TOPICS > Nation

Brac Commissioners

August 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: On its third and final day of deliberations, the panel deciding the fate of military facilities across the country held critical votes on Air Force bases and National Guard units.

SPOKESMAN: All in favor of the motion to strike —

RAY SUAREZ: The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, also known as BRAC, decided to keep open South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force base, clearly pleasing the state’s top politicians who lobbied hard on Ellsworth’s behalf. Gov. Mike Rounds:

GOV. MIKE ROUNDS: This BRAC Commission, these are volunteers, these are folks that have taken time away from their lives to step into a very tough job. They made some tough decisions. Today, they listened to the whole story; they took the time to gather the facts. This BRAC system is working right now and thank goodness that it did.

RAY SUAREZ: And following a lengthy debate, Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico was also saved, though its operations were significantly cut.

SPOKESPERSON: The motion is approved.

RAY SUAREZ: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had called for closing or consolidating some 800 military installations. But the commission voted this week to keep open several major bases on his list, including: The Portsmouth Shipyard in Maine, in operation over 200 years; the nation’s oldest submarine base in Groton, Connecticut; the Red River Army Depot in Texas; and a naval support center in Corona, California.

But the panel agreed to an overwhelming majority of Rumsfeld’s recommendations, closing hundreds of large and small facilities, including: 80-year-old Fort Monmouth Army Base in New Jersey; Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, the first of its kind; Fort Monroe, Virginia; Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson, Georgia, the state’s oldest base; Pascagoula Naval Station, Mississippi; and the naval weapons station at Concord, California.

This afternoon, the commission considered the Pentagon’s plan to restructure the Air National Guard, agreeing to close or realign several facilities across the country. The panel must send its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president can accept it, reject it or send it back for revisions. Congress will have the final word.

RAY SUAREZ: And joining me now is Anthony Principi, the chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, and Philip Coyle, one of the commissioners on the BRAC committee.

And, Mr. Secretary, you were given 837 closings to assess. I know you’re gaveling back into order after you leave here. Are you almost done?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Well, we’re getting close. We have Air National Guard issues to resolve this evening and a few others that we tabled that we were not able to resolve. So I would hope that by late this evening, early morning, we’ll have all of the decisions behind us.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the Pentagon had goals in its overall approach, it said it had goals in its overall approach to closures, cost cutting, consolidation, harmonization of the future forces — are your final list of recommendations going to get the Pentagon where it says it needs to be?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Well, we’re certainly moving in that direction in the sense of transformation and consolidation, greater jointness amongst our armed services.

The cost savings, I’m not sure we’ll achieve the goal that they have set out. We have made some significant changes that will reduce the cost savings. But overall I think we are indeed saving dollars that can be used to modernize our services and to buy the equipment, the planes and the training and maintenance that is in dire need in our armed services.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Coyle, earlier today a federal judge decided, in his words, that the DOD Report, the Department of Defense Report that recommends de-activization of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard wing is in his words null and void. Where does this leave your judgment so far on Air National Guard units?

PHILIP COYLE: Well, I’m no expert in law, but thanks to the leadership from our chairman and hard work from all the commissioners and our staff, we believe that we are voting now on a package of recommendations for the Air National Guard that will satisfy the governors, as well as the U.S. Air Force.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there a complicating factor in that the governors are, by law, the commanders of their National Guard units?

PHILIP COYLE: Yes indeed. But we’ve put significant effort into that issue, and I believe we’ve worked out a solution, which provides for flying units in nearly all states and also helps the Air Force move forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this something, Chairman Principi, that you had to sort of get with the lawyers on to find out where BRAC stood?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: We certainly did; we spent a good deal of time with our general counsel, with the Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, to get a determination whether we had the legal authority to proceed, and the Department of Justice indicated that we did have the legal authority. And the legal process will run its course.

But the commission will complete our work and make these recommendations, and as Commissioner Coyle indicated I believe we’ve come a long way to a solution that will satisfy the overwhelming majority of concerns on the part of our governors.

RAY SUAREZ: Commissioner Coyle, have you found problems with the numbers that the Pentagon has been using in assessing how much money could be saved by various of these closures?

PHILIP COYLE: Yes. One of the issues that’s attracted a lot of attention is the fact that the Department of Defense projected manpower savings and took credit for those manpower savings, when in fact those positions, those people, those jobs, will be moved, but they won’t actually go away in many cases.

So there’s been a debate over whether this is a real cost savings or whether it’s just something that gives the Pentagon more flexibility to use those positions in other ways in the future, but doesn’t actually produce dollar savings.

RAY SUAREZ: So people who were being transferred rather than having their jobs eliminated were counted as being a net saving?

PHILIP COYLE: In many cases, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, did that force your commission to have to come up with your own numbers and start off a round of dueling numbers?

PHILIP COYLE: Well, there was no dueling because we’re an independent commission. But indeed our staff did redo the calculations and tell us what they thought the correct numbers were.

