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White House Tipped Lawmakers to Port Story
Yahoo News/AP
March 31, 2006

WASHINGTON - Anxious to avoid new flare-ups over seaport security, the White House alerted dozens of Republican lawmakers on the eve of a story by The Associated Press on the subject and provided their staffs with an advance briefing.

The March 22 briefing involved between 50 and 100 congressional offices, participants said. It focused, they said, on an AP story being published the next day that disclosed that the Bush administration was hiring a Hong Kong conglomerate to help detect nuclear materials inside cargo passing through the Bahamas.

The no-bid, $6 million contract represents the first time a foreign company will be involved in running sophisticated U.S. radiation-detection equipment at an overseas port without the presence of U.S. Customs agents. The deal involves a company, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., that some Republicans have cited for national security concerns in the past.

By the time the briefing took place, the AP had conducted numerous interviews with administration officials and they were familiar with the issues that would be raised in the story.

Though administration briefings for Congress are common, participants said the conference call was unusual because of the number of people involved and because the topic was a yet-to-be-published story.

The call was "to let them know we anticipated a story," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who participated in the briefing. She and other participants said Republicans were not coached about whether or how to react to the story.

Earlier this year, an outcry by Republicans in Congress scuttled plans to permit a Dubai-owned company to take over significant operations at major American ports.

"Having their fingers burned, they're being more active in making sure the Hill knows," said Republican consultant Rich Galen.

Though Democrats and newspaper editorials have raised questions about the Hutchison deal since the story, Republicans have remained largely mute. This week, the administration announced it would negotiate with Bahamian officials to station Customs inspectors there by fall.

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