An inquiry has been launched by the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, in the aftermath of this week’s leak of a decision by the National Security Council to allow Chinese firm Huawei to supply some 5G telecoms equipment in the UK.
The investigation could lead to the sacking of a cabinet member or adviser, a criminal prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. The news prompted ministers to scramble to deny that they were behind the leak.
Sedwill’s inquiry began with a letter to the members of the NSC – a secret official body comprised of Theresa May, nine cabinet members, spy chiefs and senior members of the armed forces.
It could see phone and email records examined and people questioned, while former defence secretary Michael Fallon said Downing Street should call in the police and mount a “a proper Scotland Yard investigation”.
No 10 reacted with anger and alarm after a decision to allow Huawei to supply equipment to “non core” parts of 5G mobile phone networks was leaked after it had been agreed in principle at the NSC meeting.
Huawei is a Chinese telecoms company founded in 1987. Politicians in the US have alleged that Huawei’s forthcoming 5G mobile phone networks could be hacked by Chinese spies to eavesdrop on sensitive phone calls and gain access to counter-terrorist operations. Allies who allow Huawei technology inside their 5G networks have been told they may be frozen out of US intelligence sharing. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have banned Huawei from their 5G networks.
In the UK, BT has excluded Huawei telecoms infrastructure from its own 5G rollout and removed some of its equipment from the 4G network. The University of Oxford has placed an indefinite ban on accepting research grants or donations from the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei. In January 2019 Vodafone said it had decided to ‘pause’ the use of Huawei equipment in its core networks across Europe.
Poland’s internal affairs minister, Joachim Brudziński, has called for the European Union and Nato to work on a joint position over whether to exclude Huawei from their markets, after an Huawei employee was arrested on spying charges.
Much of the doubt surrounding Huawei stems from founder Ren Zhengfei’s background in China’s People’s Liberation Army between 1974 and 1983, where he was an engineer. His daughter, Huawei’s senior executive Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada in December 2018 over allegations of Iran-sanctions violations, and she awaits extradition to the US. Ren, referring to trade issues between the US and China, says the company is ‘like a small sesame seed, stuck in the middle of conflict between two great powers’.
Politicians present at the meeting had been deadlocked at five a piece, with the decision only being made after what amounted to a casting vote from the prime minister.
Those who spoke against the plan argued for a blanket ban on Huawei telecoms equipment. They were Sajid Javid, the home secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, Liam Fox, the trade secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, the development secretary.
Williamson, one of the ministers suspected of being behind the leak, took the unusual step of releasing a public statement of denial. He said: “Neither I nor any of my team have divulged information from the National Security Council.”
Hunt also condemned the leak, saying he thought it was “utterly appalling” and a “really, really bad thing for decision-making in government” although his denial was less clear cut than Williamson’s.
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
He added: “I – as I think everyone here knows – have never leaked confidential cabinet discussions and I never will, so I don’t want to comment further. But I do think it is a very, very bad day for our democratic processes.”
The five ministers in favour of allowing Huawei to supply equipment to “non core” parts of the network, such as antennas, were led by May but also included David Lidington, the cabinet office minister, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, Greg Clark, the business secretary, and Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary.
It is understood that the final decision was in line with the advice from Britain’s intelligence agencies, led by GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, which already monitors Huawei technology in case of a backdoor that could be exploited by the Chinese government.
The spy agency has repeatedly said Huawei must be monitored but that the risks can be contained. But politicians concerned about the company say the UK should heed warnings from US and Australian spy agencies, who share intelligence with the UK as part of the “Five Eyes” network.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, told MPs: “This is fundamentally a diplomatic and political question, just as much as a technical one, and … respecting our Five Eyes partners is an essential part of the decision.”
Earlier Labour demanded “a full leak inquiry” in an urgent question in the House of Commons. Jo Platt, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “If a minister did leak this information they are not fit to serve in the cabinet and they are certainly not fit to be prime minister.”
In the debate that followed, Wright also signalled that a criminal investigation under the Official Secrets Act could yet go ahead. He told MPs “I cannot rule it out”, and added it was “a matter for investigating and prosecuting authorities to consider”.
Speaking to the BBC, Fallon said that if a minister was found to have been responsible for the leak, they could face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.
“Ministers are subject to the Official Secrets Act just like anybody else. It is an offence to divulge secret information from the most secret of all government bodies, which is the National Security Council. It has got to be stopped.”