RAY SUAREZ: And I should note that the Pentagon is standing by its original cost estimates and says today that it is preparing a new set of numbers and giving the evidence that it used in order to come up with those figures.

Mr. Chairman, what were the main criteria used to assess these closings? You had several different goals. Did you have to make an order in which they would bear?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Indeed. There are eight criteria in the law that we have to use in determining whether to close or realign a military installation; the top four criteria relate to military value: The capability of our armed forces, the ability to surge, mobilization in times of conflict, the cost of operations and of manpower.

But there are four other criteria that are less important because we have to have as a priority military value, national security. But we have to look at economic impact on a community, the environmental cost of remediation, the ability of a receiving station to absorb this workload, the people, the dependents that will come into a community.

In addition, to the eight criteria, we look at the force structure plan. The secretary of defense had to establish a force structure plan that addresses the threat against the United States over the next 20 years. So we look at the force structure plan; we look at those eight criteria and then we make a decision.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the effect on the surrounding community really come to be one of the most important considerations when it came to some of these high profile closings, like Ellsworth in South Dakota for instance?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Well, clearly, again military value is the most important. We have to consider that first. But you can’t divorce yourself from the economic impact. Some of these communities, like Rapid City, South Dakota, you know, Portsmouth, Maine and New London, Cannon, Clovis, the community around Cannon Air Force Base, they’re dramatically impacted by these closings, and it will turn people’s lives upside down and create a great deal of difficulty in the short-term.

But hopefully in the long-term, if bases are closed, there can be economic redevelopment. And we’ve seen that in previous BRAC rounds. But there’s no question it’s an issue, and I think I know — I believe all of the commissioners have taken that into consideration.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve been lobbied heavily, Commissioner. During these months, people have made presentations, put together media kits, rolled out the red carpet for visits of commissioners.

Were there some facilities where that effort actually changed your mind, where you went in with one idea or one presumption and had to rethink based on what you saw?

PHILIP COYLE: Certainly, it was important to see the community support. Bases that we visited in some cases thousands of people turned out. And it was important to see that community support. But in the end, we had to make these decisions not on how many people turned out for our visits — not at all, but on military value and whether the cost savings were real.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the commission votes been pretty heavily weighted one way or the other, or have there been some close calls?

PHILIP COYLE: We’ve had a few close votes. But most of the votes are either been unanimous or maybe one person, two people in the minority.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you feel Mr. Chairman that BRAC is working the way it was intended? It was set up to take politics out of the process, take that lobbying out — off the table and take the pressure off of Congress. Has it happened?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Yes, it has. I believe it’s very important. The changing times, we have to change our infrastructure. And we are independent. And we’ve demonstrated that we are not going to politicize this process, and we’re going to be open and transparent, and that we’re an independent check on the power of the secretary of defense to close or realign military bases.

In many cases, we agreed with his recommendations, but in many significant cases, installations, we’ve disagreed. I think the process is working. And hopefully we’ll complete our work and go forward.

RAY SUAREZ: So the document that you’re sending on, you feel, is going to be upheld by Congress, which gets the final word?

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: I believe so, I do. We’ll have to wait and see, but I believe that based upon the feedback I’ve received, I believe they appreciate the effort that’s gone in here, they believe it’s balanced, they believe it’s fair, and I think at the end of the day the majority will vote for the package.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Coyle, so far looking at the reaction today, places that got good news, you know, sort of praised your fairness and wisdom, and others that got bad news have talked about the politicization of the process and that it was skewed, that you didn’t pay attention to all the evidence.

PHILIP COYLE: I don’t think it was politicized at all, certainly not as far as I could see. Some elected officials who called me, all they said was we hope you’ll look at all of the information, we hope you’ll look at the facts, but they didn’t say whether to vote one way or the other, they just urged us to be fair and to look at all the information before us.

RAY SUAREZ: One of your most vocal critics was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, who’s looking at a large number of civilian jobs moving away from the Arlington, Virginia area. Explain how that gets the Department of Defense to where it says it wants to be.

ANTHONY PRINCIPI: Well, indeed there are several factors: first the cost effectiveness to move people onto a military installation if you can save dollars that can be used for other military purposes. I think the two primary areas that they’ve tried to address is the force protection, to provide some level of force protection for the majority of our civilian employees, just as we do for military people behind the fence line on military bases.

And one of the reasons was to get them on a military base like Fort Belvoir or to separate them outside, not have them all inside the beltway, so to speak.

And the third factor is for co-location: To get these various offices that are performing similar type functions, to bring them together at one location, to bring that synergy to their efforts.

So, in making these decisions, I tried to look at those three factors and to see if the secretary of defense met that standard in my mind. There were some differences of opinion on this. We kept some in the research area, and we moved a lot others out of, approved the relocation of others. But that’s how I based my decision.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Chairman, Commissioner, thank you both.