Saturday, March 25, 2006

Lawmaker Seeks Assurances Over Hong Kong Firm's Port-Security Deal

ABC News
Assurances Sought on Port-Security Deal
Lawmaker Seeks Assurances Over Hong Kong Firm's Port-Security Deal
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee sought assurances Friday over a no-bid contract the Bush administration is finalizing with a Hong Kong conglomerate to help detect nuclear materials inside cargo passing through the Bahamas to the United States and elsewhere.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he was concerned there will be inadequate oversight in the Bahamas, just 65 miles from Florida's coast. He cited a story published Thursday by The Associated Press describing the $6 million contract involving radiation-scanning at the largest seaport in the Bahamas.

The administration acknowledges its contract with Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. represents the first time a foreign company will be involved in running sophisticated U.S. radiation-detection equipment at an overseas port without American customs agents present.

"I am concerned that under the arrangement detailed, a foreign company is responsible for screening containers for illicit materials without any government involvement," Thompson wrote in a letter to leaders at the Homeland Security Department and the Energy Department.

The Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Peter King of New York, could not be reached Friday for comment.

The contract is being negotiated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Energy Department. It has said employees of Hutchison the world's largest ports operator will drive the towering, truck-like radiation scanner at the sprawling Freeport Container Port under the direct supervision of Bahamian customs officials.

Any positive reading would set off alarms monitored simultaneously by Bahamian customs inspectors at Freeport and by U.S. customs officials working at an anti-terrorism center in northern Virginia.

A spokesman for the NNSA said the agency had not yet received the letter from Thompson.

News of the contract surfaced just as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff prepared to leave on a trip to China, Japan and Singapore, where part of his mission will be to discuss air and sea port security.

Hutchison's ports subsidiary said in a statement Friday from its headquarters in Hong Kong that the U.S. contract was not yet finalized and that it was confident Bahamian customs inspectors will notify U.S. authorities whenever it is appropriate.

Under the contract, no U.S. officials would be stationed permanently in the Bahamas with the radiation scanner. Separately, there are no U.S. customs agents checking cargo containers in Freeport under a related U.S. port-security program known as the Container Security Initiative run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In his letter, Thompson urged better coordination between the two security programs run by agencies within the departments of Energy and Homeland Security.

"A coordinated policy between your departments would ensure that our government would have oversight over the deployment and operation of equipment in any event, especially if involvement of a foreign company is necessary," Thompson wrote to Chertoff and to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

Thompson said he will support upcoming legislative efforts to combine the two programs under offices within the Homeland Security Department "to create a more streamlined security system."

Hutchison Whampoa is among the shipping industry's most-respected companies and was an early adopter of U.S. anti-terror 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.

The Homeland Security Department has worked since last year to include Freeport in its Container Security Initiative program, which would include stationing U.S. customs agents at the ports. Thompson asked when those efforts will be completed. Other Hutchison-run ports in other countries already participate in that program.