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 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.
The contract is being finalized, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.
Although 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.
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.
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 [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 has no security concerns about Hutchison's port operations, and the administration thinks the pending deal with the foreign company is safe, officials said. The cargo is likely to be inspected again once it reaches the United States.
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 a counterterrorism center 800 miles away in Northern Virginia. Any alarm would prompt a closer inspection and there are multiple layers of security to prevent tampering.
"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."