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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Vieques Island decision, we go to New York Times White House correspondent David Sanger, and Time Magazine’s Pentagon correspondent, Mark Thompson. Well, Mark, the policy is about a day old and so far has been finding very few champions in Washington.
MARK THOMPSON: I mean basically, Ray, what is important to realize here is the Clinton Administration essentially conceded we’d be pulling out by 2003. I think what President Bush has done in large part at the Pentagon there is saying because of political reasons, it’s just to make that a fait acomplit not to go through the referendum, just to get the Navy to concentrate on its job, find a place where they can drop bombs, storm the shore, and shoot their long range guns from the ships and get out of this political mess that they are in.
RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Wolfowitz was on this program a couple of weeks ago and said the search for a new spot was ongoing and very serious and intense, but he also left the impression until it was done, there was going to be no plan to pull out of Vieques, how did the chronology get changed?
MARK THOMPSON: A couple of years ago they found 18 different places where they could go, but none of them are as good as Vieques. Gordon England, the new Navy Secretary, has been in office less than a month. And his charter was to get rid of this problem. Yesterday he went to the White House, the White House was eager for him to come over there. And basically they agreed that they were going to cut their losses and get out. It’s largely a political decision. It will have military costs, but it’s one that this administration is willing to pay.
RAY SUAREZ: David Sanger, we have a President overseas making an announcement on this — his press secretary not really taking any questions on it and a lot of flack from normally his allies in Washington. Let’s talk about the politics of this a little bit.
DAVID SANGER: Well, part of the surprise, Ray, was that the White House thought that this announcement would be greeted widely in Puerto Rico and on Capitol Hill. And, in fact, what we’ve just we heard and we just saw from the clip that you showed from Congress is a reaction that has surprised them.
You had people who were saying on the one side, you are not out soon enough and on the other side you have a conservative wing of the Republican Party that has already been very critical of President Bush for not supporting the military enough, for not fulfilling his campaign pledge to make sure they are combat ready and saying, look, this is another example where you have taken a political imperative — in this case an appeal to Hispanic voters concerned about the protests in Puerto Rico and basically told the Pentagon to go off and find a solution to its problem.
RAY SUAREZ: We also saw Secretary Rumsfeld — given ample opportunity to do so — not having much to say about this policy pronouncement.
DAVID SANGER: He didn’t leap right in and say he thought it was a great idea. There was a wonderful moment with one of the White House officials traveling with President Bush in Europe where when they got too many questions on this, the official said you’ll have to ask the White House — as if the White House didn’t move with the president. So there has been a great effort I think to distance folks from it.
The meeting itself yesterday was interesting. There are things we don’t know about it. We are told by the White House that Secretary England came in with this recommendation that they close down Vieques. But it was also made fairly clear to the Secretary we believe that he really didn’t have any other option; that he was not really welcome to show up with the suggestion that they keep it going for a number of years beyond the 2003 deadline.
RAY SUAREZ: So this was a decision, Mark, made by people in suits, not in uniforms.
MARK THOMPSON: Yeah, that very definitely is true, Ray. Plainly the President let the cat out of the bag last month when in an interview with Spanish Television or Spanish language television, he basically said, we need to find another place. As soon as he said that, at the Pentagon, jaws dropped. They were glum. They said this gig is up; we need to find another place, and so that statement last month really accelerated this process.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what are people telling you at the Department of Defense about how plausible other locations are? We hear differing accounts on whether we can actually do what we do at Vieques somewhere else.
MARK THOMPSON: They call Vieques a crown jewel. I mean, the sea lanes close to it are very deep. There is not much commercial traffic. You know your Marines can land there. Planes can bomb there, and long range guns can shoot there. To find a place in this hemisphere for the Atlantic Fleet where you can do that is very difficult.
