Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Walks to the Senate Subway after a vote in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.
Bill Clark | CQ Appeal, Inc. | Getty Images
Three Republican senators have jointly spoken out against a candidate from the Biden government as legal advisor in the office of the director of the National Intelligence Service for having worked for Chinese tech giant Huawei in the past.
Of the members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, four voted against Christopher Fonzone’s nomination, including Senators Ben Sasse from Nebraska, Marco Rubio from Florida and Tom Cotton from Arkansas.
“You cannot work for Huawei and then for the director of the National Intelligence Service,” Sasse said in a statement released on Wednesday.
The U.S. Director of National Intelligence is the head of the U.S. intelligence community and serves as the primary advisor to the President’s Secret Service, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council.
Fonzone served as Legal Adviser to the National Security Council during President Barack Obama’s second term. In November 2017, he joined Sidley Austin law firm, which also lobbies, and worked for the Chinese Department of Commerce and Huawei – albeit less than 50 billable hours, according to a questionnaire he had filled out for the committee.
When Huawei was under US supervision in 2019, at least three Sidley Austin attorneys were registered to lobby on behalf of the Chinese company, according to the National Law Journal.
Huawei did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
I’ve done a de minimis amount of work, less than 10 hours, explaining how U.S. administrative law works. I made it available to my partners and … I haven’t taken any follow-up action since.
Candidate for General Counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Fonzone said working for Huawei would not affect its ability to provide objective legal advice to the ODNI.
“The firm asked me to investigate how US law works. I did a de minimis amount of work, less than 10 hours, explaining how US administrative law works. I have it made available to my partners and … I haven’t had any follow-up since then, “he said at a hearing on May 18.
Senator Sasse argued that Fonzone “knows full well that the Chinese Communist Party is not interested in obeying the law” but in “circumventing” it.
‘Conflict of interest’
Rubio said in the joint statement that Fonzone’s work on behalf of Huawei and China’s Ministry of Commerce in 2018 “raises serious questions about its verdict and decision-making”.
“Any candidate who is ready for a major national security post and is from a law firm or other entity that works for the Chinese Communist Party or a state-run Chinese entity like Huawei needs extra scrutiny,” said Rubio, who also Vice is chairman of the Senate Committee on Secret Services.
The United States must take consistent steps to combat the CCP and not place its employees and contractors in positions of power with access to sensitive information.
During the May 18 hearing, Senator Sasse asked Fonzone if he shared concerns about Huawei.
“I am very aware of what (National Intelligence Director Avril Haines) said about Huawei and what that committee said about Huawei,” replied Fonzone. “If confirmed, I would be guided by the intelligence services’ views on Huawei. That would support my analysis.”
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton described Huawei as “the key to the Chinese Communist Party’s military and espionage apparatus” and claimed that Fonzone “refused to avoid such a conflict of interest” if confirmed.
“The United States must take consistent steps to combat the CCP and not place its employees and contractors in positions of power with access to sensitive information,” he said.
As CNBC previously reported, national security laws in China would require Huawei or any other Chinese organization or individual to share the information requested by the Beijing government as part of its intelligence work.
Huawei has made a strong claim that it would never share customer data, and Huawei told CNBC in 2019 that it was never asked to.