Defence secretary Gavin Williamson has been sacked in disgrace after an investigation found he was the source of last week’s leak of National Security Council (NSC) discussions about the inclusion of Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G mobile networks, and may have lied about doing so in an attempt to throw investigators off the scent.
The leak to the Daily Telegraph revealed that prime minister Theresa May had taken the decision to permit the UK’s mobile operators, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, to incorporate Huawei equipment into non-core – meaning transmission elements, such as antennas – of their 5G mobile networks.
Given that discussions taking place at the NSC are bound by the Official Secrets Act, which all present – including May and Williamson – will have signed, this prompted an urgent investigation by the cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill.
Following the leak, Williamson seemingly attempted to cover his tracks, issuing a statement that claimed neither he nor his team had “divulged information from the National Security Council”. Williamson also attempted to pin the blame for the leak on Cabinet Office civil servants.
In a letter to Williamson, May said the defence secretary had undertaken to comply with Sedwill’s investigation, but she was concerned by the manner in which he had done so.
“Your conduct has not been of the same standard as others,” wrote May. “In our meeting this evening, I put to you the latest information from the investigation, which provides compelling evidence suggesting your responsibility for the unauthorised disclosure. No other, credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified.
“It is vital that I have full confidence in the members of my Cabinet and of the National Security Council. The gravity of this issue alone, and its ramifications for the operation of the NSC and the UK’s national interest, warrants the serious steps we have taken, and an equally serious response.
“It is therefore with great sadness that I have concluded that I can no longer have full confidence in you as secretary of state for defence and a minister in my Cabinet, and asked you to leave Her Majesty’s government,” wrote May.
Williamson, however, has continued to maintain his innocence. Although it is understood he acknowledged speaking to the Daily Telegraph reporter who first broke the story on the day of the leak, he insisted he did not divulge any information about Huawei.
Speaking to Sky News, Williamson said he believed that Sedwill was conducting a vendetta against him, and swore on the lives of his children that the allegations were untrue.
In a subsequent statement, he said: “I strenuously deny that I was in any way involved in this leak and I am confident that a thorough and formal inquiry would have vindicated my position.
“I appreciate you offering me the option to resign, but to resign would have been to accept that I, my civil servants, my military advisers or my staff were responsible: this was not the case.”
Back in February 2019, Williamson drew condemnation from both Beijing and Westminster after he threatened to deploy swarms of ‘network-enabled’ drones to disrupt the air defences of countries such as China and Russia, and suggested that the Royal Navy send its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to shore up British interests in the South China Sea, where China has unilaterally and controversially asserted highly dubious territorial claims.
His posturing directly caused the cancellation of talks between chancellor Philip Hammond and the Chinese government.
Impending decision on Huawei in UK’s 5G networks
The apparent end of Williamson’s political career comes as tensions over the use of Huawei in critical national infrastructure within the UK reach fever pitch.
Alongside home secretary Sajid Javid, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, international trade secretary Liam Fox, and international development secretary Penny Mordaunt, who has now been elevated to the post of defence secretary, Williamson was among a number of Huawei’s detractors who say that the firm could very easily be made to create backdoors within its equipment at the behest of the Chinese government to give China’s intelligence services access to the networks of foreign countries.
This is something that Huawei categorically denies ever having done, and senior figures from within the business have gone on record to say it would never knowingly allow the Chinese government to target the infrastructure of the UK, or any other country, in such a way because the fall-out would devastate its business.
The US has already enacted a ban on Huawei, and Australia, Japan and Taiwan have followed suit. Canada and New Zealand are also considered likely to ban the company from their national mobile networks, while many European countries beside the UK have taken a more liberal approach. In many other countries and developing markets, particularly those likely to benefit from China’s Belt and Road initiative, Huawei is well in use.
In other developments relating to Huawei, Vodafone acknowledged on 30 April that it had found backdoors within Huawei home routing equipment supplied to its Italian fixed line broadband business.
