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U.S. Senators Ask White House To Probe ZTE Work In Venezuela

U.S. -- FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2017, file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. -- FILE - In this Sept. 26, 2017, file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
CARACAS, Nov 28 (Reuters)

Two U.S. senators on Wednesday asked the Trump administration to investigate whether Chinese telecommunications company ZTE Corp violated U.S. sanctions by helping Venezuela set up a database that monitors the behavior of its citizens.

In a letter, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio asked the U.S. secretaries of state, treasury and commerce to determine whether ZTE worked with individuals cited by U.S. sanctions, used U.S. components unlawfully or helped Venezuela's government flout democratic processes or human rights.

The letter follows a Reuters investigation of the database and an associated Venezuelan identity card program published Nov. 14. Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters had reported the senators' plans to write the cabinet officials, citing aides to the two senators.

ZTE, which this year paid $1 billion to the U.S. government in relation to sanctioned business in Iran and North Korea, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Venezuela's Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. President Nicolas Maduro, grappling with hyperinflation and an economy in free fall, has long said that U.S. sanctions are part of an "economic war" by Washington to topple his leftist government.

A spokesman for the U.S. Treasury said the department does not comment on "possible or pending investigations." Officials at the U.S. State and Commerce departments did not respond to requests for comment early Wednesday.

Van Hollen, a Democrat, and Rubio, a Republican, have been vocal backers of previous U.S. measures against ZTE.

The company, in which a Chinese state firm is the largest shareholder, is accused by many Western officials of helping China export surveillance tactics and equipment to authoritarian governments around the world.

ZTE has increasingly worked with Venezuela's government in various projects there, mostly in ventures with Compania Anonima Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela, or Cantv, the state telecommunications company.

Many senior Venezuelan officials, including Maduro and Cantv President Manuel Fernandez, have been sanctioned by Washington because of what successive U.S. administrations have deemed authoritative behavior and human rights violations by the government of the Andean country.

Neither Fernandez nor a Cantv spokeswoman responded to requests for comment.

In its investigation, Reuters found that ZTE helped Caracas build a database that can track citizens' behavior through a national identity card. The ID, the "fatherland card," can compile data including financial and medical histories, usage of social media, political affiliation and whether a person voted.

One area of concern for the senators is whether ZTE installed components made by Dell Technologies Inc in the database. One document reviewed by Reuters indicated that ZTE used storage units built by the U.S.-based company in equipment it installed for Cantv.

In their letter the senators asked "whether ZTE violated U.S. export controls with respect to the installation of data storage units built by Dell." A spokeswoman for Dell told Reuters it had no record of a sale for that purpose.

The senators also asked the U.S. administration to determine whether ZTE's work in Venezuela breaks the terms of the $1 billion agreement it reached earlier this year with the Commerce Department related to previous sanctions violations.

(Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld in Washington and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong Editing by Paulo Prada and Phil Berlowitz)