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U.S. Navy Plans Advertising Campaign To Win Approval for Vieques Bombing


September 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy is planning a $3.5 million advertising campaign in Puerto Rico to help win public approval of continued Navy bombing practice on Vieques, despite Pentagon rules that bar attempting to influence elections.

The effort -- to include direct mail and radio and television commercials leading up to a November vote -- is designed "to educate the people from Vieques and Puerto Rico on the Navy's mission and to gain support for the Navy's position in the 6 November referendum," according to a Navy notice soliciting bids from ad agencies, published Aug. 22 in the Commerce Business Daily.

The planned campaign drew a harsh response from government ethics watchdogs on Capitol Hill. It comes after President Bush directed the Navy to leave Vieques by 2003; proponents of continued bombing are hoping to win a reconsideration of that decision.

"It is a horrible precedent to have any branch of the federal government take sides in a local election," said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, who called on President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to direct the Navy not to try to influence the vote.

Under Pentagon rules, the armed services are required to be neutral in any election campaign. They are allowed to spend money only to inform, but not influence, the public on issues affecting the armed services. "We think we're on pretty solid ground here. We are monitoring the content very closely," said Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, the Navy's chief spokesman.

The bombing exercises off the small Puerto Rican island have been a source of controversy for years, with increasingly vocal opponents saying the practice runs are bad for the environment and public health. Navy officials have said that the training ground is critical, because it is surrounded by deep water, has beaches to practice amphibious assaults and is far from any commercial air-travel lanes. The island is the only place where the Atlantic fleet can hold simultaneous land, sea and air operations with live munitions.

But in a local, nonbinding referendum in July, Vieques residents voted overwhelmingly for the Navy to cease bombing exercises. President Bush stunned some in the Pentagon and the Congress by then directing the Navy to leave Vieques by 2003.

The broader November referendum was originally arranged by former President Clinton and former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello, following angry protests over the accidental death of a security guard near the bombing range in 1999. Their agreement limited the Navy to nonexplosive bombs pending the referendum; if the people of Puerto Rico support continued use of the range in the November referendum, then explosive bombs could be used again.

Despite President Bush's decision to withdraw completely, supporters of the bombing exercises hope the vote will show support for the Navy and lead Mr. Bush to reconsider his decision.

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