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Avenge Vieques!

Sinking The Navy

Garbage In, Garbage Out

The Guns of Vieques


Avenge Vieques!
Flag waving at the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

By William F. Buckley

June 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 NATIONAL REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.

You will not believe what the United States, via the United States Navy, is engaged in in Vieques, Puerto Rico! We have been increasing the death rate, causing cancer, precipitating infant mortality, generating vibroacoustic disease, inducing alcoholism, stimulating drug abuse, and multiplying HIV infections.

That's terrible, and – to be sure, only after a proper trial and conviction – we should consider a firing squad for the top admiral in charge, and perhaps for the Secretary of the Navy. Those who'd call for impeachment proceedings against the president may be overdoing it, but history will establish that there is no safe hiding for a chief executive responsible for such wanton damage to an innocent people.

It is reassuring that at the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City outrage was uniformly expressed. The top New Yorkers were prominent at the head of the parade, led by New York's governor George Pataki and Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. All four Democratic contenders for mayor marched together, and though there may be policy differences among them on other matters, on the question of Vieques, there was none: They wore arm bands which proclaimed an important goal for the mayor of New York: "Peace for Vieques."

Mrs. Clinton was especially anxious to declare her solidarity with the Puerto Rican people, not merely those 9,400 who live on the island of Vieques. She spent the entire parade time clutching two flags. One was the flag of the United States, the second, the flag of Vieques. Flag of Vieques? Does Coney Island have its own flag? Where'd she get it? How come Vieques has a flag? Vieques was settled in mid- 1843, is the answer to that, and it was called Isabel Segunda, after the Queen of Spain. Why shouldn't they have their own flag? Maybe with 9,000 inhabitants the Viequees should have their own navy? We might then see a David and Goliath showdown, but we'd have to hope Sen. Clinton and the New York political faculty would give our side – the United States side – a hearing of some kind, before adopting the Vieques flag as their own.

What would an attorney representing the United States say if arraigned by the human-rights committee of the United Nations?

Well, the gunnery done by the Navy is nine miles from the only population center of Vieques, and downwind from it, which means that whatever rises from the gunnery rises out to sea, not upwind to the inhabitants of Vieques. The Navy's attorney might go on to say that at a distance of nine miles, you can't really make out the sound of a bomb detonating. Not unless you really strain to hear it, which would require pretty good hearing.        

The defense attorney would take on the infant-mortality charge, which originated in February 2000 when the Puerto Rico Physicians and Surgeons Association charged that in Vieques, infant mortality was 50 percent higher than in mainland Puerto Rico. These representations – widely reiterated every day, everywhere – were weighed by Puerto Rico Health Secretary Dr. Carmen Feliciano, who observed that the organization had been "lying to the public." The Association had simply eliminated birth figures between 1996 and 1998. If they hadn't done so, the figures would have shown infant mortality in Vieques lower than in mainland Puerto Rico.

But how would the Navy's defense lawyer handle the problem of cancer in Vieques? Well, he'd invite a little perspective here. Data show that the annual cancer rates on Vieques have been alternately both higher and lower than those of mainland Puerto Rico over the past several decades. Moreover, he'd show that the volatility of Vieques cancer statistics rests on so simple a reason as that the population is so tiny that individual cases of cancer make big statistical splashes. The anti-Navy people simply picked the year that best served their prosecutorial cause.

At that point the Navy's defense lawyer would introduce a representative of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health to examine the charge that naval gunnery causes that "vibroacoustic" heart malady complained about. The Johns Hopkins people will testify that "within the constraint of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gunfire in producing echocardiographic abnormalities."

Would the Navy then rest its case?

No! The Navy would assert that two important things are being accomplished by the gunnery practice on Vieques. One of these is the training of men and women who have in the past exercised, and alas will almost certainly have to exercise at some point in the future, military skills designed to save the lives of real people threatened by something worse than echocardiographic abnormalities; for instance, the Kuwaitis when they were invaded by Iraq.

And the other accomplishment of the Navy?

The Navy has kept the Reverend Sharpton in the cooler for two and one-half memorable weeks. He has lost 14 pounds from his practice of a hunger strike, and there are those who wish he would maintain that rate of loss on till Isabel Segunda celebrates her 200th birthday.

Sinking The Navy: Sharpton 1, Bush 0

By NR’s John J. Miller & Ramesh Ponnuru

June 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 NATIONAL REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.

We have been hanging back from joining the chorus of people saying that the Bush administration is short-changing the military. Our inclination has been to give the president's team some time. But today's announcement that bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques will be stopped in 2003 sure looks like a triumph of dubious politics over national security.

In 1999, a Defense Department panel reported that, although 18 other sites for the exercises had been considered, "there are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirement for combined arms live fire training." Vice Admiral Daniel J. Murphy, former commander of the sixth fleet, has said that "the loss of Vieques would cost American lives."

