The State Department said Thursday that 16,000 computers it bought from a U.S. company partially owned by the Chinese government should be used only for unclassified work after a lawmaker criticized the purchase as potentially dangerous to national security.
Richard Griffin, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, said in a letter sent to Rep. Frank Wolf that the State Department also is changing the way it buys technology to guarantee the security of U.S. information.
The government, Griffin wrote, is committed to making sure the purchase from Lenovo, the world's No. 3 PC maker, will not "compromise our information and communication channels."
Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House subcommittee that finances State Department operations, said he raised alarms after he discovered that officials planned to use at least 900 of the computers in classified work and at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. That, he said, possibly could give China access to sensitive U.S. information.
The letter from Griffin did not mention the 900 computers, and efforts to obtain comment from State Department officials were unsuccessful.
An official with Lenovo said the claims that China might use the computers to spy were unfair and subjected Lenovo to "guilt by association." A Chinese government agency owns 28 percent of the North Carolina-based company.
"We are absolutely confident in the security of our manufacturing process," said Jeffrey Carlisle, Lenovo's vice president of government relations. "These computers do not present a risk to U.S. security."
A spokesman with the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return messages seeking comment.
Speaking to reporters, Wolf called Chinese spying efforts "frightening" and said it was "no secret that the United States is a principal target of Chinese intelligence services."
"No American government agency should want to purchase from them," Wolf said.
As China's economy booms and its companies gain strength, U.S. lawmakers have expressed frustration and they worry regularly about what they say are unfair economic practices that rob Americans of their jobs.
Criticism from Congress last year forced China's state-controlled CNOOC Ltd. to give up an $18.5 billion takeover bid for the U.S. oil company Unocal Corp. Lawmakers said the deal could jeopardize U.S. security.
Larry Wortzel, head of a U.S. government commission that studies security and economic issues related to China, had seen no evidence of tampering in the Lenovo computers, but said Chinese intelligence services are capable of doctoring computer systems.
"Would I buy one for my home?" he asked. "Absolutely."
But, he added, the U.S. government should not have sensitive material passing through computers made by a company controlled by a foreign country.
Carlisle, the Lenovo official, said that the Chinese government agency that owns part of Lenovo does not get involved in the company's strategy or decision-making and does not appoint people to the company's board.
"We're not a state-owned enterprise," he said.