Huawei Executive Arrested in US Government’s Continued Crackdown Against Sanctions Violations

Intelligence

Meng Wanzhou is the chief financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, and the daughter of its founder. Thanks to the Canadian government’s cooperation, she’s about to become a long-term guest of the United States Government. At the request of the U.S., Canadian authorities arrested Meng in Vancouver last Saturday when she was changing flights. While the arrest certainly complicates the tense relationship between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China, it is a bold move that is sure to pay dividends for U.S. intelligence agencies in the months and years to come.

Some are speculating that the arrest stems from Huawei’s suspected theft of Western intellectual property. While no officials have publicly stated the reasons for Meng’s arrest, I suspect it has to do with the company’s rampant and flagrant violations of sanctions imposed against rogue states, particularly Iran. If this is so, it illustrates a wider point: our allies might grouse about the heavy-handed nature of the current administration’s policies. They might think that the president is acting too rashly – but they’re falling into line.

Iran Nuclear Deal Sanctions play a part

When the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the so-called “Iran Nuclear Deal”—in May, much of the world was aghast that the U.S. would decide to go it alone when everyone (except maybe Israel) publicly proclaimed that the arrangement was working well. Iran was not, they argued, continuing on the path to building its own nuclear weapon. The deal was working.

But the deal also gave Iran a boatload (actually, a plane-load) of cash from its previously frozen U.S. accounts that it had been using to support terror operations and other rogue states throughout the Middle East and beyond. The U.S. was not only determined to do what it could to stop that activity, it also wanted to make sure that the Iran was cut-off from other trade, including high technology.

Violations of Iranian sanctions almost led to the destruction of another Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. Tough measures taken against ZTE in May resulted in at least temporary assurances from the Chinese government that the company, and others like Huawei, would abide by U.S. sanctions. It’s becoming clear that the Chinese have not followed-through on their promises.

But more interesting is the fact that Canada is continuing to assist the U.S. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to portray himself as the anti-Trump. He’s young and hip and humorous and photogenic. But now, when it really counts, he’s doing exactly as he’s been told to do. Canada is under no obligation to arrest Chinese executives to extradite them to the U.S. If Trudeau was as tough as he’d like us to believe he is, he could have easily refused the U.S. request, claiming there was insufficient evidence for Meng’s arrest.

But he didn’t. Not only did his government acquiesce to Meng’s arrest, National Security Adviser John Bolton admitted to knowing about the arrest ahead of time. This all but confirms that the arrest came at the U.S. government’s “request” (or, perhaps more accurately, direction).

Intelligence opportunity

This arrest will also give the U.S. intelligence community the opportunity to learn more about exactly what kinds of “backdoors” the Chinese government has installed in Huawei’s products. Meng has the right to remain silent when speaking to U.S. law enforcement personnel. If she asks for her lawyer—which, let’s face it, is a given—there’s nothing else the U.S. Attorney’s Office can do about it.

But when it comes to intelligence interrogation, there’s not much she can do about it. As long as there’s a “firewall” between the intel and law enforcement interrogators, the spies don’t have to give her access to her lawyers. They’re gathering info for national security operations, not for prosecution. The lawyers cannot use anything she tells intelligence operatives, as the saying goes, against her in trial.

While this arrest endangers the 90-day truce in the brewing trade war that the president and Chinese premier Xi Jinping called in Argentina last week, Meng represents the largest bargaining chip the country has had in a long time. I will be watching to see what concessions the administration is able to extract from China, as well as what information it is able to extract from Meng herself.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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