Any new place will be more than one place, it will be a couple of places looking in Scotland, looking in the Med, they’re looking in the Gulf of Mexico; they’re looking elsewhere in the Caribbean but the ships that come from Norfolk don’t have to go too far to get to Vieques, any new place they have to go to, especially if there’s more than one, will require them to go further. It will be less efficient and indeed, the training won’t be as good because you won’t do it all in one place, it’ll be like your quarterbacks and receivers practicing over here, your guards practicing over there. And when the day of the football game comes you say, come on guys, let’s get together and play. And the Navy just doesn’t think that can be done very well.
RAY SUAREZ: David Sanger, before Ari Fleischer shut down questions on Vieques today, he said this was not a political decision but one made on the merits, yet was Karl Rove involved in this?
DAVID SANGER: Karl Rove was sitting in the meeting and-
RAY SUAREZ: Remind people who -
DAVID SANGER: Karl Rove is the President’s chief political advisor. I think his title is Counselor to the President, Senior Advisor to the President but he was of course the political strategist behind the campaign last year. He is very attuned to the concerns, the political concerns for the Bush White House for President Bush’s reelection. He has been very concerned about the Hispanic vote, New York, Florida, and a lot of key states where this is a central issue. And he was sitting in on the meeting. We are told that he simply accepted Secretary English’s recommendation, but it was also very clear how Mr. Rove wanted this thing to turn out.
RAY SUAREZ: Now some of the Republicans who came out of the meeting with Secretary English this afternoon talked about not only how badly this would play in mainland United States communities which are home to live fire bases, but in other places in the world — like Okinawa.
DAVID SANGER: Okinawa is a superb example. I used to live in Japan for the Times, and many of these same issues are all constantly whirling the island of Okinawa — we do live fire exercises– not the same kind that we do on Vieques but very similar. There has been a lot of demand that the flights stop, that a lot of fire exercises stop, that the troops get out. The Japanese government has always sort of kept a lid on this but it’s becoming increasingly difficult.
And the United States Government has always said, look, we can’t leave Okinawa until you find us an alternative location. And that’s sort of frozen the debate. Well, now what’s happened? They’ve uncorked that because now the Japanese can say well, you’ve agreed to get out of Vieques before you found an alternative location. And think of those three criteria that you just heard President Bush give in the clip before. He said that there had been harm done. You could say that in Okinawa. He said that it disturbed our friends and neighbors. You could say that in Okinawa; he said they didn’t want us there. You can certainly say that in Okinawa. If he applies that criteria elsewhere, he is going to have a very difficult time.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, getting from Norfolk to Scotland or Norfolk to the Mediterranean is one thing. Getting the Pacific Fleet somewhere else besides Okinawa, we are talking about thousands of miles of sailing.
MARK THOMPSON: A lot of wasted steaming hours. You mean, plainly training for the Navy is a lot of steaming to nowhere just to get to a place where you can do these kind of exercises. And a lot of our forces in the Pacific are in the Japanese region so that makes Okinawa — especially for the Marines — a convenient place to train. But as of this point in time, nobody in the Navy is talking about abandoning Okinawa, it will be interesting to see how long that sort of wall stands.
DAVID SANGER: Also remember that Okinawa is particularly important because we lost the Philippines ten years ago.
MARK THOMPSON: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, talk a little bit about the whole idea of this referendum. The idea that the military goes places and then asks people whether they want to be there or not seemed to me to be a pretty novel approach to this whole thing. Was it ever a comfortable fit?
MARK THOMPSON: No. I mean generally you don’t have a pure democracy in situations like this. But if you look at a map of the United States, look at the air zones dedicated to the military, they have been shrinking dramatically over the last 25 years, and that hasn’t happened because of referenda but it has happened because of Congress and local officials making their views known to the Pentagon saying — guys you can’t just fly over all these spaces and have, you know, open hunting day every day like you did in the past especially as commercial air traffic is growing.
So we’ve seen this sort of thing but generally it has happened behind the scenes. Down at Vieques, it’s become a cause celebre, you’ve had people protesting, people getting arrested; it’s been on the news. So it’s a much more high profile way of going about it. And the fact is — the fact seems to be that the protesters have won. This is going to incite other people I believe and people in the Pentagon believe to conduct similar campaigns.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Thompson, David Sanger, thank you both.