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May Plot? Did U.S. Concerns Over Huawei Hasten Theresa May’s Departure?

Britain’s PM Theresa May spent the last two years fighting off numerous Brexit-related coup attempts from within her Conservative (Tory) party. But the sudden announcement of her departure came just two weeks after US officials cautioned May not to award contracts to China’s Huawei. Was this May’s Gough Whitlam moment?

GOUGH WHITLAM AND THE FIVE EYES

In 1946, Britain and America signed the UKUSA Agreement. Australia, Canada and New Zealand soon joined. The Agreement and its updates oblige signatories to collect, analyze and share all communications traffic. The so-called Five Eyes Alliance is essential for US global dominance. The “eyes” of Australia and New Zealand spy on communications in Asia. Britain spies on Europe and western Russian. Canada spies on northern Russia. The radar systems guide US and Alliance intercontinental ballistic and other missiles. They watch for enemy launches. They probe the personal and business communications of citizens and corporations.

In 1950s-70s’ Australia, the CIA infiltrated unions, networked with rising stars like the country’s future-Governor General, Sir John Kerr and advocated for politicians including Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser. Labour PM, Gough Whitlam, came to power in Australia in 1972. Within three years, he had been ousted. Whitlam threatened to expose the US Five Eyes bases in Australia, as well as investigate the US role in financing his political enemies. According to John Pilger, who interviewed CIA agents, Theodore Shackley was a CIA agent who authored a memo warning that Whitlam was working against Australia’s (read: elite US) interests. Shackley is notable for the US role in the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, famously on 11 September 1973. Another agent, Victor Marchetti, who helped establish the US Pine Gap spy facility near Alice Springs, said: “This threat to close Pine Gap caused apoplexy in the White House… a kind of Chile [coup] was set in motion” against Whitlam.

The CIA reportedly leaned on the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, to acquiesce in the demands of Whitlam’s political rival, Malcolm Fraser, for the ousting of Whitlam on the spurious grounds of his refusal to hold an election over a spending bill. Invoking constitutional powers, Kerr dismissed Whitlam in 1975.

DARK CLOUDS OVER MAY

Since 2017, Britain’s Tory party has been in trouble; regardless of US Five Eyes concerns. May called and lost an ill-advised snap general election, making her efforts to get her Brexit bill through Parliament even more difficult. She was able to cling to power by bribing the provincial Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party with a £1bn confidence-and-supply deal. The Tories would have gotten rid of May much earlier but her potential successors were, and remain, hated by the public; the sole exception is Boris Johnson, but many senior Tories see him as a liability. May survived an internal vote of no confidence launched by the hard-right faction of the Tories in December 2018. There was a failed rule-change plot to oust for a second time.

May’s government survived a motion of no confidence brought by the leader of the Labour opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. This meant that May was safe until at least December 2019, when many of her colleagues would surely have moved to unseat her for a third time. In March, the PM offered to resign if her colleagues backed her Withdrawal Agreement bill. They did not, so Theresa May stayed put. The Tories were well and truly stuck: the Brextremists had no mechanism to unseat her and the moderates feared that her being deposed would usher in either a Brextremist or a general election, thereby risking a Jeremy Corbyn government. In April, far-right, former UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, launched the Brexit Party, which was predicted to (and did) wipe the floor with both Labour and the Tories at the European elections.

TRUMP’S TRADE WAR

As all this was going on in the UK, markets trembled under the weight of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies, the US and China. In an effort to make sure that China’s state-subsidized (and in reality state-owned) Huawei telecoms company did not undermine US giants’ profits, Trump authorized politically-motivated action against the company. In January 2018, the Department of Justice charged Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with fraud in relation to US sanctions on Iran. In July, Trump raised tariffs against China and, in doing so, initiated the trade war. In December and on behalf of the US, Canadian officials arrested Meng en route to Mexico.

Most hi-technology in the US and Britain is dual-use. Most of it—computers, satellites, the internet, touchscreens, encryption, and physical infrastructure that makes connected technology possible—emerged from the military, before being transferred to private companies for commercial markets and profit. China is no exception. Any Microsoft computer or Apple iPhone, for example, has backdoor technology that allows the US National Security Agency, Britain’s GCHQ and indeed each of the Five Eyes Alliance access to your personal activities and communications. Likewise, Huawei phones allow the Chinese military-intelligence community to do the same (though technology experts repudiate this).

On the grounds of both national security and defeating China in the trade war, the Trump administration has highlighted the threat of China’s spying potential via Huawei while, of course, underplaying Five Eyes Alliance abilities.

