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Analysis: President Bush's Decision To Stop Navy Bombing Exercises On The Island Of Vieques By The Year 2003

June 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 National Public Radio, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


It's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Steve Inskeep, in for Juan Williams.

Today the US Navy is holding training exercises off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . Planes from the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt were scheduled to bomb a target range, despite another wave of protests. The Navy wants to keep training, even though the US plans to close that base by the year 2003. President Bush made that announcement last week, but instead of defusing the long-running dispute, the proposal seems to have made everyone, or almost everyone, angrier.

This story stretches to New York and Florida, where President Bush is trying to win over the Hispanic vote. It may affect the protests at other US military bases from Virginia to Japan. The Navy says it can't really replace Vieques; though it's going to try, which raises some questions. Is President Bush right to back away from the base just because of some protests? If the US is giving up, why keep bombing now? And if the pullout is just two years away, why are the Puerto Ricans reacting so angrily?

You can join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail is A little while ago, we spoke with NPR's Phillip Davis, who was on the island of Vieques .

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

Outside the gates are a couple hundred Puerto Rican police and naval reservists, who are there to guard the perimeter, and facing them are probably--I don't know--several dozen protesters wearing red bandanas with the word `paz' or `peace' emblazoned across them, singing songs and chanting and generally protesting the Navy's presence there.

INSKEEP: More police than protesters?

DAVIS: At this point, it looks like there's more police than protesters, yeah. But depending on your point of view, the police commandant here told me that they have to patrol nine miles of perimeter, and it's almost impossible to try to keep the protesters out. And, in fact, just about an hour ago, Robert Rabin, the head of the Committee to Save and Develop Vieques , which is the main protest group here--he told me that at least two dozen protesters had managed to make it through the perimeter and are actually now on the beach in the target range, in the line of fire, as it were.

INSKEEP:And just to make it clear for people who perhaps haven't followed this story before, the kind of modus operandi of the protesters is to kind of get on the base and try to behave as human shields, in a sense.

DAVIS: Exactly. In fact, this time, they literally made little shields made out of wood and plastic, sort of, you know, getting ready for a possible clash with police. But there's been no word that there's been any sort of clash like that so far. But the protesters are trying to put themselves in the line of fire to disrupt the Navy exercises, and it may be working. The protesters say--and the Navy has not confirmed, nor denied this--but they say that the Navy has suspended operations for a while, while it decides what to do about these protesters.

INSKEEP: Now I want to make sure that I understand this as well. The Navy wants this base for live fire training, dropping real bombs, firing real guns, but what they say they want to be doing today is dropping--What?--dummies.

DAVIS: Well, ever since David Sanes, the Puerto Rican guard who was working on the base, was killed by an errant bomb, the Navy has slowly changed its practice, modus operandi, if you will. Right now, for the past year, I think it has been, they've been dropping inert weaponry on the base. So basically, you know, a naval jet from a carrier group such as the Roosevelt, which is offshore Vieques right now, would take up bombs that were just basically lead weights, but still, the pilots would be able to practice the bomb runs using simulated weights. The Navy says that it needs to keep Vieques just for these kinds of things, and that by using inert weapons, it makes practice even safer. And they say they need Vieques to be able to practice bomb runs to give pilots this kind of practice before an actual war starts, and also to allow Marines and other soldiers to practice amphibious landings as well, because Vieques has a curving beach with a shallow shelf that can be landed on by amphibious vehicles.

INSKEEP: Phillip, as you know, President Bush announced last week that he wanted to stop bombing on the island of Vieques by the year 2003. US officials saw this as an effort to try to calm some of the passions here. Has it worked?

DAVIS: No, it hasn't calmed any of the passions. It's kind of seen here as the case of too little, too late. On the one hand, they are sort of celebrating the fact that the president is backing down, but on the other hand, they say that 2003 is just too long in the future; that six years of bombing has already caused great damage to the island and that another day of bombing exercises will just continue that kind of hurt and damage. And so the protesters are just as determined as ever to stop the Navy exercises. The governor, who ran on an anti-Navy platform, has given her official seal of approval to more civil disobedience on the island. And so it has not really calmed passions here at all.

INSKEEP: NPR's Phillip Davis is on the island of Vieques . Phillip, thanks very much and enjoy the sun.

DAVIS: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Phillip Davis spoke to us earlier today from Vieques . And joining us now on the line from San Juan, Puerto Rica , is Annabelle Rodriguez, the secretary of Justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico . Secretary Rodriguez, thanks very much for taking the time this afternoon.

Secretary ANNABELLE RODRIGUEZ (Secretary of Justice): Oh, you're welcome, Mr. Inskeep. It's a pleasure to speak with you this afternoon.

