop at a Huawei store in china

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the lawmakers on the bipartisan team that has been fighting to block President Trump's lifeline to Chinese telecom giant ZTE, warned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that university partnerships with Huawei can similarly pose a national security threat.

Rubio and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) noted in a letter to DeVos that Huawei Technologies, "a 'national champion' of the People’s Republic of China, has formed a series of research partnerships with over 50 universities in the United States that threaten national security."

Huawei describes the Huawei Innovation Research Program (HIRP) as providing "funding opportunities to leading universities and research institutes conducting innovative research in communication technology, computer sciences, engineering, and related fields.”

"We believe these partnerships may pose a significant threat to national security and this threat demands your attention and oversight," Rubio and Banks wrote, adding that myriad threats "require a whole-of-government solution to a whole-of-society challenge directed by the Chinese Communist Party."

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2018 that he was “deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don't share our values to gain positions of power" as it "provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.”

Rubio and Banks cited Wray and other officials, and attached for DeVos' review an unclassified chart provided by the National Intelligence Council detailing how research partnerships with U.S. universities are key in “China’s Toolkit for Foreign Technology Acquisition.”

"We urge that you promptly request a complete and classified briefing by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Director of National Intelligence on Huawei and Chinese technology acquisition modalities in general (as the technology transfer problem set is bigger than Huawei). We further urge that the Department of Education immediately request (and require) information from the U.S. universities involved in any partnership with Huawei, especially those receiving any federal research funding (including Department of Defense funding) to gather information related to whether any such funding is involved in a Huawei partnership, and whether any research personnel (including Chinese nationals who may be involved in a so-called 'Talents' program) are involved in these efforts," they wrote. "Lastly, we request you immediately convene a senior-level working group to understand how the People’s Republic of China attempts to gather U.S. technology on U.S. university and college campuses and to develop recommendations (especially for those institutions that receive any kind of federal funding) for protecting the U.S. technology advantage."

"Looking forward, we ask that your Department work together with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Community to protect U.S. national security."

On Monday, the Senate passed 85-10 the National Defense Authorization Act that included an amendment blocking Trump from granting relief to ZTE.