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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Presidential Panel Backs Firing Exercises in Vieques
by Elizabeth Becker
October 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON -- A Presidential panel recommended Monday that
the United States military be allowed to resume live firing exercises
on Navy property in Puerto Rico but that the range be shut down
in five years, despite demands from the territory's governor that
it be closed immediately and all bombing halted.
Since April, when a Marine pilot killed a Puerto Rican guard
in a bombing accident on the range, Puerto Rican protesters have
occupied it and prevented any target practice while the territory's
politicians have argued that the range was an unacceptable threat
to the island's livelihood and environment. The Navy has suspended
all bombing on the range, which is on the island of Vieques, pending
a final decision.
Anticipating criticism of Monday's recommendation, Secretary
of Defense William S. Cohen said in a written statement that Navy
and Puerto Rican officials should continue searching for a compromise.
"It's clear from the panel's report there are serious
concerns among the residents of Vieques which need and deserve
the careful attention of the Navy and the Department of Defense,"
Cohen said in the statement issued while he was traveling in the
Carlos Ventura, president of the Fishermen's Association of
Southern Vieques, which has set up a protest camp on the range,
told The Associated Press: "For us, it is unacceptable that
the Navy start exercises again. We are going to stay there and
continue our civil disobedience."
The panel's recommendation was immediately criticized by Hillary
Rodham Clinton, a presumed candidate for senator from New York.
She endorsed the position of most Puerto Rican politicians in
New York, who have promised to make the closing of Vieques an
issue in next year's Presidential and Senate elections.
"There should be an immediate and permanent end to the
bombing," Mrs. Clinton said Monday. "The use of live
fire on the island has put the people of Vieques at risk, degraded
the environment and hampered economic development."
Last month Mrs. Clinton angered several Hispanic leaders in
New York when she urged the President to withdraw his offer of
clemency to members of a Puerto Rican terrorist organization.
And in Monday's move, she was more in step with the Democratic
In a private conversation over the weekend, Vice President
Al Gore told State Senator Olga Mendez, a Democrat from Manhattan,
that he also favored shutting down the range, said an official
with Gore's Presidential campaign. But a spokesman for Gore would
say only that the Vice President was working for "a resolution
to this important issue."
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Monday
that he, too, favored "the immediate cessation of all military
activity on the island."
The Defense Department says that despite months of searching,
it has found no replacement for the range, which the Secretary
of the Navy has called "the only suitable training site."
"If the United States is to maintain military forces,
it owes its sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen the best possible
training," the Navy Secretary, Richard Danzig, said Monday.
Secretary Danzig asked Congress to endorse the findings of
the four-member panel, which was headed by Francis Rush, principal
deputy assistant secretary of defense for force management policy.
After a Congressional recommendation on the range, President Clinton
will make a final decision.
The United States Government owns nearly two-thirds of the
33,000-acre island of Vieques. Because the island is far from
the major commercial shipping and air routes, the Navy and Marines
have mounted exercises with live ammunition for amphibious assaults,
aerial bombing and aircraft carrier-based attacks.
Pentagon officials said that as the only range for such exercises
on the East Coast, Vieques had been critical for training for
every war since World War II.
In June President Clinton appointed the panel to resolve the
competing demands of the American military and the Puerto Rican
But the President tipped his own hand in a private letter to
his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, written on July
26, a White House official said. In it, the official said, the
President said he agreed with Ruben Berrios-Martinez, a Puerto
Rican friend of the President, who said that Vieques was being
treated like "a colonial commonwealth."
"This is wrong," the President wrote. "I think
they don't want us there. That's the main point. The Navy can
find a way to work around it."
In its unanimous recommendation, the panel said it recognized
the need to hold the training but said the military should substantially
reduce the number of days it holds live-fire operations and cut
back by half the amount of ammunition used.
Lee H. Hamilton, head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars, was a member of the panel, along with a retired
Marine Corps general, Richard Neal, and a retired Navy vice admiral,
Diego Hernandez, a former commander of the Navy's Third Fleet.
In nearly two months of testimony and travel to Puerto Rico,
said Hamilton, a former Democratic Representative from Indiana,
the panel came to the conclusion that "the Puerto Rican community
is very incensed by this and they all want it stopped immediately."