Defense contractor interviewed for key U.S. Commerce post: source

(Reuters) - James Mulvenon, a defense contractor who helped land Chinese semiconductor giant SMIC on a U.S. blacklist last year, has been interviewed for a key position at the U.S. Department of Commerce, according to a person familiar with the matter.

FILE PHOTO: The seal of the Department of Commerce is pictured in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

It is unclear whether the interview with newly confirmed U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will lead to vetting for the post, said the person, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly.

It is also unclear how many other people will be interviewed for the job: undersecretary for the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, an agency at the heart of a battle between the United States and China over technology. .

The Commerce Department and White House declined to comment.

Kevin Wolf, a former Commerce official, has been seen as a likely candidate for the post. Wolf spearheaded the blacklisting of China’s ZTE Corp during the Obama administration and is renowned for his knowledge of export regulations.

But some have painted Wolf as too close to industry, a criticism others view as specious. The criticism stems from his work as a partner at a Washington law firm, counseling U.S. companies on export control issues.

Mulvenon said he was drafted as an alternative candidate.

“A group of people came to me and said, ‘We think some of the leading candidates are sort of old-think,’ ...and ‘Would you consider being sort of a dark horse, sort of push things along a bit?” Mulvenon told Reuters last month, declining to identify the people.

At the time, Mulvenon said no one in the administration had contacted him and that he had a “single digit percentage chance.”

A Chinese linguist and military expert, Mulvenon is director of intelligence integration at SOS International, a government services company.

In August, he produced a report on SMIC’s alleged military ties that circulated among Trump officials, and the chipmaker ended up blacklisted. SMIC has denied the ties and said it makes chips solely for commercial use.

In late January, Mulvenon wrote an online article titled, “A World Divided,” that said the bureau should place U.S. interests ahead of near-term financial interests of Silicon Valley, Wall Street and other multinationals.

Wolf, who served as an assistant secretary of Commerce when ZTE was blacklisted, also represented the department in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Former Commerce undersecretary Eric Hirschhorn said Wolf was quite “clear-eyed and hardline on China” when he worked under him for seven years.

“He knows export controls backwards and forwards,” Hirschhorn added. “Someone who has to learn the ropes is going to lose a year at least trying to figure out how it works.”

Wolf told Reuters he did not know who is going to be nominated for the role, declining to comment further.

Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Lincoln Feast.