The issue of whether PC maker Lenovo poses a national security risk because of its roots in China has emerged anew as the result of an Air Force email message that recently circulated in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, said in an interview Monday afternoon that he wants the U.S. Department of Defense to clarify the company’s standing in the wake of what has evolved into a murky situation. He called it “an important security issue.”
Lenovo, which is based in China but has a headquarters in Morrisville and employs about 3,000 workers locally, has periodically faced national security questions since it agreed to acquire IBM’s PC business in 2005. But that deal, and subsequent acquisitions of U.S. businesses, received the required clearance from the U.S. government.
“Lenovo is proud to have passed each review successfully, making us one of the most extensively vetted technology companies in the world,” Lenovo, which makes PCs, servers and cellphones, said in a statement, noting that it has passed five reviews in all. “Indeed, if Lenovo posted a security threat to the United States, (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S) simply would not have cleared these transactions.”
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The latest episode started with a recent Air Force email memorandum, a copy of which was supplied by Pittenger’s office, which states in the subject line: “Discontinue Purchase of Lenovo Products.”
“For immediate implementation: Per AF Cyber Command direction, Lenovo products are being removed from the Approved Products List and should not be purchased for DoD use,” the message stated. “Lenovo products currently in use will be removed from the network.”
The message doesn’t state the reason for the move.
However, an Air Force spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, said “the email was not properly coordinated and should not have been sent. There is no Air Force or DoD ban on Lenovo products.”
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Army Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, further said that although there is an “Approved Products List” for communications equipment such as routers, there is no such list for products such as the PCs and servers made by Lenovo.
But Pittenger said that the official responses to the email have raised new questions.
“Why did the Air Force put out the (email)?” Pittenger asked. “Saying the memo is poorly coordinated only creates more concern.”
“We need this clarified,” he added.
“Obviously there are national security concerns,” said Jamie Bowers, a spokesman for Pittenger. “But then there’s also the factor that there are 3,000 people who work for Lenovo” in the Triangle.
The congressman believes that “national security trumps the economy” but isn’t sure what’s really going on, Bowers said.
“Either you need to deal with a national security concern or you need to come out with a more direct retraction of the memo so that folks aren’t freaking out unnecessarily about Lenovo,” he said. “Either you have the Air Force supplying inaccurate information, which is a problem, or the Air Force has a concern about Lenovo and the DOD isn’t taking it seriously enough.”
Pittenger is chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and has focused on national security issues surrounding government procurements.
Lenovo said there’s no cause for confusion.
“First, over the last week officials at the Air Force and DoD have been very clear: no directive to restrict sales to the DoD,” the company said in a statement. It added that Terry Halvorsen, the Department of Defense’s chief information officer, told attendees at a Washington conference last week that there are no restrictions on Lenovo products.
Cybersecurity has been a source of tension between the United States and Chinese governments. In 2014 the Obama administration accused China of the theft of the personal information of more than 20 million Americans from the Office of Personnel Management.