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By Proviana Colon Diaz
June 20, 2001
VIEQUES - For the third consecutive day of the U.S. Navy's scheduled military exercises in the target range, bombing exercises have been delayed, Special Vieques Commissioner Juan R. Fernandez said Wednesday.
Wednesday's practices were scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. with airplane flights from Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba to Vieques. At 1 p.m., practices from the airplane carriers to Vieques were to begin, and the bombing with it.
However, Navy personnel informed Fernandez's team that lack of maintenance in the airplanes at Roosevelt Roads had forced them to postpone those practices until 1 p.m., and the bombing from the airplane carriers was pushed back to 2 p.m.
Furthermore, arguing "weather conditions," the Navy failed to conduct bombing practices on Tuesday, Fernandez said.
"They said there were weather conditions that prevented them from practicing. I told them that in my opinion I didn't see what normally one calls bad weather, which is rain, lighting...," Fernandez said.
Because no exercises were conducted on Tuesday, Fernandez had no report to give to the media.
He did say, however, that Monday's exercises, which concluded at nighttime, were far more extensive than what had been preliminary reported.
Early Tuesday, Fernandez had informed that Monday's exercises began with a six-hour delay, and Fernandez was only able to supervise three hours of practices during which 31 exercises were made.
Those exercises consisted of 14 rounds fired by machine gun, 17 inert bombs of 75 pounds each, and nine round trips of military airplanes to and from the aircraft carriers, Fernandez said.
The numbers, however, changed dramatically once the nighttime exercises were included.
The Navy ended up firing 57 bombs of 500 pounds, fired 4000, 20 mm machine gun bullets, and made 116 recognizance flights, Fernandez said.
Because of the dramatic change in numbers, Fernandez took the decision Wednesday not to report any preliminary information to the press until the Navy handed in the official report before noon of the day following the practices.
"My position is to transmit to you what the Navy is saying, which is the information it is disclosing to the people of Puerto Rico," Fernandez said when questioned about the veracity of his information.
Ignoring criticism from pro-Vieques activists, Fernandez denied that he was cooperating with the Navy but argued that he had no way of arguing the veracity of the military information because he possesses "no radars, nor airplanes to confront the Navy with."
Fernandez said the government had hired a military expert, who along with his personnel, observed the practices and could shed light into what was going on.
Meanwhile, Fernandez could neither deny nor confirm whether people engaged in civil disobedience were the cause for the delay in military practices.
However, he did say that no one had been seen at the target range on Tuesday.
Pro Vieques activists claim that there are close to 55 people within the target range.
Civil disobedience did continue on Tuesday afternoon when another group, this time of seven people, broke into Camp Garcia grounds around 6:24 p.m.
Those engaged in civil disobedience identified themselves as Armando and Guido Perez, father and son; Domingo Dominguez, a Spanish salesman; Maria Cardona, a teacher; Josean Ramos, a columnist; Jose Garcia, a store owner; Marcos Ramos, a Rio Piedras Medical Center employee; and Saturnino Rivera, a retired professor.
The group was spotted by Navy personnel at 6:44 p.m. and were handcuffed and arrested 15 minutes later.
Tuesday night's arrests bring the official total of those arrested in three days to 37 people.
14 Are Detained for Allegedly Trespassing on Puerto Rican Training Grounds
By John Marino and Sue Anne Pressley
June 19, 2001
VIEQUES-- The Navy today began dropping inert bombs on Navy-held parts of this slender island of 9,000 people -- but without the massive protests and arrests that usually accompany such training exercises, Navy officials said.
"Things are quiet as far as the protesters are concerned," said Lt. Commander Katherine Goode, "and we are happy to be able to be training our sailors."
Last week, President Bush announced that the Navy will pull out of Vieques by 2003, ending a six-decade-old military presence that had been drawing more aggressive protests since the death of a civilian guard during a bombing exercise two years ago. Since then, the Navy has switched to the use of dummy bombs, which do not contain explosives, but critics have vowed to continue protesting until the Navy leaves the island altogether, citing harm to residents' health and to the environment.