HUAWEI AND BRITAIN’S 5G NETWORK

As part of their post-Brexit “Global Britain” doctrine, many UK elites look to expand trade and investment with China. The UK’s balancing act is to get closer to China, while not jeopardising its “special relationship” with the US. One profitable option was to sign a contract with Huawei to provide part of Britain’s 5G network. In Britain, the Prime Minister heads the National Security Council (NSC). Every year, the government’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre provides a threat-assessment report to the PM via the NSC. The March 2019 report says: “the Oversight Board can only provide limited assurance that all risks to UK national security from Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s critical networks can be sufficiently mitigated long-term.”

In late-April, someone leaked security details concerning Huawei to the national press. The details included confirmation that PM Theresa May, who as we have seen was already clinging to power, was indeed going to award Huawei contracts for Britain’s 5G network; despite the Oversight Board’s warnings. May blamed her volatile and hawkish Defence Secretary, Gavin “Russia should go away and shut up” Williamson, for the leaks. But, surprisingly, May did not want hold an inquiry. Was she protecting herself or sensitive information? Williamson was fired shortly thereafter.

THE US REACTS

Britain’s GCHQ and the US National Security Agency, which work together as part of the Five Eyes Alliance, relies part on dual-use civilian technology. The use of Huawei infrastructure with all of its possible backdoors to Chinese intelligence could compromise US intelligence hegemony; or “security” as they call it. In early-May, former CIA head and current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, took the unprecedented steps of warning Britain not to make deals with China and making the British public aware that if their PM granted China the contract, the US would no longer share intelligence. Pompeo:

“I know it’s a sensitive topic, but we have to talk about sensitive things as friends. As a matter of Chinese law, the Chinese Government can rightfully demand access to data flowing through Huawei and ZTE systems. Why would anyone grant such power to a regime that has already grossly violated cyberspace? What can her majesty’s government do to make sure sensitive technologies don’t become open doors for Beijing’s spymasters?

This is a discussion that extends far beyond technology and trade, although it’s often couched that way. Insufficient security will impede the United States ability to share certain information with trusted networks.”

Within two weeks, May did what she had refused to do, and what her colleagues and many of her opponents had failed to force her to do: she announced her resignation date. Did British intelligence have a word with the 1922 Committee, the body responsible for overseeing confidence issues in the given PM? Or did the Tories’ disastrous results at the European elections prove to be the final straw? Or maybe both?

TRUMP REACTS

It is also worth noting that British intelligence had been interfering and is alleged to have interfered in the Trump campaign, using the Five Eye Alliance. It is important to consider this, not because Trump is a progressive or a good President, but because he has made rhetorical, though not actual, moves to lessen tensions with Russia. This is a threat to Britain’s interests as far as MI6 is concerned. First, Trump accused Obama of using the Five Eyes, specifically Britain’s GCHQ, to spy on him during the campaign. Unusually, British intelligence actually responded, denying the allegations. Second, an ex-MI6 officer, Christopher Steele, was hired by Democrats to write a ridiculous dossier on Trump, supposedly proving the existence of material with which Russia’s Vladimir Putin can blackmail him.

Finally, upon hearing of May’s resignation, Trump was asked: “are you going to talk to Theresa May about potential Five Eyes spying into your campaign…?” Trump replied: “I may very well talk to her about that, yeah. There’s word and rumor that the FBI and others were involved, CIA were involved, with the UK, having to do with the Russian hoax [i.e., collusion accusations]. And I may very well talk to her about that, yes.”

Particularly interesting about Trump’s remarks is the fact that British media, while reporting the remarks via an Australian Press Association article, underreported the story.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Perhaps the timing of the British NSC leak, Pompeo’s warning and the PM’s resignation is a coincidence. Perhaps the reason was as simple as the Tories’ 1922 Committee telling May to resign due to her abysmal handling of Brexit. However, we should remember what happened to Gough Whitlam; and how it happened, namely through stern words and shared interests. Security expert and author, Joseph P. Trenton, claims that high-level intelligence sources confirmed Britain’s role in America’s coup against Whitlam, noting calls

“…from the CIA to MI5 and MI6, saying ‘We have a security problem in Australia … with the Prime Minister. He is endangering national security for the United States and the Alliance … The evidence is that he’s making noises about our bases. He’s making threats. Those bases are absolutely essential to the survival of the Alliance.’ That plants a seed in the British intelligence community … I don’t think you could say the CIA forced Kerr to sack Whitlam. But I think that decisions were made that led to his sacking, based on what the CIA was telling the English.”

Did May suffer a Whitlam moment that hastened her departure? Like so many things in the murky world of “national security,” we’ll probably never know.

 

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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