State Journal Register

June 15, 2001

Bush's plan to leave Vieques questioned 
  Navy to leave in 2003 opponents argue it's not soon enough 


WASHINGTON - President Bush's order to the Navy to give up its premier Atlantic combat training area at Vieques drew a barrage of protests Thursday from Republican lawmakers and conservative defense analysts, with some charging that Bush chose politics over military readiness.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., said he had warned the White House that there were "very strong feelings" in his committee against losing Vieques. "This place is irreplaceable."

Virginia Sen. John Warner, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his major concern is "the safety of the men and women in uniform. This goes to the heart of that."

"I see this as an issue that means American lives," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the committee. Inhofe said the errant bomb that killed five service members in Kuwait in March was dropped by a Navy pilot who was unable to train at Vieques because of the protests against the use of the isolated bombing range.

Inhofe vowed to "do everything in my power" to prevent a change in the law that would preclude the chance that the Navy and Marine Corps could continue to use the training areas on the small Puerto Rican island.

Defense analyst Loren Thompson, of the conservative Lexington Institute, said he found it "disturbing that the president did not offer any alternative, since the Navy's position is that Vieques is the only place on the East Coast where it can do this kind of training. "The implication is that politics matters more than military preparedness," Thompson said.

Senior Pentagon officials claimed the decision to stop using Vieques by May 2003 and to search for an alternative was made by Navy Secretary Gordon England. But critics said England and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz were told of the president's wishes Wednesday during a meeting with Karl Rove, Bush's political adviser.

Pentagon sources said the White House feared that the escalating protests against use of the Vieques training areas would hurt GOP support among Hispanics, one of the fastest-growing blocks of voters.

In Sweden, Bush told reporters he had decided "the Navy ought to find someplace else to conduct these exercises" because of the protests in Puerto Rico.

"They are our friends and neighbors and they don't want us there," Bush said.

But Bush's action did not appease the opponents.

Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon, who has rejected an agreement signed by her predecessor and the Clinton administration to allow restricted use of Vieques, said Bush's decision "is not enough. We need the bombing to stop permanently and at once."

Similar demands came from many of the Democratic congressmen and other protesters who were arrested last month for trying to stop a Navy training exercise on Vieques, which has a population of 9,000.

The Navy and Marines have used Vieques for nearly 60 years to conduct coordinated training by aircraft, surface warships and landing forces. It is the only place that Atlantic-based U.S. forces can do all three operations in one location.