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FBI chief: Agency 'deeply concerned' about companies like China's ZTE

| Wednesday, May 16, 2018, 8:42 p.m.
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the proposed budget for the FBI in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 16, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the proposed budget for the FBI in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 16, 2018.

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday reaffirmed concerns about Chinese telecommunications company ZTE that President Trump wants to help — and defended the agency from political attacks coming from the White House and Congress.

At a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing about the FBI's fiscal 2019 budget request, Wray used a question about the agency's responsiveness to congressional oversight to highlight the importance of protecting people who provide agents information.

Wray told lawmakers that he wouldn't comment publicly on a specific company — but "we at the FBI remain deeply concerned that any company beholden to foreign governments that don't share our values are not companies that we want to be gaining positions of power inside our telecommunications network."

"That gives them the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information, that gives them the capacity to conduct undetected espionage, that gives them the capacity to exert pressure or control," Wray added.

Republican Reps. Devin Nunes and Mark Meadows last week threatened to impeach Wray and other Justice Department officials if they didn't produce an un-redacted version of a document that started the investigation into possible connections between Trump's campaign and Russian operatives in the 2016 election.

The Washington Post and other media reported that the Justice Department ultimately let congressional investigators see the memo with the name of a country and foreign agent redacted, avoiding what would be a politically explosive showdown between Congress and the Justice Department about oversight.

Wray told the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee that the FBI understands the importance of congressional oversight and welcomes tough questions, but human sources who put themselves at great risk have to be able to trust agents can protect their identities.

"We're also committed to being faithful to our oath to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. All of us in the intelligence community understand that to include, as it always has, protection of sources and methods," Wray said. "The day we can't protect human sources is the day the American people start becoming less safe."

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said a series of public statements from Trump criticizing the FBI — including calling leadership at the agency "a disgrace" — had him worried the president's view was sinking in with the American public.

Coons cited a poll last week that said 61 percent of Republicans surveyed said the FBI and Justice Department are framing the president, prompting Coons to ask if that's happening.

"While I recognize that, as I said, there are a lot of opinions out there, we don't focus on polls, and surveys and studies," Wray said. "We focus on, as I said, the opinions of the people who know us through our work.

"And what I find when I go out and talk to people in the field, out on the front lines, our partners, the judges, the prosecutors, the victims, the feedback I get uniformly is positive and supportive," Wray said.

And Wray stood by previous testimony that the FBI still has deep concerns about ZTE, saying that a company beholden to a foreign government can steal information, conduct undetected espionage and exert pressure or control.

Trump on Sunday tweeted that he would work with Chinese President Xi Jinping to "give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast." The decision has raised eyebrows because of the government's security concerns about the company.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., alluded at the hearing to news reports that Trump wanted to lift restrictions on ZTE to save Chinese jobs after funds went to a Trump-branded property.

"But that's probably just a coincidence," Leahy said.

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