These backdoors were subsequently closed and no evidence of intrusion was ever found. Vodafone has also said that the backdoor referred to by Bloomberg was, in fact, Telnet, a built-in protocol used for performing diagnostic functions common to the equipment of multiple suppliers, which was not accessible from the internet.
Vodafone, whose leaders have in the past spoken up in Huawei’s defence, claimed Bloomberg’s reporting had been incorrect to suggest that Huawei could ever have gained unauthorised access to its Italian network by exploiting Telnet.
The government’s final, official decision on whether or not the UK’s operators will be able to use Huawei in their 5G networks is expected to be made public by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) within the coming weeks in the publication of a review into the telecoms industry supply chain.
Computer Weekly contacted Huawei for a response to the latest developments, but the company had not responded at the time of publication.
Read more about the Huawei affair
- Why worry over Huawei? A U.S. ban of this Chinese company's products should remind CISOs that now is the time to consider security issues related to the roll-out of the 5G network.
- Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has instituted an inquiry aimed at discovering who leaked confidential discussions about UK mobile operators’ use of Huawei in their future 5G networks to the press.
- Culture secretary tells MPs that a final decision on use of Huawei in UK 5G networks has not been taken, and says government is taking the leak of confidential discussions at the National Security Council very seriously.
- The Cabinet Office has used an NCSC conference to lay out government’s approach to the security of 5G networks, as controversy grows around using equipment from Huawei.
- The UK’s National Security Council has approved the use of Huawei’s networking equipment in parts of the country’s 5G mobile networks in spite of widespread opposition.
- John Suffolk, global cyber security and privacy officer at Huawei, tells Huawei Analyst Summit growth is the best answer to US criticism.
- Troubles continue for Huawei as new bans and government reports put security into question, but the company is attempting to fight back against the criticism.
- If the UK government decides to impose tighter restrictions, or an outright ban on the use of Huawei in national 5G networks, the country faces severe consequences, according to a report.
- Huawei has become one of the world’s largest technology companies by revenue, suggesting the accusations over its ties to the Chinese government are failing to have much impact.
- Huawei has made no material progress on addressing the issues identified last year by the NCSC, according to the latest highly critical report from its HCSEC Oversight Board.
- The chair of the Science and Technology Committee has criticised the government’s vague response to concerns about Huawei’s activities in the UK.
- Vodafone’s CTO and general counsel have defended its use of Huawei equipment in its mobile network and challenged its detractors to show evidence of wrongdoing.
- Huawei has filed a lawsuit accusing Washington of violating the US constitution by banning it from government contracts.
- US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has reinforced his attacks on Huawei as the firm apparently prepares to sue the US government over its federal-level ban.
- US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has said America may scale back or cut military and diplomatic ties with countries that use Huawei equipment in national 5G networks.
- NCSC CEO uses cyber security conference in Brussels to set out his agency’s position on Brexit, 5G security, Huawei, market incentives and international cooperation on active cyber defence.
- A think-tank report has branded the UK government naive at best, irresponsible at worst, over its use of Chinese networking equipment in critical national infrastructure.
- Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei has taken a more combative stance in the ongoing row over the firm’s alleged links to the Chinese intelligence services.
- The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre suggests Huawei will be allowed to form core elements of the country’s 5G mobile network infrastructure after all.
- Huawei’s Ryan Ding tells the British government that the company has never, and will never, use its technology to assist the Chinese intelligence services.
- Malaysia has become the latest country to look into the security concerns surrounding Huawei, which has been accused by mostly western powers of conducting corporate espionage.
- Vodafone’s UK CEO has said the operator will “pause” its use of Huawei hardware for the foreseeable future.
- The chair of the cross-bench Science and Technology Committee has written to Huawei seeking answers over its activities in the UK.
- Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping outlines the firm’s priorities to optimise its product portfolio, empower employees and build a more resilient business structure.
- While the number of countries with Huawei bans in place grows and more issue warnings, a German investigation found no evidence of spying to support the fear.
- The Chinese government has called for the release of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who was detained in Canada at the weekend.
- BT will remove Huawei’s networking equipment from the core of EE’s 4G mobile network.