The Associated Press has a story today on a no-bid contract given out to Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa to operate US-bought radiological detection equipment at the port in Freeport, Bahamas, funded through the Department of Energy’s Second Line of Defense Program (which is related to DOE’s Megaports Initiative). The article contains skeptical quotes from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), and generally supportive quotes from Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steve Flynn. In a post at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall argues that this is “probably a more genuine security concern than the Dubai Ports deal,” and other blogs are starting to rush to judgment.
Based on what the article says, the only thing that troubles me about this is the no-bid contract. Hutchison Whampoa, through its port terminal subsidiary, has probably been the most-forward leaning company in the world in investing its own money in port security. Next week Sec. Chertoff is visiting the Port of Hong Kong to see their best-in-the-world container screening system. Who made a large share of the investment in that system? Hutchison Whampoa. Here’s a quote from congressional testimony by Steve Flynn earlier this month:
Hutchisonâ€™s chief executive, John Meredith, is an outspoken advocate for improving container security and has championed the Hong Kong pilot program, which runs in one of its terminals. His enthusiasm for the project is shared by Sean Kelly, a U.S. citizen who is currently the Managing Director of Modern Terminals in Hong Kong where the second pilot has been running.
Anyone who is trying to tar this deal as inherently bad for security has not done their homework.
The article also quotes Al Santoli, a former aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher – who has been after Hutchison Whampoa back to the time of the late 90’s controversy over their management of the Panama Canal – over the fact that U.S. officials wouldn’t be on the ground at the port, overseeing operations. Santoli also hasn’t done his homework, evidently. According to this page on the US Embassy website, CBP already has 20 employees in Freeport, Bahamas doing customs pre-clearance work. And it’s perfectly capable of carrying out container targeting and selection in northern Virginia at the National Targeting Center, as is the case with all other foreign ports.
Bottom-line: this is (or at least deserves to be) a non-story.