Fourteen people were detained today and turned over to federal marshals for gaining illegal entry to the Navy's Camp Garcia, Goode said. During the last training exercise, held April 27-May 1, 187 people were arrested and charged with federal trespassing, including Al Sharpton and Robert Kennedy Jr., with some alleging abusive treatment by Navy personnel.
This time, there were no incidents, Goode said. "Everyone was cooperative and gave their names," she said.
Jacqueline Jackson, the wife of civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson and vice president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, who had joined protesters at Camp Garcia's front gate, was among those detained. "Yours is a noble cause," she told about 100 residents Sunday night who gathered to tell her how the Navy presence had damaged their lives.
Protest leaders denied that the movement has lost momentum after Bush's announcement. "We get phone calls, faxes, e-mails, from volunteers and people just showing up here from all over Puerto Rico," said Nilda Medina, one of the organizers of the Peace and Justice Camp, located in a rental house across the street from Camp Garcia's entrance. "There's still enthusiasm. We're just being more strategic about the civil disobedience."
Leaders said about 30 protesters gained access to restricted areas of Camp Garcia today in an attempt to force the Navy to postpone or scrap its exercises. Navy officials said no trespassers have been found near the target area and denied protesters' claims that they had successfully postponed the exercises for several hours today.
"Every hour they don't bomb is a victory for us," said Ishmael Guadalupe, who was jailed for two weeks for trespassing during the last round of exercises and protests.
The Navy will practice aerial bombardment on its Vieques target range all this week, using F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Hornets and EA-6B Prowlers to drop about 1,500 inert bombs. But it will not practice ship-to-shore shelling, normally a key part of the training exercises. The Puerto Rican government has sued the Navy, claiming the shelling violates newly enacted noise regulations.
The maneuvers, which began on the high seas last week, involve the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group, which includes 11 ships and 10,000 sailors.
Pressley reported from Miami, special correspondent Marino from Vieques.
June 18, 2001
VIEQUES (AP) - Approximately 1,500 to 1,800 inert bombs will be launched from the air to the U.S. Navy firing range in Vieques starting Monday, according to a Navy memorandum.
The document, signed by Rear Admiral M.P. Nowakoswki, was made public by the Pro Rescue and Development of Vieques Committee, who said they received the document through "internal sources."
"Just imagine how much more environmental damage on Vieques can 1,500 bombs cause launched from the air by airplanes traveling 1,200 miles per hour. It has to have a significant impact," said Robert Rabin, one of the committee's spokespeople.
The Navy is set to restart bombing by air Monday, after starting a new round of military practices Wednesday on the Vieques coast with 11 ships and 10,000 sailors who are training in combat formation.
According to the memorandum, 65% of the bombs will be launched during the day. The rest will be launched "preferably" during the first hours of the night.
"Who can guarantee that these inert bombs will not reach the uranium missiles that the Navy has not been able to recover?" Rabin asked.
The Navy accepted launching in Vieques 263 missiles lined with limited uranium in February 1999, of which only 57 have been retrieved.
The document also marks a total of six exercises in search and rescue to be carried out during the practices, four of those at night.
The memorandum makes reference to the study by U.S. Ecology and Marine Science Prof. James Porter, who found explosives and contaminating substances in the coral in the Vieques waters.
Porter's study determined that there is serious damages and contamination to the marine life in Vieques caused by military practices, as well as corroborating the existence of barrels with toxic material in the Vieques waters and confirming the presence of alarming indexes of explosive TNT in the coral reefs of the island municipality.
But the Navy said in the memorandum that the inert bombs will not affect the coral because they will be launched in another area.
"The Navy concludes that the proposed exercises have been properly evaluated, comply with the parameters, and will not have a significant impact," indicated the memorandum, dated June 12.
Navy resumes work on Monday; demonstrators head to island
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
June 16, 2001
VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO -- Protesters and security forces prepared for another, possibly violent showdown on Monday when the U.S. Navy plans to resume military maneuvers that will include air and ground exercises.
``The minute that first bomb goes off, we will begin our acts of civil disobedience,'' Nilda Medina of the Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques said Friday. She added that hundreds are making their way to this island over the weekend to participate in demonstrations.
The last time such acts occurred in April, more than 180 protesters were arrested, including prominent figures who complained of being mistreated while in federal custody, adding fuel to an already contentious issue.