INSKEEP: Certainly a busy day in Puerto Rica . Can you review for us why the president's proposal does not satisfy you or satisfy many Puerto Ricans ?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Certainly. Well, I will just state to you what our governor has repeated from the time being she heard of the president's decision. We are, of course, pleased in the sense that he has recognized that the training in Vieques must end. However, we are, as she was, and we all are disappointed at the time frame. There are a number of uncertainties regarding his new directive. And inasmuch as we have very serious concerns about the health effects of the bombing on our residents, we deem that we cannot wait till the year 2003.

INSKEEP: Many Puerto Ricans contend that this bombing has perhaps been linked--at least this is the claim--has perhaps been linked to higher cancer rates among residents on the island of Vieques . Is that correct?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: That's correct. That is one of our concerns. And in addition, we have determined that there are a number of heart diseases among young children that might be related to some of the naval exercises and the noises that are generated. And we're in the process of conducting research on that, under the auspices of HHS. And we feel that no new bombing should be conducted until those exercises are concluded.

INSKEEP: Secretary Rodriguez, I spoke last week to a Republican congressman, who disagrees with you, and one of the things he says is, `This is a political dispute. People have to compromise. Why can't the Puerto Ricans compromise and just allow the bombing for a couple more years?' What's the problem?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, because I don't think that we would like to place the health of our children at risk. And we have determined that there are serious concerns on that matter. Just as the cancer rate in Vieques appears to be among the highest in Puerto Rico , and we take those matters very seriously, as I'm sure every congressman and congresswoman would.

INSKEEP: Annabelle Rodriguez, the secretary of Justice for Puerto Rico , is speaking with us here at NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. If you'd like to join the conversation, call (800) 989-TALK. We'll take a couple of your calls in just a moment.

But first, Secretary Rodriguez, I just want to make sure I understand the basics of what is coming up here. Congress, I know, passed a law, scheduling a referendum for this November. And do I understand correctly that the Puerto Rican government decided to hold a second referendum even earlier?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: That's correct. We just enacted about two weeks ago a bill that proposes that a referendum be held on July the 29th. What happened was that the other referendum only had two options. It had the options of continued shelling until the year 2003, and then on the other option was continued shelling forever. We determined and the people of Puerto Rico determined that we wanted a third option, and that was the immediate discontinuance of the Navy shelling. And that third option was added to our referendum, and that was the one that is going to be held July the 29th.

INSKEEP: Secretary Rodriguez, if you could stay with us for a moment, we're going to go to the phones. Let's go to Lawrence in St. Paul, Minnesota. Lawrence, thanks for holding and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LAWRENCE (Caller): Thank you. My quick comment is that I think as a nation, we forget that the first role of the federal government is to protect its citizenry, and the military isn't necessarily part of our society. And that I hope we not back off that requirement, because I don't want to have our children impacted by having foreign people come and attack us. It has happened in the past and it will happen in the future. That's it.

INSKEEP: Puerto Rican Secretary of Justice Annabelle Rodriguez, your thoughts on that. Doesn't Puerto Rico have an obligation to provide some role in the defense of the United States?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Oh, certainly, we do, and certainly, we have met our commitment for many, many years. As a matter of fact, I should mention that we, the Puerto Rican men and women, are among the highest in the nation receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor and amongst the highest per capita in dying in Korea and other wars. So we take our service to the nation very, very seriously. We are proud American citizens. And I don't think anyone should question our commitment to the national defense. However, for us, this is a matter of human rights and the health and well-being of the US citizens, American citizens who reside in Vieques .

INSKEEP: The United States Navy has said that it contributes to the economy of Puerto Rico . I know that there are many disputes about that among Puerto Ricanians as to whether they've contributed enough. But we are hearing from the Navy from time to time that if Vieques is closed, it's entirely possible other US military facilities on the island, in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , would also be closed. Are you risking some economic devastation here by the course that you're taking?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, there are two sides to that story. You can also find senators and congressmen who say that the opposite is--it's the case, that there will be no retaliation because we have decided that we want to protect our citizens and our children on Vieques . And I assume that the president will also feel (technical difficulties) be any retaliation. This is just a matter of health and well-being of those citizens who reside there.

INSKEEP: Annabelle Rodriguez is the secretary of Justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico . And David is a caller in Chicago, Illinois, listening to TALK OF THE NATION. And, David, welcome to the program.

