US hiring Hong Kong firm for security at Bahamas port
Company to run nuclear detectors that scan cargo
WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of the Dubai ports dispute, the Bush administration is hiring a Hong Kong conglomerate to help detect nuclear materials inside cargo passing through the Bahamas to the United States and elsewhere.
The administration acknowledges that the no-bid contract with
Freeport in the Bahamas is 65 miles from the US coast, where cargo would probably be inspected again. The contract is being finalized.
The administration is negotiating a second no-bid contract for a Philippine company to install radiation detectors in its home country, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. At dozens of other overseas ports, foreign governments are primarily responsible for scanning cargo.
President Bush recently reassured Congress that foreigners would not manage security at US ports, but the Hutchison deal in the Bahamas illustrates how the administration is relying on foreign companies at overseas ports to safeguard cargo headed to the United States.
Hutchison Whampoa is the world's largest ports operator and among the industry's most-respected companies. It was an early adopter of US antiterrorism measures. But its billionaire chairman, Li Ka-Shing, also has substantial business ties to China's government -- links that have raised US concerns over the years.
''Li Ka-Shing is pretty close to a lot of senior leaders of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party," said Larry M. Wortzel, head of a US government commission that studies China security and economic issues. But Wortzel said Hutchison operates independently from Beijing, and he described Li as ''a very legitimate international businessman."
''One can conceive legitimate security concerns and would hope either the Homeland Security Department or the intelligence services of the United States work very hard to satisfy those concerns," Wortzel said.
Three years ago, the Bush administration effectively blocked a Hutchison subsidiary from buying part of a bankrupt US telecommunications company, Global Crossing Ltd., on national security grounds.
And a US military intelligence report in 1999, once marked secret, deemed Hutchison a potential risk for smuggling arms and other prohibited materials into the United States from the Bahamas.
Hutchison's port operations in the Bahamas and Panama ''could provide a conduit for illegal shipments of technology or prohibited items from the West to the PRC [People's Republic of China] or facilitate the movement of arms and other prohibited items into the Americas," the now-declassified assessment said.
The CIA currently has no security concerns about Hutchison's port operations, and the administration believes the pending deal with the foreign company would be safe, officials said.
Supervised by Bahamian customs officials, Hutchison employees will drive the towering, truck-like scanner that moves slowly over large cargo containers and scans them for radiation that might be emitted by plutonium or a radiological weapon.
Any positive reading would set off alarms monitored simultaneously by Bahamian customs inspectors at Freeport and by US Customs and Border Protection officials working at an antiterrorism center 800 miles away in northern Virginia. Any alarm would prompt a closer inspection of the cargo, and there are multiple layers of security to prevent tampering, officials said.
''The equipment operates itself," said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the US National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency negotiating the contract. ''It's not going to be someone standing at the controls pressing buttons and flipping switches."
A lawmaker who helped lead the opposition to the Dubai ports deal isn't so confident. Neither are some security specialists. They question whether the United States should pay a foreign company with ties to China to keep radioactive material out of the United States.
''Giving a no-bid contract to a foreign company to carry out the most sensitive security screening for radioactive materials at ports abroad raises many questions," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
A low-paid employee with access to the screening equipment could study how the equipment works and which materials set off its alarms, warned a retired US Customs Service investigator who specialized in smuggling cases.
''Money buys a lot of things," Robert Sheridan said. ''The fact that foreign workers would have access to how the United States screens various containers for nuclear material and how this technology scrutinizes the containers -- all those things allow someone with a nefarious intention to thwart the screening."
Other specialists discounted those concerns. They said the United States inevitably must rely on large commercial operators for some security in the global maritime industry.
''We must not allow an unwarranted fear of foreign ownership or involvement in offshore operations to impair our ability to protect against nuclear weapons being smuggled into this country," said Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.