In spite of the looming clashes, the Navy said the exercises will proceed.
``We fully intend to use our days to train,'' said Lt. Comm. Katherine Goode, a Navy spokeswoman. ``We're hoping the violent protesters won't go out there.''
The expected clash comes despite assurances from U.S. officials that operations at the target range will cease by May 2003, a declaration that failed to mollify Puerto Rican protesters but provoked criticism of the White House from Navy supporters on Capitol Hill.
The latest to complain was Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who told reporters in Washington that he had no advance notice of the decision from the White House.
``I've had basically no contact with the administration over it,'' the Mississippi senator said Friday. ``At this point I disagree very strongly with the decision.''
Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Gordon England said he hoped the commitment to pull out of Vieques would help quell a ``highly emotionally charged environment.''
But protest organizers said they were not convinced the Navy would keep its word.
``Our emotions will be calm when they stop the bombings, leave and clean up their mess,'' said Medina. ``Instead of continuing to bomb, they should spend the next two years getting rid of the contamination.''
Medina added that the announcement was simply a strategy by the Navy to avoid a loss at the polls. Vieques residents were set to vote on a binding referendum in November to determine if the Navy must leave by May 2003.
England said the military would seek relief from the presidential directive, imposed by former President Clinton, that would have required it to abide by the results of the referendum.
England also announced the creation of a panel of experts that will try to find an alternative to the facilities there.
``Vieques is a crown jewel'' of Navy and Marine Corps training installations, England said. ``That does not, however, mean that we cannot find a suitable alternative for Vieques.''
In Vieques, a handful of protesters continued to make preparations for Monday's demonstrations.
``If my turn comes up, I'm going in,'' said a 26-year-old who declined to give his name. ``This bombings have to stop now. If not, 2003 will come around, they'll be new leaders in power, they'll forget about all the promises they made and we'll be stuck with the military exercises.''
The Navy has used its range on Vieques, home to 9,300 people, for six decades and says it is vital for national security. Critics say the bombing poses a health threat, which the Navy denies.
Many of those arrested on charges of trespassing on government property during the demonstrations on Vieques complained of abuse. At a sentencing hearing in San Juan Thursday, a Puerto Rican senator testified that she was subjected to a strip search in the presence of sailors, a claim the Navy denies.
By CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS
June 16, 2001
WASHINGTON, June 15 The secretary of the Navy said today that he would ask Congress to cancel a referendum among the residents of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques to determine whether they want American forces to continue to train there.
The secretary, Gordon R. England, made the appeal to lawmakers in an effort to "decompress" an emotion- filled debate over whether the Navy should continue bombing exercises on Vieques or accede to demands from prominent Puerto Ricans, American politicians and protesters that the exercises stop.
"In my judgment, this is very bad public policy to have a referendum on issues critical to the Department of the Navy, issues critical to our men and women in uniform, and it sets very bad precedents," he said.
The vote, scheduled for November, was the product of a deal struck last year between President Bill Clinton and the governor of Puerto Rico, who has since left office. It was to give islanders the choice of retaining the Navy and its exercises or closing the range in 2003.
Mr. England asserted that his decision this week to end the Navy's bombing practice runs by 2003 effectively shutting down a unique training area his predecessors had fought vigorously to protect eliminated the need for a vote.
But that decision touched off a firestorm of criticism from all sides in Congress. Though sentiments cut across party lines, several prominent Republicans have challenged Mr. England's decision to leave Vieques, while a coalition of Puerto Rican activists and officials mostly Democrats demand that the exercises stop immediately.
Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, has asked the new Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, to hold hearings on the matter. Mr. Levin declined to comment tonight.
Representative Bob Stump of Arizona, the Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee, called the move to halt training on Vieques "a step in the wrong direction." He said he would schedule hearings to find an alternative.
On the other side of the issue, Representative Jose E. Serrano, Democrat of New York, and others calling for an immediate halt to the exercises accused the Navy of seeking to avoid the embarrassment of a public repudiation. "All indications are that it would lose" the referendum, Mr. Serrano said.
Mr. England said today that if Congress refused to cancel the referendum, the Navy would try to win it and that if it prevailed "certainly we would reconsider" the decision to end training there.