DAVID (Caller): Hello. Yes. I am quite upset by Bush ordering the Navy to stop using Vieques , Puerto Rico , as training grounds. Now I speak as someone who grew up in New York, who grew up among Puerto Ricans , as one who is a liberal Democrat, as one who served on Vieques , Puerto Rico , as one who's been in the Marine Corps. Now Vieques , Puerto Rico , is not that large. It's an island off of Puerto Rico . And, in fact, most people, if they went to their atlases, probably couldn't find Vieques , Puerto Rico , because it's just a small island. Now not many Puerto Ricans live on Vieques , Puerto Rico . There are more people in downtown Chicago in the Loop than live in Vieques , Puerto Rico . Now this is all about Puerto Rican nationalism, Puerto Rican pride, which the Bush administration fell into this trap. Now we need strong a military training for our Navy and for our Marines.

INSKEEP: David, let me stop you there for a moment...

DAVID: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ..and ask Annabelle Rodriguez to respond.

Secretary Rodriguez, one thing about this that has struck me is that the Puerto Rican independence movement certainly has taken advantage of this situation. They've made it a major issue, haven't they?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, let me answer you by stating the following. The governor has specifically--specifically--stated over and over again that this is not a matter of party lines or party affiliation; so much so that the law that we have enacted specifically prohibits political parties from participating actively in the referendum as watchdogs over the process. Only citizens and our Electoral Commission will participate. So from the standpoint of the governor and of this government, this is not a matter of partisan politics. To the contrary. This is a matter of human rights and of those citizens--9,000 American citizens who reside in Vieques .

INSKEEP: Secretary Rodriguez, we'll be back in a moment to talk about this some more. We're talking about President Bush's plan to stop Navy bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . And we're taking your calls at (800) 989-TALK. That's (800) 989-TALK. You can send us e-mail. The address is I'm Steve Inskeep. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


INSKEEP: It's NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Steve Inskeep. We're talking about the latest situation in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . Our guest is Annabelle Rodriguez, the secretary of Justice, which is somewhat like the attorney general, for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico . And you can join in this discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is Now President Bush announced last week that he wanted the Navy out of Vieques by the year 2003. He does not want to wait until a referendum on the issue. Navy Secretary Gordon England tried to explain the issue.

Secretary GORDON ENGLAND (US Navy): My judgment is it's better for us to be in control, for us to take the initiative, for the Department of Navy to decide how we will proceed in the future in training our forces rather than leave it to local referendum. My judgment of leaving that to local referendum is a very bad precedent. I would much rather be in control of the situation, have us make the decision, have us control our destiny.

INSKEEP: But this decision has infuriated some members of Congress. Among other things, the president's new policy would require a change in the law, and at least initially, lawmakers do not seem inclined to make that change. Republican Congressman Jim Hansen of Utah says he's dismayed with the White House.

Representative JIM HANSEN (Utah): I wonder how deeply they looked into this thing. What about the 33 test and training ranges that we have in the 48 states? What's going to happen on those now? What about the idea when the president said, `Well, they don't want us there?' You know, the folks in Japan don't want us in Okinawa, and yet, we're testing and training there. So it was really a dangerous, dangerous precedence that I don't think people looked into.

INSKEEP: And Congressman Hansen also expressed dismay with the people of Puerto Rico .

Rep. HANSEN: I come down to the idea that I don't see where Puerto Rico should get any favorite treatment over the rest of these people. What have they done to get it? They sit down there on welfare and very few of them paying taxes, got a sweetheart deal. I just don't really see the equity in it, but maybe I don't understand it.

INSKEEP: That's Republican Congressman Jim Hansen of Utah. He's a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. And you're listening to NPR's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Steve Inskeep. We're talking with Annabelle Rodriguez. She's secretary of Justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico . And Secretary Rodriguez, let me just start by asking if you have any response to what you just heard from one of your congressional critics, Jim Hansen?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, let me just state the following. I think--just to repeat myself, I think that our history shows that we have really paid our dues to the United States. We are proud American citizens. And in a conversation I had with Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, he recognized that much. So I'm really not going to get into a tit-for-tat with Mr. Hansen. I find his statements to be contrary to what the truth is.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about one of the substantive points that he raised, though; at least a fear, I guess I should say, that he raised; that if the protests on Vieques are successful, that it will merely encourage other people in other places to protest against US military bases, whether it be in Okinawa, Japan, or even some places in the mainland United States.

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, let me answer you. Yesterday morning, Dr. Condoleezza Rice from the national security a--was asked a similar question in one of the TV news programs, and she said that there is a distinct difference between the situation in Puerto Rico and the situation elsewhere, inasmuch as President Clinton had provided for this referendum on the Navy's continued presence in Vieques . And she made that distinction, which I think is a valid one. What would happen in other places? I have no way of knowing at this point. But again, to get back to what we have been trying to stress, we are concerned about the health of our children, our American children and adults and women who reside in Vieques . And for us, this is a matter of human rights. And we are stressing and putting forward what we have learned as American citizens, and that is that you protect the well-being of your people.

