(CNSNews.com) - "Let's talk about China for a moment," Sen. Rob Portman, ranking member of the Senate homeland security committee, told a hearing on the threat posed by unmanned aircraft systems or drones.
He is concerned about the FBI and other federal agencies purchasing drones made in China -- apparently, for good reason:
Portman noted that just last week, FBI Director Chris Wray and the head of Britain's MI5 identified China as one of the biggest threats to the West's national security and economic prosperity.
"Stealing our technology, dominating our markets, and they talked about the U.S. drone market," Portman said.
"And they talked about the use of drones. Here's an example. According to a report by the Washington Post, China’s DJI is the leading provider of drones to US law enforcement agencies, they say.
"DJI has servers in China. They have support from the Chinese government. The Chinese state security services is one of their customers. Here's our own Commerce Department saying DJI has been added to an export blacklist last year after Bloomberg reported that it supplied surveillance technology to Chinese security forces in Xinjiang, where millions of Uyghur Muslims have been forced into internment camps.
"So, there's a report that last year that the Secret Service purchased eight of DJI's drones. The FBI purchased 18 of them. So let me just ask you these questions on -- on the record. Start with Mr. Wiegmann. Does the FBI currently purchase and use Chinese made drones? Yes or no," Porter said.
"We do," said Wiegmann, who is the deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's National Security Division.
"You do," Portman echoed. He asked Samantha Vinograd, a DHS official, if the Department of Homeland Security currently buys and uses Chinese-made drones:
"DHS is prohibited to purchase foreign made drones, small UAS -- absent waivers in very specific circumstances," Vinograd said.
"Ok," said Portman. "So this report that I mentioned said that the Secret Service had purchased eight of DJI's drones. You saying that's inaccurate?" he asked her.
"I'm saying that in -- with certain waivers, very certain waivers --" Vinograd started to say:
"Portman repeated: "So I -- my question to you is, are you purchasing DJI drones or not? Yes or no."
"With specific waivers, DHS can purchase certain foreign made aircraft--" Vinograd started to say.
"Are you purchasing DJI drones? Yes or no," Portman interrupted.
"With certain waivers, we are purchasing certain foreign made aircraft--" she repeated.
"So you are," Portman said.
Vinograd said she would follow up with more specific details in a closed hearing.
"Ok. But the answer's yes," Portman said.
A Federal Aviation Administration official who also testified on Thursday said the FAA doesn't purchase drones, but it does test them.
Portman said he finds it hard to believe that Congress must write legislation to bar U.S. government agencies from buying Chinese-made drones, especially when the servers are in China and where the Chinese government is a part owner of the company that makes them.
"But we do have that (provision) in the USICA bill," Portman said. It's a requirement in the USICA bill [United States Innovation and Competition Act]. And I hope we get that legislation passed.
“If we cannot get that legislation passed, would you all support including this kind of legislation in whatever we do in terms of reauthorization? Ms. Vinograd?” Portman said.
"I share your concerns about these drones and would welcome a conversation on specific language, Sir, yes," said Vinograd.
Wiegmann said he also shares those concerns:
"We want to shift away from -- from use of -- of Chinese drones. And the FBI is working and other parts of DOJ are working to -- on that objective. Right now they kind of dominate the market, so we're working to shift our -- our use of drones away from Chinese drones to other alternatives.
"In the meantime, FBI takes steps to do thorough cybersecurity and supply chain reviews to ensure that any risk posed by use of the technology is mitigated. But we do want to shift away from it. And so we -- we definitely support the -- the aims of the sponsors of the bill.
“We have -- I think we've provided some technical assistance and some technical issues about things we would need to -- changes we could make to -- to the bill to make sure that we could -- could support it and it could conduct our mission consistent with the provisions.
"But we share the objectives of shifting away from these drones and using other alternatives that don't pose the same type of supply chain risk."
Portman made it clear his concern goes beyond the supply chain. He mentioned "the potential national security threat of having this information be relayed back to China and used against us."