The November referendum is the second of two scheduled on the issue. Puerto Ricans plan to hold one on July 29, but that vote would have no legal effect on the Navy.
Mr. England denied reports that the move to halt training was imposed by White House political advisers intent on improving President Bush's standing with Hispanic voters. "I went to the White House," he said. "I made the proposal."
June 15, 2001
WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Thursday said his decision to pull the Navy out of the island of Vieques was a simple matter of Puerto Ricans not wanting the military there.
"My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises," Bush said in Sweden during his European trip. "These are our friends and neighbors, and they don't want us there."
But on Capitol Hill, angry Republican lawmakers said the matter was a complicated political move to woo Hispanic voters -- one that probably won't even work. One House Republican aide said lawmakers were so mad at what they saw as Bush selling out the best interests of the military that they were comparing him to former President Clinton.
Several Republican leaders from the House and Senate Armed Services committees vowed to fight the decision. They said Bush's proposal might lead to deaths of troops who aren't properly trained as well as an uprising from protesters near bases abroad and elsewhere in the United States. On Vieques, hundreds of protesters have illegally entered the base to try to stop the bombing.
"Once you give in to this kind of activity the Puerto Ricans are doing, you're inviting trouble," said Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He vowed to call hearings before July 1.
"Peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience goes back to the founding fathers," countered Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who was arrested in April on the bombing range.
Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, said the Navy base at Okinawa, Japan, is one of many places the United States has faced opposition from local residents. "What do we tell them? 'We won't bomb on ours, but we'll bomb on yours'?"
Lives in jeopardy?
At the Pentagon, Navy officials privately were steamed about the decision. The Navy has trained for 60 years on the tiny island and owns the property used as a bombing range there. Navy officials have called Vieques irreplaceable and warned that troops will not be as ready for combat without the training there in war-like situations.
"I have been all around the world," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and no other suitable site exists. "I see this as an issue that means American lives."
Inhofe noted that a recent bombing accident in Kuwait killed six people and might be related to restrictions on Vieques. The pilot had not been able to train with live ordnance because only dummy bombs have been used at Vieques since a wayward bomb killed a civilian guard in April 1999.
The White House decision will give the Navy two years to find another training plan. A previous independent panel looked for an alternative and found none. But Bush set a 2003 deadline for pulling the Navy out of the island completely.
Even that concession was not enough to satisfy Puerto Rican leaders. The Navy will continue to train during the next two years, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group, which is already in the area, will begin bombing exercises Monday.
"We're better off than we were yesterday, but it's still quite a ways off from peace on that island," Gutierrez said.
Public outcry persists
Ever since the accidental death of civilian guard David Sanes Rodriguez in 1999, the cry of "La Marina Fuera" or "Navy Out" has echoed all the way from the island of 9,000 residents to the front of the White House during scores of protests.
Hundreds of protesters have breached security to get onto the range to act as human shields against bombing.
Under a deal made between President Clinton and then-Gov. Pedro Rossello, islanders were scheduled to vote in November on whether to let the Navy stay and return to live bombing or leave by 2003. If the Vieques residents chose to keep the Navy, the island would get $50 million for economic development. Local officials also have scheduled a July referendum, which included a third option that called for all bombing to cease immediately.
A pre-emptive strike
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said the White House thought it would lose the November referendum and wanted to avoid that embarrassment by agreeing on its own to pull out. Warner and Hansen said the White House can't go forward with its plan without congressional approval.
Gutierrez said the referendum can be canceled simply by having the Navy certify that it no longer needs the range. But Inhofe said he doesn't think the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps will sign off on the deal.
Hansen, too, said Bush will not be able to make the decision without the OK of Congress. "They made him president; they didn't make him God," he said.
But if the Vieques range does close, Republicans in Congress may retaliate against Puerto Rico. Warner said Congress might shut down the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the main island of Puerto Rico. That base has 2,500 military personnel and contributes $300 million a year to the local economy, according to the Navy. Operating the Vieques range is one of the jobs of that base.
Bush's decision left Republicans angry at not being advised and in the difficult position of opposing a president of their own party. "As much as I love George W. Bush, he was ill-advised by political advisers who thought this was a way to win some votes," Inhofe said.