INSKEEP: Have you heard from or heard of people calling from elsewhere in the world saying, `Hey, you guys are doing an amazing thing. How'd you do it? Give us some pointers'?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, no, I haven't heard from anyone, Mr. Inskeep, and I don't know that anyone else has.

INSKEEP: Let's go to Mary Ann in Ithaca, New York. Mary Ann, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARY ANN (Caller): Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And while you're in Ithaca right now, I understand that you have been to the island of Vieques , correct?

MARY ANN: Yes, it is true. I've just returned from my trial, which happened on May 11th, for having gone into the base back in the year 2000 on May 13th, and I was also a part of the original group. I was a part of the ecumenical team with the Christian Peacemaker Team that's centered in Chicago, so I was glad to hear David talk. I wanted to say I went as a Catholic, as a North American who was ashamed of the kinds of things that we American citizens have used, you know, from, you know, the direction of the Pentagon, through the Navy. We've allowed something horrible to be tested in Vieques . I happened to go to the trial of Philip Berrigan, who many people are familiar with as a Catholic peace activist for years.


MARY ANN: I went to his trial back in March right before I went to Vieques . I didn't understand what Phil had done; you know, what his action was. It was--he'd hammered on an A-10 Warthog plane, which fires 3,900 rounds of depleted uranium in one minute.

INSKEEP: Mary Ann, let me ask you what it was exactly...

MARY ANN: Listen, the reason this is significant is because the Navy has admitted to testing depleted uranium in Vieques in 1999. But the point is that there is evidence that that stuff was tested, which is against Pentagon rules--they're never supposed to test depleted uranium.

INSKEEP: Mary Ann, let me ask you what exactly it was that you did, if you could, Mary Ann?

MARY ANN: ...(Unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Let me just ask you what it was that you did? You said you were arrested last year.


INSKEEP: Did you go under the fence or what did you do?

MARY ANN: Well, the first time I went out on the base, I went in boats with other Christian peacemaker teams, and we joined an encampment, which was one of 14 encampments around the end of the island. We had 25 people among us. There was a Methodist bishop of Puerto Rico . There were other peacemaker team members from Texas, from Indiana, from New York, from Virginia. And we joined the folks, and we stayed and prayed with them and watched our federal agents, you know, take all of us out. And it was very sad, because it reminded me of the trail of tears, watching people that had been moved out 60 years before, given 24 hours to move out.

INSKEEP: Mary Ann, you said you were there--this is the big federal raid that made a lot of news last year when...

MARY ANN: Right. That was on the 4th. And then again on the 13th, I returned with a group of all spectrum of the society of ministers, priests, students, teachers, old folks, young people...

INSKEEP: I have to say, if I could interrupt you for just a moment...

MARY ANN: ...55...

INSKEEP: I have to say, Mary Ann, I actually was on the island of Vieques for that same raid that you mentioned, and...

MARY ANN: On the 4th of May?

INSKEEP: You know, I don't recall the date, but the...


INSKEEP: ...largest of the federal raids...

MARY ANN: The first one, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...perhaps the first one...


INSKEEP: ...which I have to be honest, I was impressed both by the protesters, that they non-violently protested and got their point across, and I was very impressed by the FBI...


INSKEEP: ...the very peaceful way that they did their business.

MARY ANN: Yes. Well, on the 13th, you know, there were 55 of us that entered in the base. We were the first group to return of the over 1,200 people that have gone into the base since then in the last year. And one of the things that struck me, that's most frightening, is the fact that this depleted uranium dust is present in the island. And it had been tested since the Gulf War.

INSKEEP: Mary Ann...


INSKEEP: ...I need to stop you there. But thanks very much for calling to TALK OF THE NATION. I really appreciate it.


INSKEEP: Secretary Annabelle Rodriguez, let me just ask you, what is the formal position, if there is one, of the government of Puerto Rico , toward people who are protesting, trying to get on to the base in Vieques ?

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: Well, the formal position is that we are law-abiding citizens and government. I would have, then, to refer to what your correspondent Davis stated, that she gave her seal of approval to the civil disobedience. Well, she has stated over and over again, and it's the government's position, that we will uphold the law, and those people breaking the law in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico --in our land--we will prosecute so them. We understand, however, those people who have resorted to civil disobedience, but we do not encourage it, nor do we take it lightly.

INSKEEP: OK. Annabelle Rodriguez, you've been extremely generous with your time on a very busy day. Thanks very much.

Sec. RODRIGUEZ: You're welcome. It's my pleasure. Good afternoon to you and to everyone who's hearing this news.

INSKEEP: Take care now. Annabelle Rodriguez is the secretary of justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico . That's roughly equivalent to attorney general. She's rushing off to a meeting. We will continue here on TALK OF THE NATION. And if you want to join the conversation, call (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK.

