WASHINGTON—Department of Defense (DOD) officials bought $30 million worth of computers and related equipment from Chinese companies last year, despite repeated warnings that doing so risked creating cybersecurity weaknesses in the U.S. military, according to Sen. Joni Ernst.
For that reason, the Iowa Republican—who is a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel—gave the Pentagon her latest, little-coveted “Squeal Award” for worst government waste.
Ernst explains her award—which stands for “Stop Questionable, Unnecessary and Excessive Allowances for Legislators”—as one that “recognizes a Washington expense, program, or concept that has proven to be wasteful and must be cut.”
“Spending millions of taxpayer money on computers, printers, and other tech equipment with known cybersecurity risks just doesn’t make sense and threatens to undermine our national security,” Ernst said in a statement announcing the latest Squeal recognition.
“That’s why I’m urging the Pentagon to pull the plug on these purchases, so we’re not only saving hard-earned tax dollars but standing up to cyberattacks from China, and other bad actors,” Ernst said.
“The Pentagon needs to pull the plug on these products because using computers that are vulnerable to cyberattacks just does not compute,” Ernst said.
Ernst is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.
The dangerous equipment was bought under the Pentagon’s Commercial off-the-Shelf (COTS) program that was launched during the Clinton administration in the wake of the end of the Cold War.
Ernst pointed to a 2016 report by the DOD Joint Chiefs of Staff Intelligence Directorate that warned “these computers and hand-held devices could introduce compromised hardware into the DOD supply chain, posing a cyber-espionage risk to classified and unclassified DOD networks.”
Ernst also noted a July 26, 2019, DOD Inspector General (IG) report that said “adversaries could exploit known cyber-security vulnerabilities that exist in COTS items purchased by the DOD.”
“If the DOD continues to purchase and use COTS information technology items without identifying, assessing, and mitigating the known vulnerabilities associated with COTS information technology items, missions critical to national security could be compromised,” the report stated.
A heavily censored but publicly released version of the IG report cited a May 2017 Department of State warning against using equipment purchased from China’s Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. and the Dahua Technology Co. used by the U.S. military to monitor base security.
Pentagon officials continued buying equipment from the two Chinese firms until Congress banned such purchases in 2018, according to the IG.
Ernst also made public her Aug. 27 letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist on the issue of buying from Chinese companies with known cybersecurity risks.
“In 2016, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s own Intelligence Directorate cautioned that computers and hand-held devices produced by Lenovo, the largest computer company in China, could introduce compromised hardware into the DOD supply chain, posing a cyber-espionage risk to classified and unclassified DOD networks,” Ernst told Norquist.
“Ten years prior, in 2006, the State Department banned the use of the company’s computers following reports that Lenovo computers were manufactured with hidden hardware or software used for cyber-espionage.
“In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security issued warnings about pre-installed spyware and other vulnerabilities identified in Lenovo computers.
“Yet DOD has not banned the purchase and use of Lenovo products. In fact, the department spent more than $2.1 million to purchase over 1,500 Lenovo products, including computers just last year.”
Ernst encouraged Norquist to take administrative action to end such DOD spending and offered to introduce legislation if it is needed to accomplish that end.
Previously, Ernst gave a Squeal Award to the DOD for programs such as the $208,000 joint funding from the Office of Naval Research, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation to study the “sociability” of 18 domestic breeds of dogs.
Ernst gave another Squeal Award to federal bureaucrats in multiple agencies who spent $53 billion in one week at the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
“Every year, federal agencies go on their ‘use it or lose it’ shopping spree—spending as much of your money—the American taxpayer’s—as possible before midnight on Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year,” Ernst said.
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