Bush was lobbied this week by New York Gov. George Pataki, who is hoping for Hispanic votes in his re-election campaign. The president and brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also have tried to reach out to Hispanics during their campaigns.
Republicans focused their anger Thursday at top White House aide Karl Rove, who was central in the decision. They also privately criticized Charles Black, a longtime ally of the Bush family. Puerto Rico's new Gov. Sila Calderon hired Black to lobby on the commonwealth's behalf. Government records show his firm will be paid $250,000 for a five-month period this year.
By DAVID E. SANGER and CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS
June 14, 2001
WASHINGTON, June 14 President Bush said today that the Pentagon will halt all military exercises and aerial bombing runs on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by May 2003, reversing the Navy's long-running insistence that no other locale was suitable for battle simulations.
"My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises, for a lot of reasons," the President said in Goteborg, Sweden, where he is meeting with European leaders. "One, there's been some harm done to people in the past. Secondly, these are our friends and neighbors and they don't want us there.
"And so I appreciate the fact that the Defense Department and the Navy responded," Mr. Bush continued, "and I have made the statement loud and clear that within a reasonable period of time, that the Navy will find another place to practice and to be prepared to keep the peace. It's the right agreement. I applaud the Defense Department and the Navy for reaching that agreement."
The decision was made on Wednesday at a White House meeting that included President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, who has frequently voiced concerns that the mounting protests against the Navy operations and the arrest of protesters seeking to block the exercises was costing Mr. Bush vital support among Hispanics. Also attending was Gordon England, the Secretary of the Navy, who told lawmakers Wednesday night that he would recommend that the Navy stop using the range by 2003, officials said.
Another exercise involving the dropping of inert bombs is scheduled to begin on Monday, and a senior administration official said "we wanted to get the word out quickly" that the administration would end the exercises, though not as quickly as Puerto Rican officials have demanded.
The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, insisted today that political factors did not influence Mr. Bush's decision. "No, it was a decision made on the merits," he told reporters in Sweden.
In Washington today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he was "in full agreement" with the decision. "I don't know how I could be more specific," Mr. Rumsfeld said, insisting that the decision would not affect decisions on other training sites, like Okinawa, that have been subject to protest.
In April, about 180 protesters, including four prominent New York politicians, were arrested for disrupting the Vieques exercises, and more arrests seem likely in coming days.
The Rev. Al Sharpton is serving a 90-day prison sentence for protesting on the island, while three other politicians received 40-day sentences: New York Assemblyman José Rivera, City Councilman Adolfo Carrión Jr. and Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party Chairman.
The announcement today appears intended to short-circuit Puerto Rican plans to hold a referendum next month on the Navy's operations on the island, which contains 33,000 acres and has about 9,300 residents.
While the referendum would have no legal effect on the Navy, Gov. Sila Calderón, until now a harsh critic of the military's refusal to end the exercises, has used it to build political pressure on the Bush administration a tactic that seems to have worked. Ms. Calderón signed a bill into law this week authorizing the July 29 referendum, though it is now unclear whether that will go ahead.
Some critics of the Navy's activities said Wednesday that they would continue their crusade until the Navy agreed to halt all maneuvers at Vieques immediately.
"If they're saying `we will continue bombing till 2003,' that would be unacceptable," said Representative Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico.
Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, another opponent of the bombing, said, "It's like me telling you that I'm going to stop beating you in the head with a hammer in two years."
He called the two-year deadline a "very embarrassing thing" for Governor Calderón, who has campaigned heavily for a Navy pullout.
Governor Calderón released the following statement in Spanish on Wednesday: "The information being disseminated this afternoon over the military maneuvers in Vieques is not official."
Her office, she added, "should not make any statements about it for the moment."
A defense official said the Pentagon began seriously studying ways to leave Vieques after President Bush said in an interview broadcast in early May by Univision, the Spanish-language network, that the United States needed to find another base for its Atlantic live-fire training.
The official said that after May 2003, the Navy would return the Vieques range to the Department of Interior, which would then determine how to clean up or otherwise dispose of the land that is uninhabitable because it is littered with shrapnel and unexploded shells.