And joining us for the rest of the hour is Jack Spencer. He's a policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank here in Washington. Mr. Spencer, welcome to the program.

Mr. JACK SPENCER (Analyst, Heritage Foundation): Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Let's go back to a couple of basics here, if I can. I presume that you agree with the United States military that Vieques is an essential training ground, an irreplaceable training ground?

Mr. SPENCER: Yes, I absolutely do.

INSKEEP: Why? What makes this particular beach on this particular deserted island so precious?

Mr. SPENCER: A number of things. First of all, it...

INSKEEP: Not deserted island, but that portion of the island that is deserted.

Mr. SPENCER: Well, that portion of the island is deserted, in fact. It's more than--it's eight to 10 miles to the nearest inhabitant, more than that to the nearest city. But at any rate, what makes Vieques so good is that it's completely out of the way of both sea and airline traffic, so the training can go forward unimpeded and without impeding anyone else. Furthermore, it's located about 10 miles from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, which one of its primary missions is to support the training in Vieques . So those are the reasons. And it's US territory that's owned by the Navy and has been for 60 years. This is where our troops trained in World War II, it's where they trained for Kosovo. It's where they trained for the Persian Gulf War. It's an established area that is very important to the nation's security.

INSKEEP: Mr. Spencer, I want to mention that we did ask representatives of the United States Navy to come on the program today and they were unable to do so, I understand because of scheduling. I believe Gordon Englund, the secretary of the Navy, is formally being sworn in this afternoon. We did hear, though, from Gordon Englund, some tape of him, earlier in the program, and he has now insisted, along with the White House, that Vieques is, in some senses, irreplaceable, but they're going to try to replace it. Do you believe that the Navy can find someplace else to do its training where it's not going to stir up this kind of protest?

Mr. SPENCER: I'm not quite sure how something irreplaceable can be replaced, and that's the bottom line with this training facility. This is not the first time that the Navy and the US government has gone out and tried to find a replacement for it. There have been a number of studies done, and each time it comes back that there is no place available for the Navy to conduct these very essential training missions. What they are able to find is combinations of areas where you might be able to do amphibious landing on one beach, you might be able to do the air raids on the other beach and something else on another beach, and then you combine that with some sort of computer simulation. And brought all together, you get some semblance of training.

But the fact of the matter is the United States, at least as far as I know, has never fought a battle where they fight one element in one area, another element in the other area and another element in the other area, and then they bring it all together in a video game. The fact of the matter is battle occurs with all these elements together. And to the extent that our Navy's not able to train has a direct effect on the effectiveness of the Navy and could result in the unneeded deaths, really, of our men and women in uniform.

So it's essential that we continue training on Vieques . I think it's disturbing at the very least that we are going to leave Vieques before we have a replacement. I'm not necessarily opposed to leaving the island. It's leaving the island with no place to go that's the problem.

INSKEEP: Jack Spencer is a policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation. Jack, stay with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to George in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. George, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GEORGE (Caller): Thank you. I'm on a cell phone, so hopefully I'll be able to stay on with you.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hope so. I understand you're a retired sergeant of the Air Force.

GEORGE: Yes, master sergeant E7 from the Air Force recently, last year, and I've spent seven years in Europe, and the reason I want to bring up Europe is because after the fall of the wall during the Cold War, the Europeans reaped some of the peace dividends, and that was raising the altitude that the training missions were flown from 250 to 1,000 feet. And I believe the Puerto Ricans --or, I shouldn't say Puerto Ricans , I should say the American citizens, the roughly four million American citizens that live in Puerto Rico , the majority of them, want to reap some of the peace dividends, too. And the island of Vieques , which I've personally been on as a tourist many years ago, is just too small to be used as a bombing range with people living on it. I've lived near a bombing range recently up in the panhandle of Florida, and I lived several miles from--many more miles from the bombing, but you can actually feel the structure of your house just rattle, and I can't imagine what the people are going through with shelling eight miles from the nearest resident.

INSKEEP: George, let's put that question to Jack Spencer from The Heritage Foundation. Mr. Spencer, I mean, it is true that when you talk about practicing a giant combined sort of D-Day-style landing, I mean, that does seem to be something that seems less and less likely these days with the Cold War over and everything.

Mr. SPENCER: Perhaps the reason it's less and less likely is because we've been very prepared to take on that sort of mission. I would like to think that it's our preparedness that prevents us from ever having to deploy such a mission out there. But to the extent that we're not ready to do that, I believe that weakness often invites the sort of behavior that would require the United States to possibly engage in such a mission. So just because we haven't done that lately, since Korea actually, doesn't mean we might not have to in the future. And if we ever do have to, I think that it would be very much in our national security interest to be prepared.

