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Yemen Harbor Workers Not Screened

October 17, 2000|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As investigators began examining whether security lapses played a role in the bombing of the U.S. warship Cole, government agencies disagreed Monday about who was responsible for vetting the Yemeni contractors hired to provide harbor services for the stricken guided missile destroyer.

They acknowledged, however, that no U.S. agency conducted conventional security checks on the prime contractor or the subcontractors it hired.

The Cole, which lost 17 sailors in the attack Thursday, was scheduled to spend only a few hours in the port of Aden, Yemen, to refuel. But a small boat, unnoticed among the work boats around it, approached the ship and detonated a massive explosive charge, officials said.

When the destroyer entered Aden, arrangements had been made for port service companies to provide it with line-handling, fuel, water, food and garbage disposal. These services are arranged through a prime contractor, called a "husbanding agent," who hires and pays his own subcontractors.

Navy officials said security responsibilities for this kind of hire are split between military and civilian officials of the U.S. government.

The State Department plays a role in ensuring the security of such operations by initially choosing the husbanding agent, Navy officials said. This decision--typically made with guidance from the host government--focuses primarily on whether the agent is reliable and solvent, but also involves a general judgment on trustworthiness, officials said.

But the decision doesn't involve traditional background checks that seek to examine criminal records and analyze the character of employees, officials said.

State Department officials, however, said they have no role in vetting the contractors. The top military leader for the Mideast region, the commander in chief of Central Command, "has the authority for all those decisions," said Philip T. Reeker, a State Department spokesman.

Reeker declined to answer other questions, referring them to the Defense Department. He added that the subject could not be fully discussed because of the ongoing investigation of the bombing and related security issues.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen could not immediately be reached for comment.

One Navy official, who asked to remain unidentified, said last week that it would not be "possible or practical" to screen local contractors who are foreign nationals. In foreign ports, the Navy takes all the safety steps it can but also relies on the host country to provide security, the official said.

American military and civilian officials take a variety of other precautions in port visits.

The Cole prepared a special security plan before reaching Aden. And Central Command, the regional military organization, conducts regular assessments of security in these ports, said a spokesman, Maj. Joe Lamarca.

The Navy on Monday had not yet released the name of the husbanding agent who oversaw the operation in Aden. As a result, officials in Washington said they could not discuss the specific procedures followed in the selection of this agent.

In Aden, an official of a major port contracting company that was hired to bring the Cole food and remove its garbage said Monday that the company did not screen any of its 35 employees before they were hired.

According to Abdullah al Khalqi, marketing manager of the Al Mansoob Commercial Group, the Navy sent a contracting team to visit the firm's offices before it signed papers. But it apparently did not demand further checks.

Khalqi said the company did not look further into the employees' pasts because "we believe their word."

The general manager of the company was released Monday after two days of questioning by Yemeni police. The company is known locally as "King of the Sea" because of its many contracts in the harbor.

Navy officials, noting that the entire region is considered dangerous, have argued that there was little they could do to prevent an attack like the one on the Cole. But top officials have increasingly stressed their intention to undertake a thorough review of security procedures.

"We will find out through this inquiry . . . whether there was any laxity, any failure to measure up to the very highest standards that we insist upon for force protection," Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said Sunday on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation."

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Times staff writer David Kelly in Aden contributed to this report.

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