State department reverses itself on use of Chinese computers

The 16,000 Chinese-made computers, bought for $13 million for use on classified networks, will now be designated for unclassified work.

The chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday highlighted the recent retreat by the State Department from a decision to use Chinese-made computers as part of its global classified network.

"I was deeply troubled to learn that the new computers were purchased from a China-based company and that at least 900 of these computers were planned to be used as part of the classified network deployed in the United States and around the world in embassies and consulates," said Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, who chairs the panel that oversees State's budget.

Wolf decried China for efforts to spy on the United States, as well as its human rights record. He said State's plan to use the 900 computers as part of its classified network posed a security risk.

A State official told Wolf in a letter that its Bureau of Diplomatic Security is "recommending that the computers purchased last fall be utilized on unclassified systems only." The bureau will conduct other security inspections as well, the official wrote.

In late April, two commissioners from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission alerted Wolf about State's procurement of 16,000 computers from Lenovo, the Chinese company that completed a deal to buy IBM's personal-computer business last May. The acquisition makes Lenovo the third-largest PC manufacturer in the world.

The commissioners -- Larry Wortzel, a Republican, and Michael Wessel, a Democrat -- expressed concerns about State's plan to use the computers in a network linked to the Defense Department. They worried about espionage because the Chinese government has a stake in Lenovo, as it does in a majority of Chinese businesses.

"Even if these computers were put together in the United States, software, operating systems or hardware could still be modified," Wortzel said. "Therefore, we were very concerned that if Chinese intelligence could target the diplomatic communications of the State Department, it would do so."

Asked why the ownership issue mattered when the majority of the world's computers are made in China, the commissioners said Chinese intelligence officers would have been much more likely to bug the computers that they knew were going to be used to convey sensitive information on behalf of the U.S. government.

The government paid $13 million for the 16,000 computers, and they now will be used by State for unclassified purposes.