INSKEEP: Is Vieques smaller than some other major bombing ranges? Are people actually closer to the action there than they are elsewhere?

Mr. SPENCER: Absolutely not. For example, Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, people are about one and a half miles away. I'm not saying that it's necessarily that the bombing going on in Vieques is good--the problem is, is that if we get into letting people decide where and when the Navy and the military trains, that it opens up a can of worms where people all over the place, whether it's Okinawa or in Texas or anywhere, they may decide that they don't want the United States military, their very own military, training in their back yard. And then what's the military supposed to do, just get up and leave? I think that's a dangerous precedent to set.

The fact of the matter is, is the Navy has trained there for a long time, and until an alternative is found, it simply has to be able to continue to train there.

INSKEEP: Anna is in Queens, New York, and she's calling TALK OF THE NATION. Anna, thanks for calling.

ANNA (Caller): Thank you.

INSKEEP: You have been to Vieques ?

ANNA: Yes, I have.

INSKEEP: As a protester or as a tourist?

ANNA: As a protester, yeah. I went last August, and I was there while they were bombing. And it was quite an experience because every time they would bomb, you would feel the whole island shake. And the wind was so strong and it was blowing all the dust that the bombs would pick up with all the contaminants that it has.

INSKEEP: Anna, forgive me for asking, but can you tell me how old you are?

ANNA: I'm 15 years old.

INSKEEP: And you went last year, when you were, I guess, closer to 14...

ANNA: Fourteen, yes.

INSKEEP: protest. Did you get arrested?

ANNA: No, I haven't, but my mother has, and I've been there twice or three times now, and I'm going back in a few days.

INSKEEP: Do you feel that you understand the underlying issues?

ANNA: Of course. Of course. Yeah. I've done a lot of research about the island and all the things that the Navy has done to the people and to the land and the water and how they're destroying the coral and the fish and all--yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll talk about this some more after a break. We're talking about the latest news from Vieques . Protesters broke onto a US Navy training ground this morning, disrupting or trying to disrupt a planned start of bombing exercises. You can continue this conversation online. Go to, click on `Discussion,' then scroll down to TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Steve Inskeep. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


INSKEEP: It's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Tune in tomorrow at this time for a look at the federal government's use of the death penalty. Seventy-five percent of inmates on the federal death row are minorities, including the soon-to-be-executed Juan Garza. But Attorney General John Ashcroft says there is no indication that the system unfairly discriminates against minorities. The federal government's use of the death penalty, TALK OF THE NATION at this time tomorrow.

Now today we're talking about President Bush's decision to stop the Navy's bombing on the island of Vieques as of 2003. Our guest is Jack Spencer, a policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation. You can join the conversation. The number is (800) 989-TALK and our e-mail address is

Now earlier we said we were not going to be able to hear directly from someone from the United States Navy. It turns out that I spoke too soon. Joining us now on the line is Rear Admiral Steve Pietropaoli. He's the chief of information for the Navy. And, Admiral, I suppose you count as a representative of the Navy, don't you?

Rear Admiral STEVE PIETROPAOLI (Chief of Information, US Navy): Every other week, Steve.

INSKEEP: Welcome to the program. Let me ask by--let me begin here by asking what exactly is going on on and around the island of Vieques today? We've heard conflicting reports about whether the United States Navy has actually gone through with attempts to do its training today.

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: No, that training is under way, Steve. The exercises for the theater Roosevelt Battle Group, which have been under way for more than a week frankly, but today was the first day in which they intended to use the impact area on the island of Vieques . They have, indeed, dropped ordnance from our warplanes from the theater Roosevelt and that continues as we speak.

INSKEEP: Now you're not actually dropping live bombs, correct?

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: We have not been. That's correct. That's in accordance with the agreement that was struck between the governor of Puerto Rico and the president of the United States, President Clinton, that we would, during a period--until the referendum would refrain from the use of live ordnance and would restrict the number of days that we use the range.

INSKEEP: Rear Admiral Pietropaoli, excuse me, I want to make sure I understand the Navy's position here, because as I understand it, part of the value of Vieques to you is that you can drop live ammunition, but you've already, because of these protests, been put in a position where you can't. So why continue bombing for the next couple of years?

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: Well, there are many, many things that can be done on Vieques that are important to training our forces. One of them is the use of live ordnance, which, as you've noted, we haven't done for some time, really since the tragic accident a couple years back. We have other ranges in the United States along the East Coast and out in the Southwest where we can do live ordnance training. So we take maximum advantage of that. There is no place on the East Coast like Vieques with respect to really the unencumbered airspace above Vieques where our F-18 Hornets, which are the front-line attack in fighter planes now for the Navy carriers, can go both on a bombing run and roll out of that attack into a simulated air combat maneuvering with adversary aircraft, simply because Vieques lies outside the main commercial air routes, and all of our ranges on the East Coast restrict significantly the altitude at which we can conduct those operations.

