Hong Kong Company to Scan Cargo at Overseas Ports

A Hong Kong company will be responsible for ensuring cargo bound for the U.S. does not contain nuclear materials.

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.

On its surface at least, this sounds a hell of a lot scarier than having a UAE-owned company doing administrative work at American ports. Hong Kong is part of Communist China, the bogeyman that has been projected for decades as The Next Big Enemy. And, while the Philippines are friendly, they are also home of terrorist groups in the al Qaeda network.

Update: Josh Marshall notes that, during the Clinton administration, several prominent Republicans raised a stink about “key US ports and strategic facilities were being handed over to companies controlled by or linked to the People’s Liberation Army.”

I thought those fears on the right were demagogic and overstated at the time, though I think that a little less today, for a variety of reasons. So I’m not going to flip my position now. But there are some elements of security so deeply vital that I’m not sure I see the logic of subcontracting them to anyone, let alone a company closely tied to what is arguably a potentially hostile foreign power.

In any case, I’d say this is probably a more genuine security concern than the Dubai Ports deal. So it should get some attention

Joe Gandelman agrees and wonders, “what will it say (again) about the quality of political prep work being done at the White House?”

I agree with both these observations. To be clear, I am not at all sure that it is necessary, let alone feasible, to have only Americans in charge of various activities related to shipping containers, let alone overseas. I do think, though, that actual security operations such as ensuring that the containers do not contain nuclear materials are substantially more crucial than the administrative management that sparked so much controversy with the Dubai contract.

And, given that controversy–which I believed was overblown and cynical–it is indeed bizarre for the administration to get caught flat footed on this one. While it may be totally innocuous, the combination of “nuclear” (or, if you prefer, “nookuler”) and “China” and “port security” in the same sentence might at least have raised a couple of red flags.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. RiverRat says:

    Well gee! Does that mean that borders of “our world” ends at the borders of “central” North America? Sounds kinda paleoconservative to me.

    Why don’t we just roll up in cotton blankets(grown in India), turn off the computers (assembled elsewhere), and hide in caves from dinosaurs (Islamofascists and Marxists)?