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 the no-bid contract with Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. represents the first time a foreign company will be involved in running a sophisticated U.S. radiation detector at an overseas port without American customs agents present.
Freeport in the Bahamas is 65 miles from the U.S. coast, where cargo would be likely to be inspected again. The contract is currently 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.
While President Bush recently reassured Congress that foreigners would not manage security at U.S. ports, 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 U.S. anti-terrorism measures. But its billionaire chairman, Li Ka-Shing, also has substantial business ties to China’s government that have raised U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”
Three years ago, the Bush administration effectively blocked a Hutchison subsidiary from buying part of a bankrupt U.S. telecommunications company, Global Crossing Ltd., on national security grounds.
And a U.S. military intelligence report, once marked “secret,” cited Hutchison in 1999 as 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, trucklike radiation 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 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials working at an anti-terrorism 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 U.S. 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 experts. They question whether the U.S. 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 Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.