INSKEEP: Admiral, just so we're clear on this point as well, we're hearing that some protesters have gotten onto the base today. Some are claiming to be in the area where the bombs would be dropped. Are you taking any precautions to avoid one of these inert but perhaps still dangerous bombs striking somebody?

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: No, of course, Steve. As you know, we have significant security in and around the Camp Garcia down there and the live impact area. The Navy has been very clear that we understand and support the right of those individuals who disagree to protest our activity. Peaceful protest is one of the things that American sailors and Marines fight and die for. When you cross the line from peaceful protest into actual trespassing, breaking the law, hurling objects at security personnel, then we have to take measures to detain those individuals and process them as you would any other lawbreaker.

INSKEEP: But if a protester gets through and is on that bombing range today, you're bombing it anyway?

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: No, we have eight individuals that I'm aware of who have been detained who were inside on federal property, but not on the impact area, and they have been detained by the security personnel.

INSKEEP: Admiral Pietropaoli, stay with us a few moments, if you would. Let's go back to the phones. Clay is in Tallahassee, Florida. Clay, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CLAY (Caller): How you doing?

INSKEEP: Doing OK. What can we do for you?

CLAY: I just wanted to say that I used to live very close to Avon Park Bombing Range in Tampa and close to, at a different time, MacDill Air Force Base.

INSKEEP: These are two other bases where there is live fire training? Am I correct?

CLAY: Well, I'm not sure if they have the live fire training at Avon Park. MacDill is just an Air Force base, but Avon Park, they do do bombing, though. I'm sure of it because I've heard it. I used to live within, I would say, 10 miles. And while it's--I mean, while, it's, you know, annoying to have this bombing going on and planes flying over at all hours of the day, it's something that we kind of have to deal with, I think, I mean, even especially in a place as remote as this island in Puerto Rico , when this was going on no more than 50 miles from the, you know, metropolitan city of Tampa. And I think it's kind of--I think the people of Puerto Rico are taking this--I mean, while I can understand they're upset about the depleted uranium and the live bombing, I think it's something you've got to take because it's in such a remote place already.

INSKEEP: Let me stop you there for a moment, Clay. I want to clear up a factual thing, if I can. Rear Admiral Pietropaoli, has depleted uranium actually been dropped on the island of Vieques ? That's an issue that's been raised by one of our callers, a couple of them.

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: Unfortunately, I did catch that caller's comments, and I think what she was referring to there was an incident--we don't do any testing of depleted uranium, as she indicated, but there was an incident, I think, in 1999 when a Marine Corps aircraft inadvertently fired several dozen rounds of depleted uranium. The main threat from depleted uranium rounds is when it actually impacts--it's a very localized threat to the place of impact, and it's when it impacts heavy metal objects, it actually deteriorates into a dust and that dust, if inhaled, can be dangerous. But beyond that, there's really no substantial radiation or any other threat from it to anybody else in the immediate area of that target.

INSKEEP: And let me ask another question that Clay's call brings to my mind, anyway, and that is, is there a possibility really of protests at other bases around the United States or outside the United States because of what has happened in Vieques ?

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: Well, I think that this is an issue, as Secretary Englund said on Friday, that has been around for some time. This is not the first time that military activities in anybody's neighborhood have been protested. We understand that the people who live near these activities--and in the case of Vieques , the nearest town is about nine miles from the impact area, which is a much greater separation than you have at most of the dozens of live-fire ranges here in the United States--Ft. Sill was mentioned earlier, it's about a mile and a half. But we understand that they have concerns and that they need information, they need to understand why we're doing what we're doing, and that this won't be the only place where such concerns could be brought to the fore.

INSKEEP: Jack Spencer of The Heritage Foundation, what is the next most vulnerable base or two, if any of them come to mind?

Mr. SPENCER: Oh, I don't know about that. I think that a lot of bases could be vulnerable if people protest, but I would rather stick to Vieques for right now. And I'd just like to add a couple of points quickly. A lot of the reasons that people say that the people are protesting--for example, they say that infant mortality is greater on Vieques island and that environmental damage has been done and a number of other things. But each of these accusations--when they're subjected to the available body of scientific evidence, each and every one of them have shown to have been false. The environmental damage, for example, the Navy goes to extensive ends to ensure the environmental safety of the rest of the island of Vieques . The infant mortality accusations, for example, are based on a study. When subjected to review, it was found out that two years were left out of that study.

The problem is, is that the activists show these things and release these things to the media, the media jumps on it, then by the time they're shown to be false, the damage has already been done. So I believe that much of the protest against the Navy in Vieques is really based on misinformation.

