Kuwait is negotiating to charter privately owned U.S. tankers, which could be staffed with Americans, to transport its oil through the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials said at a House hearing yesterday.

Transportation Department officials said that "active discussions" under way could lead to Kuwait's chartering of American ships that would be protected by the Navy. They would be in addition to the 11 Kuwaiti tankers that the administration plans to place under the U.S. flag and provide with Navy escorts in the gulf.

John A. Gaughan, administrator of the Maritime Administration, said during a recess in the daylong hearing that Kuwait has approached an American shipping company about the possibility of a charter. Gaughan said that earlier this week he told representatives of the company, whose identity he did not know, that chartered vessels flying the U.S. flag "would be protected."

The statements came as members of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries sharply criticized the government for pledging to reflag the Kuwaiti vessels instead of insisting that Kuwait employ ships and sailors of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

"This indicates that the American flag is becoming a flag of convenience," Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.) said.

Other members, echoing her concerns, called the administration's "reflagging" plan a scheme to "rent" the Navy.

The 11 tankers proposed for reflagging will carry only one U.S. crew member each, a civilian captain from the Merchant Marine, Transportation Department officials said. The reflagged tankers would be operated by predominantly Philippine crews under British officers, they said.

In later testimony, attorneys representing Chesapeake Shipping Co., the Delaware-based firm established by the Kuwaitis to assume title of the 11 tankers, said their client is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kuwait Oil Tanker Co., which is owned by Kuwait.

The officers and directors of Chesapeake shipping are drawn from the Kuwait Oil Tanker Co. and Santa Fe International, another Delaware concern owned by the Kuwaiti government.

Members of both parties pressed administration officials to explain why the United States had not urged Kuwait to lease U.S. ships when they first inquired about gaining protected shipping through the gulf. They questioned the ability of foreign crews to work in concert with their U.S. Navy protectors.

Representatives of the State and Defense departments denied that the foreign crews would compromise security for the tanker fleet.

Marion V. Creekmore, deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, said the government faces a choice between accommodating Kuwaiti preferences and acquiescing to an expanded Soviet role in the strategic waterway.

"The Kuwaitis wished to reflag 11 ships. If they did not reflag them with us, all the evidence suggests they would have reflagged them with the Soviet Union," he said.

As a result of its cooperation with Kuwait, the administration has received assurances that the Soviets will not gain access to Kuwaiti ports, Creekmore said.

House members quarreled with the precedent of extending the U.S. military umbrella to what they refused to view as American vessels.