The Navy has conducted exercises on the eastern tip of the island for more than 50 years. Military officials have maintained that live-fire training at Vieques, including both aerial bombing and ship-to-shore shelling, is the only way to verify that its aircraft and ships are combat-ready.
Many in the Pentagon, already unhappy with the Bush administration's failure thus far to dramatically increase the defense budget, are likely to complain that the Vieques decision was made for political reasons to the detriment of combat readiness. The Pentagon has frequently called the Vieques range, which is also used by the Marine Corps, "the best in the Atlantic."
But Mr. England, a longtime executive in the defense industry, came into his job with a clear mandate to solve the problem. A senior White House official said on Wednesday that Mr. England will "get outside experts, including some retired officers, to determine alternative sites that the Navy can use."
Also involved in Wednesday's meeting was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, who had promised to take a new look at the issue after the Clinton administration refused to act on Puerto Rico's demand that the exercises be suspended.
In April, a federal judge refused to block naval bombing on Vieques, saying there was insufficient evidence that the exercises would irreparably harm residents. At least one study has shown a high incidence of heart problems among the fishermen and children living on the island, chiefly an unusual disorder known as vibroacoustic disease. It is linked to loud noises like those from jet engines or deep explosions.
But the judge, Gladys Kessler, said the Navy had made "an implied promise" not to resume the bombing until completion of studies into possible links between noise and heart ailments among island residents. She also said that the bombing would violate a new Puerto Rican law against noise pollution.
Two referendums on the Navy's activities in Vieques have been scheduled for later this year. The first vote, in July, is being held by the government of Puerto Rico to determine whether residents want the Navy to stay in Vieques, to remain but stop using live ammunition in its exercises, or halt all training and leave immediately.
A November referendum is to be held by the Navy itself.
Mr. Serrano said the White House is hoping to obviate the need for either referendum and avoid a political embarrassment. "Everybody suspects the vote would be a landslide for the Navy to get out altogether," he said.
The decision today could also affect operations in the Pacific. The Marine Corps is under similarly intense pressure on the Japanese-owned island of Okinawa, where training exercises have long raised major protests. Now Mr. Bush will have to explain to Japan why a decision made for an American territory would not also apply to American training on foreign soil.
By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ
June 15, 2001
[PHOTO: Richard Perry/The New York Times]
Opponents of the Vieques bombing runs, including Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, right touring Times Square Thursday with other governors expressed disappointment they would not end before 2003.
WASHINGTON, June 14 President Bush's compromise plan to halt the Navy's bombing exercises in Puerto Rico came under intense attack today, both from critics who said it did not go far enough and from Congressional allies of the Pentagon who said it undermined military readiness.
Even Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, a strong supporter of the president who visited the White House this week to seek an end to the bombings, expressed disappointment that the Bush plan calls for doing so in 2003 rather than immediately as he had recommended.
"My goal is not to have it stopped two years from now," Mr. Pataki, a Republican, told reporters today at a news conference in New York. "My goal is to have it stopped now."
The plan the White House outlined calls for ending all military exercises and bombing runs on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by May 2003 despite the Navy's longstanding contention that the island is an indispensable site for its East Coast training operations.
The decision was reached on Wednesday after a meeting among senior White House officials, including Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, who has voiced concerns that growing opposition to the bombings had cost Mr. Bush critical support among Hispanic voters. Mr. Rove did not return phone calls on the matter today.
Indeed, the bombing runs on Vieques have become a rallying cry for Hispanics across the nation, drawing celebrities like Edward James Olmos, the actor, as well as galvanizing Puerto Ricans who characterize the bombings as an example of American arrogance.
In April, about 180 protesters, including four prominent New York politicians, were arrested for trying to block the exercises, and opponents have vowed to continue protests until the bombings stop.
The Bush plan was released on Wednesday as Puerto Ricans prepared to hold a referendum next month on whether to allow the Navy to continue its operations on the 33,000-acre island that is home to about 9,300 people.
While the outcome of the July 29 referendum would not be legally binding, the island's governor, Sila María Calderón, has used it to keep the pressure on the Bush administration to end the bombings.