But some residents of Vieques have complained that the exercises are dangerous-causing everything from higher cancer rates to male-pattern baldness. (See Michael Fumento's "The Guns of Vieques" in NR's latest issue for an examination of these flimsy charges.) Al Sharpton got himself jailed protesting the Navy's use of Vieques. According to a report by Mike Allen and Sue Anne Pressley in the Washington Post, "Republican strategists feared" that the dispute "was alienating Hispanic voters." New York governor George Pataki, never one to give up an opportunity to pander, urged an end to the exercises and a shorter sentence for Sharpton.

We don't believe for a minute that Mexican-Americans in California are following the Vieques controversy more than anyone else, let alone that they would vote on the issue. For that matter, we don't even know that most residents of Vieques want the Navy out. The Clinton administration set up a referendum on the subject in November-but the Bush administration's announcement would seem to pre-empt it.

The administration says it will establish a panel to find another suitable location for training. To have a panel look into whether there's another site that's just as good as Vieques would be fine. If one were found, it could then be announced that Vieques would no longer be used. The administration is making decisions in the wrong order, acting on the wrong priorities. We hate to say it, but Clinton looks better than Bush on this issue.

The administration does not even appear to be buying itself good will. The Post reports, "Vieques activists reacted coolly to Bush's plan, calling the withdrawal too slow."

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Bad information leads to a bad decision.

By Jim Boulet Jr., executive director, English First.

June 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 NATIONAL REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Navy may soon be forced to cease critical training in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on land they have used since World War II. President Bush told reporters at a June 15th press conference: "My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises – for a lot of reasons."

How did this controversial decision happen? There are three reasons.

First, a good part of the Clinton-Gore team still remains in place at the Department of Defense, as a look at this June 13th White House press release demonstrates. Team Bush is still awaiting its own folks in all too many key slots.

The Clinton holdovers served an administration who readily placed political considerations, both real and imagined, above the needs of America's national security. Such people are likely giving Team Bush the same advice they provided to the Clintonistas.

Second, there are a number of Republican strategists who have decided that winning the "Hispanic vote" is essential to future Republican dominance. Accordingly, any issue that provokes a complaint from any person of Hispanic persuasion becomes radioactive.

This sort of pandering is based on a false assumption. There is really no "Hispanic vote" as such. Gregory Rodriguez of the New American Foundation explained why in the March 11th Bergen (NJ) Record:

Latinos don't have either the shared suffering and oppression that made the African-Americans and Jews each become one people, or the ethnic narrative that Jews have. The Republicans learned that after the 1996 election, when they said, "What will we do about Hispanics?" and Newt Gingrich decided to talk about making Puerto Rico a state, not knowing that Puerto Ricans might care, but other Hispanics would not. Mexicans don't give a damn about whether Puerto Rico becomes a state.

Since people like Karl Rove have elected a president and I haven't, let's look at the exit poll numbers from the 2000 election. Hispanics voted 80%-18% for Gore over Bush in New York State, but Bush beat Gore among Florida Hispanics by 49%-48%. One suspects, correctly, that Cuban-Americans in Florida were far more interested in Elian Gonzalez than Vieques.

The third reason for this startling decision may well be that Rove is not getting the whole story. Rove is a sophisticated political tactician. Rove was also busy doing other things during the 1998 congressional debate on statehood for Puerto Rico and the 1999-2000 debate on Vieques and must depend on others for information.

Unfortunately, some of the people who may be advising Rove were working hard on behalf of the interests of Puerto Rico's statehood-party governor during those years, interests which included urging the Navy to give up its Vieques land. (Puerto Rico spent freely to advance its interests in Washington.)

If conservative gatherings lately are any indication, Team Bush has been getting an earful about how pro-American and conservative Puerto Rico's statehooders are and that the Vieques issue is a plot by pro-independence Puerto Ricans.

Seldom do these speakers mention that statehood party governor Pedro Rossello asked the United Nations to order the Navy out of Vieques in 1999 and solicited the aid of Fidel Castro. They hope their listeners have forgotten Gov. Rossello's October 19, 1999 statement that "not one more bomb" would be allowed on Vieques as well as his threats against U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R., OK).

Rev. Al Sharpton praised President Bush for "validat[ing] what we have been saying all along, that the Navy can do these exercises elsewhere, and it is not necessary to continue these exercises in Vieques." Thankfully, "Admiral" Sharpton will not have the last word on this matter.

Navy officials considered the exercises so vital that they threatened high-profile resignations when Clinton suggested a similar withdrawal in 1999. Sen. Inhofe, Rep. James Hansen (R., UT) and other pro-defense congressmen and senators may have something to say about this new Vieques policy as well. Stay tuned.

The Guns of Vieques

A very silly, but very trendy, cause.

June 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001 NATIONAL REVIEW. All Rights Reserved.

By Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, completing a book on advances in biotechnology

June 25, 2001 Issue

You could think of other reasons for putting Al Sharpton in prison – but he was put there on May 23 for illegal actions in a cause concerning the U.S. Navy and Puerto Rico. This has become a very, very trendy political cause.

New York's big Rev. is one of a large cadre of politicians piling onto the bandwagon against the Navy's gunnery facility on the island of Vieques. A group of House members has written to President Bush protesting the Navy's use of Vieques, suggesting that because of the Navy's occasional bombing and shellfire, the island has higher rates of death and cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico.

Some accuse the Navy exercises of increasing the infant-mortality rate; others allege that the sounds of blasting have prompted an epidemic of thickened heart membranes, labeled "vibroacoustic disease." A 31-year-old man even told a credulous Associated Press reporter that the bombing and shelling were making him bald. The hair "fell out little by little," said the anguished fellow.

Politicians have taken these charges very seriously; virtually everybody with more than five constituents of Puerto Rican descent has demanded that the Navy get out of Vieques. The list of Vieques foes now includes New York governor George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

An examination of the facts reveals that the complaints of the anti-Vieques campaign are utter nonsense. To begin with, the Vieques inhabitants closest to the gunnery site live about nine miles away – and the gunnery site is downwind of them. Furthermore, Vieques residents differ demographically from those of the rest of Puerto Rico. One prominent Vieques activist testified before Congress that Vieques suffers "a high incidence of alcoholism, drug abuse, and HIV infections." It has a high percentage of retirees, but no hospital for its 9,400 residents. These factors are probably of some import when it comes to health comparisons between Vieques and the mainland.

Nobody has been able to come up with a serious theory connecting any of the supposed illnesses with the gunnery site – which is not surprising, because the spooky claims amount to nothing more than misinformation and outright fabrication. For example, the claim of environmentalist attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that "Vieques has the highest rate of infant mortality and cancer in Puerto Rico" is widely accepted--but totally false. The infant-mortality myth originated in February 2000, when the Puerto Rico Physicians and Surgeons Association held a press conference to claim that the rate was more than 50 percent higher on Vieques than in mainland Puerto Rico. They presented their conclusions to the Puerto Rico Health Department; the very next day, Puerto Rico health secretary Dr. Carmen Feliciano publicly refuted the allegations, and accused the Physicians and Surgeons Association of "lying to the public." How so? They had neatly clipped out the years 1996 through 1998 from their statistics. With those years left in, the infant-mortality rate in Vieques is actually lower than that of mainland Puerto Rico.

What about the allegations that the overall death and cancer rates are higher in Vieques than in mainland Puerto Rico? The death rate hardly means anything, if you consider that 47 of the 50 states also have higher mortality rates than mainland Puerto Rico. As for the high cancer rate, it comes from data compiled by Dr. Diego Zavala of the Puerto Rico Cancer Registry in 1997 – which data actually show that the annual cancer rates on Vieques have been alternately both higher and lower than those of mainland Puerto Rico over the past several decades. The data bounce around because the Vieques population is so low that each cancer case makes a big statistical impact; the activists merely picked the year that best served their cause. In any case, the reported cancer rate on Vieques is actually much lower than that of many major U.S. cities.

Finally, what of that strange "vibroacoustic" heart malady? Dr. Nuno Castelo Branco claimed to have found heart-membrane thickening among Portuguese aircraft-factory workers exposed to as much as ten years of constant jet-engine noise. Even if that particular claim stands up, it rather stretches the imagination to think that the thump of shell explosions nine miles away would have a similar effect; yet now Branco claims that among 50 Vieques residents he tested, 49 have this syndrome.

The federal government asked the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health to look at Branco's report. The Johns Hopkins team concluded that "within the constraint of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gunfire in producing echocardiographic abnormalities" and that there is "insufficient basis for reaching a conclusion that Vieques residents have pericardial thickening or other heart abnormalities." Indeed, they called into question whether Branco's finding supported the very existence of "vibroacoustic disease."

So much for the health problems. Are Puerto Ricans being exploited in some other way? Nope. According to the Navy, Vieques is one of 56 Defense Department live-fire ranges, and many Americans live far closer to gunnery facilities. Ft. Sill, Okla., for example, is less than two miles from a gunnery range – and Oklahomans, unlike Puerto Ricans, pay federal income taxes.

A special 1999 Defense Department panel reported to President Clinton that, for many reasons, Vieques is unique and vital to national defense. The panel reviewed a Navy study of the feasibility of 18 alternative areas, but concluded that "there are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirement for combined arms live fire training." And, although a third of the island's population has lined up to be compensated for alleged medical ills, Heritage Foundation defense expert Jack Spencer notes that protests consistently comprise 200 people, or fewer. "Of these, less than ten percent at best are Vieques natives," he said. "If the locals were so concerned, you'd think they'd find a few hours of time to protest for themselves."

All of this should give us pause before we sacrifice national security to prevent the scourge of male pattern baldness.

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