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US accuses China's Huawei of stealing secrets, violating Iran sanctions

US accuses China's Huawei of stealing secrets, violating Iran sanctions
Image Credit: Flickr

The Trump Administration has accused Chinese telecom giant Huawei of stealing trade secrets and violating US sanctions on Iran, just days before its crucial trade negotiations with the country later this week. However, the White House Monday denied that there was any link between the two.

The US Department of Justice in its 13-count indictment charged Huawei and its chief financial officer (CFO) Meng Wanzhou with financial fraud. Meng, the daughter of the company's founder, is currently out on bail in Canada. Her case has sparked a major crisis between Ottawa and Beijing, with Washington in the middle.

The indictment also accuses Huawei, its CFO, and other employees to deceive numerous global financial institutions and the US government regarding Huawei's business activities in Iran. "Today we are announcing that we are bringing criminal charges against telecommunications giant Huawei and its associates for nearly two dozen alleged crimes" Acting Attorney General Matthew G Whitaker said Monday.

"As I told Chinese officials in August, China must hold its citizens and Chinese companies accountable for complying with the law," he said. Another 10-count indictment in Seattle, charged Huawei Device Co with theft of trade secrets, seven counts of wire fraud, and one count of obstruction of justice.

According to the indictment, in 2012 Huawei began a concerted effort to steal information about a phone-testing robot dubbed "Tappy" of Washington based T-Mobile USA. In an effort to build their own robot to test phones, Huawei engineers allegedly violated confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements with T-Mobile by secretly taking photos of "Tappy," measuring it, and even stealing a piece of it so that they could try to replicate it in China, the indictment said.

The indictment alleges that Huawei was offering bonuses to employees who succeeded in stealing confidential information from other companies. Huawei "intentionally" conspired to steal the intellectual property of an American company in an attempt to undermine the free and fair global marketplace, said FBI Director Wray.

"To the detriment of American ingenuity, Huawei continually disregarded the laws of the United States in the hopes of gaining an unfair economic advantage. As the volume of these charges prove, the FBI will not tolerate corrupt businesses that violate the laws that allow American companies and the United States to thrive," he said. Huawei and its Chief Financial Officer broke the US law and have engaged in a fraudulent financial scheme that is detrimental to the security of the United States, said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

"They willfully conducted millions of dollars in transactions that were in direct violation of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, and such behaviour will not be tolerated," she said. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross alleged that for years, Chinese firms have broken the US export laws and undermined sanctions, often using the US financial systems to facilitate their illegal activities.

"This will end. The Trump Administration continues to be tougher on those who violate our export control laws than any administration in history," Ross said. "This indictment shines a bright light on Huawei's flagrant abuse of the law – especially its efforts to steal valuable intellectual property from T-Mobile to gain unfair advantage in the global marketplace," said First Assistant US Attorney Annette L Hayes of the Western District of Washington.

After T-Mobile discovered and interrupted these criminal activities, and then threatened to sue, Huawei produced a report falsely claiming that the theft was the work of rogue actors within the company and not a concerted effort by Huawei corporate entities in the US and China, the indictment said. Another grand jury in New York returned an indictment alleging 13 additional crimes committed by Huawei, its CFO, its affiliate in Iran, and one of its subsidiaries here in the US. The criminal activity alleged in the indictment goes back at least 10 years and goes all the way to the top of the company.

Beginning in 2007, Huawei employees lied about Huawei's relationship to a company in Iran called Skycom, falsely asserting it was not an affiliate of it. Huawei relied on its global banking relationships for banking services that included processing US-dollar transactions through the United States. US laws generally prohibited the banks from processing transactions related to Iran through the US, it said.

Relying on the repeated misrepresentations by Huawei, these banks continued their banking relationships with Huawei. One bank cleared more than USD 100 million worth of Skycom-related transactions through the US between 2010 and 2014, it said. Applauding the Trump Administration, Senator Mark Warner, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, urged the US to make China's rampant IP theft a top priority in ongoing trade negotiations

"There is ample evidence to suggest that no major Chinese company is independent of the Chinese government and Communist Party – and Huawei, which China's government and military tout as a 'national champion,' is no exception," Warner said. "It has been clear for some time that Huawei poses a threat to our national security, and I applaud the Trump Administration for taking steps to finally hold the company accountable," he added.

(With inputs from agencies.)

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