At a news conference today in San Juan, Ms. Calderón said she was pleased that the White House was committed to ending the exercises, but wanted them to stop now. And she promised to press ahead with the vote. Today, some of the military's staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill sharply questioned the president's plan and warned that it would put the nation's military readiness at great risk.
The Navy has conducted exercises on the eastern tip of Vieques for more than 50 years. Military officials have maintained that live-fire training at Vieques, including both aerial bombing and ship-to-shore shelling, is the only way to verify that its aircraft and ships are combat ready.
Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said: "I cannot agree with a politically motivated decision, which sacrifices national security and unnecessarily puts the lives of our men and women in uniform at risk. Military training in Vieques is vital."
Representative Bob Stump, Republican of Arizona, echoed that sentiment, calling the island of Vieques an irreplaceable training ground and warning that giving in to Puerto Rican protesters would encourage residents living near other training sites to raise similar protests.
"I think it's a step in the wrong direction," Mr. Stump said. "I think it's setting a bad precedent."
Indeed, two senior national security officials said today that the precedent created by this decision could create a new set of difficulties for the Bush administration in dealing with the Japanese. The new Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is to arrive in Washington on June 30, and American troop presence on Okinawa is expected to an important issue on the agenda.
In Okinawa there have been increasing protests over the presence of the troops, and to keep them there the United States has used a version of the logic used to justify the exercises in Vieques: The American military cannot move its training facility there until it has another, equally good training site.
In Sweden, Mr. Bush defended his decision. "My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises, for a lot of reasons," the president said. "One, there's been some harm done to people in the past. Secondly, these are our friends and neighbors and they don't want us there."
But Mr. Inhofe said that "this decision will have a domino effect on other military ranges around the world."
Critics of the Navy's operations on the island expressed the same level of outrage with the president's plan today. They said they thought it was a grave mistake for Mr. Bush not to end the bombings on the island immediately and vowed to step up protests on the island against the Navy.
Representative Jose E. Serrano, Democrat of New York, who was born in Puerto Rico, dismissed the plan and expressed bafflement that the Bush administration would offer it as a solution. "It's amazing that the White House thinks we would accept this," Mr. Serrano said. "The problem is that the bombing is continuing. Nothing has changed, and this is unacceptable."
Representative Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said of the Bush plan: "This won't stop the protests. It is not a solution."
The concerns of Mr. Menendez, who is of Cuban descent, underscore the degree to which Vieques has become an issue of intense interest to all Hispanics, not just Puerto Ricans. And their concerns could hardly escape White House officials who are aware of the ever-growing clout Hispanic voters wield in Florida and in the Southwest.
Many of these critics also angrily dismissed the Bush plan as an empty gesture, noting that Puerto Ricans are almost certainly going to vote in favoring of suspending military exercises on the island in next month's referendum. "It promises no more than has already been promised an end to the bombing by May 1st, 2003," said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, who called the plan a "mirage."
An agreement between President Bill Clinton and Ms. Calderón's predecessor called for the referendum on whether people wanted the bombing to end in 2003 or continue with the promise of financial assistance. Ms. Calderón rejected the deal.
Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, Democrat of New York, who was also born in Puerto Rico, said: "What is the big news here? Everybody knew that the Navy would have to stop in 2003 because of the referendum. The people of Vieques were going to vote to get the Navy out."
As New York governor, Mr. Pataki has little control over the Vieques issue, but he has become a prominent spokesman for stopping the bombing. The Vieques issue is critically important for Mr. Pataki, as he considers whether to seek re-election in 2002. The bombings arouse deep emotions among many Puerto Ricans in New York, the state's largest Hispanic group, and Mr. Pataki has made no secret of his desire to court their vote.
Still, Mr. Pataki was far more measured in his comments than Democrats. He described the administration's action "a very positive step" and added that he would continue to press for an immediate halt to all military exercises on Vieques.
The Bush decision came a day after Mr. Pataki visited the White House to discuss the Vieques issue.
It is not clear what impact the Pataki visit ultimately had on the White House decision. But Mr. Pataki's advisers were giving the governor credit for having helped advance the issue this far with the White House, even as the governor himself sought to play down his influence.
"They didn't give me any indication at the time," Mr. Pataki said of his conversation with White House official. "I was surprised."