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Opinion National Security Council official behind 5G memo leaves White House

(Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)

The author of a memo arguing for a government takeover of development of the nation’s 5G mobile network has been removed from the National Security Council staff. The memo’s unauthorized release this week caused uproar in the telecom community and created embarrassment for the White House.

A senior administration official confirmed to me that Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding is no longer serving as NSC senior director for strategic planning. Spalding was not fired, according to the official, who said his detail had ended and was not renewed. His last day as a White House staffer was Jan. 31. Spalding was not implicated in the leak of the memo, but officials said his advocacy for the plan had gone beyond his role, contributing to the NSC leadership’s decision to send him back to the Air Force.

Spalding was informed that his White House tenure was ending last week, the senior administration official said, before his memo and PowerPoint proposal was leaked. The Jan. 28 Axios story sparked alarm, drawing opposition from major telecom companies and catching the White House off guard.

Part of Spalding’s job had been to canvas private industry and outside groups about the plan, but in recent weeks senior officials became concerned that he had become too aggressive in pushing the idea, getting out ahead of the administration’s still nascent deliberations. He has not been disciplined formally and is free to seek a new job in the Defense Department.

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Another senior administration official said there was considerable upheaval inside the White House this week after the 5G memo story broke. Although it is unclear whether Spalding leaked the memo, because he had shared it so widely, some officials judged him responsible.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Jan. 29 that consideration of the plan was at its “earliest stages” and the administration was nowhere near a decision. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said spending federal dollars to build a 5G network would be a “costly and counterproductive distraction” from the competitive, market-driven approach that was needed.

“There is nothing that would slam the brakes more quickly on our hard-won momentum to be the leader in the global race for 5G network deployment,” Jonathan Spalter, chief executive of the industry trade group USTelecom, said in a statement.

Spalding was known both inside and outside the administration as a China hawk. From 2014 to 2016 he led the China division at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and before joining the Trump White House he was the U.S. defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. One key argument for Spalding’s 5G plan was that only the government can properly defend technological infrastructure from Chinese interference.

There are no plans to replace Spalding, officials said. Spalding declined to comment.