- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

HONG KONG — A Hong Kong conglomerate that has won a U.S. government contract to screen U.S.-bound cargo in the Bahamas for terror threats defended the plan yesterday, saying it would not be feasible for American officials to work in ports across the globe.

Some U.S. lawmakers and security specialists have expressed concern about the contract for Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. because American customs agents will not be working with the screening equipment, designed to detect smuggled radioactive materials.

The Hong Kong company is in the final stages of being awarded a no-bid, $6 million contract from the United States for screening at the Freeport Container Terminal in the Bahamas, just 65 miles from the American shoreline.

John Meredith, group managing director for Hutchison Port Holdings, the maritime subsidiary for Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and the world’s largest ports company, said it would be impractical for American agents to work in every port that handles U.S.-bound cargo.

Mr. Meredith said the best option for the United States is to rely on trusted agents using sophisticated inspection equipment to scan shipments at ports abroad.

Among concerns is that a low-paid employee might be vulnerable to bribes and provide terrorists with information about how the equipment works and which material triggers alarms, security specialists said.

But Mr. Meredith told the Associated Press his firm has elaborate security checks, including filming inspectors checking the containers.

U.S. customs inspectors already work at 43 foreign ports helping to inspect and scan cargo with the permission of foreign governments under a U.S. port-security program known as the “container security initiative.”

Some of the 43 ports are operated by Hutchison, and each of these ports has radiation scanners. Cargo that flows through the ports is expedited through American security procedures once it reaches the United States.

Customs security procedures at the Bahamas port are not rigorous enough to qualify it for participation in the U.S. customs security program, and no American agents work there.

Hutchison’s billionaire chairman, Li Ka-shing, has substantial business ties to the Chinese government that have raised U.S. concerns over the years. But Mr. Meredith said Mr. Li’s relations with Chinese leaders should not be an issue.

“It’s unfair to go and chop a guy up because he knows people,” he said. “He’s a 100 percent self-made businessman. He’s respected by heads of state everywhere.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who raised early questions about the Bahamas contract and was a leading opponent of a Dubai company’s effort to gain operational control of six U.S. ports, said he does not oppose awarding the contract to a foreign company. But he thinks U.S. customs agents should be stationed at the Bahamas port.

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