INSKEEP: Jack, I want to pick up on some of those concerns, but first we have to say goodbye to Admiral Steve Pietropaoli. He's the rear admiral who's in charge of communications for the United States Navy. Admiral, thanks very much for joining us this afternoon.

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: Steve, can I just add one thing...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, go right ahead. Sure.

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: ...on those health claims that Jack was just talking about?


Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: One of the things that we've tried very hard is to get the resources to actually apply some science to some of these allegations. As Jack mentioned, there's a lot of things that are alleged, very few of them have been able to be medically or scientifically verified, and yet, they cause distress to the people in Vieques because they're not sure if they're living in a dangerous environment or not. Those who have raised these issues, often irresponsibly, have put the people of Vieques in a quandary as to whether or not they're living in a healthy environment or not. We would like to, once and for all, do the studies that are required to dispel these myths if, indeed, they are to be dispelled.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks, Admiral Pietropaoli. I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

Rear Adm. PIETROPAOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's go back to the phones very briefly. Jesse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is one of the people who is raising the concerns about environmental problems on the island of Vieques . Jesse, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JESSE (Caller): Hi. I worked as an archaeologist for four months on the island of Vieques , and the archaeology was funded by the Navy, and they spent millions of dollars doing archaeology on the naval bases. And it seems like one way that they could possibly improve relations between the local people and the Navy is to try to show the people the things that they've found on the base. Every time that we found things, we brought them back to the archaeology labs and we never told the local people about the remains. So I was wondering, what kind of things--you know, how would this actually improve the relation between the Navy and the local people? I think it would, and I was wondering other people's comments.

INSKEEP: What sort of stuff did you find?

JESSE: We were finding prehistoric remains, human remains, ceramics, bones and pieces of stone and other implements about prehistoric cultures in some of the historic groups, some of the plantation remains--the sugarcane plantation remains.

INSKEEP: Jack Spencer, is it fair to say that even though you believe that it is worth the risk that, I mean, there is some damage that is caused when you bomb an island for years and years and years?

Mr. SPENCER: Let me address two points here. First, I'll address that one. Of course there's a risk. The island is about 33,000 acres, and the bombing range where this occurs is about--less than 3 percent of that entire area of the island, on the eastern tip of the island. So, of course, on the bombing range there is going to be some environmental damage, but no more damage than regular human activity. The fact of the matter, though, is that the damage is being contained, and that's what's important.

Secondly, I agree absolutely with what the caller just said. The Navy has not done a good job at Navy- Puerto Rican relations. In fact, they had a flag officer billet in the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station before, and then I think in 1993 they got rid of that billet and then there was no one to conduct that relationship. What they need to do or what they should have done before saying, `We're leaving,' is try to re-establish that close relationship and really make every effort to help the Vieques people become more successful, more developed. And, in fact, that's one of the reasons why many people believe if there are any health problems in Vieques , it's their lack of development. That's probably one of the reasons.

INSKEEP: Jack Spencer is a policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation and David Sanger is a reporter for The New York Times. He covers the White House for The Times, and he's going to join us here for the last couple of minutes of the program. Mr. Sanger, thanks very much for taking the time.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Reporter, The New York Times): Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: We've heard an awful lot about why President Bush decided to step into this Vieques dispute in this way, the presumption being that he's trying to do something to get the Hispanic vote. I'm wondering if it's as simple as that.

Mr. SANGER: Well, I'm sure it's not as simple as that, but the White House has not been terribly helpful in sort of guiding us through the politics of this. They would like us to believe that this decision was made entirely on the military merits. In fact, today is the White House press briefing with sort of an interesting explanation offered by the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, who said that unless the Navy had been told that they would not have use of this in two years, then they would not have an incentive to look for another site. This is sort of an interesting theory because there are other places where the Navy is also unwelcome--for example, Okinawa, the southern island in Japan, where many of the same issues are alive and well--and yet, nobody is suggesting that by setting a short deadline there, the Marines and the Navy might find another site elsewhere in the Pacific.

INSKEEP: And, David, in the last few seconds that we have, now that a few days have gone by, has the president done himself any good with Hispanic voters or with anybody else?

Mr. SANGER: Well, Steve, if he has, it hasn't been evident so far because the Puerto Rican community that cares about this thing for two years is too far away. And the conservatives who think that Mr. Bush has not fulfilled all of his promises on readiness of the military believe he shouldn't have done it to begin with. So I'm not entirely convinced that he's gotten the ride out of this that he had hoped. Of course, they had also hoped to short-circuit the referendum in Puerto Rico and it's not clear that's going to happen.

INSKEEP: OK. David Sanger of The New York Times, thanks very much for taking the time.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And thank you, all, for the discussion today. Jack Spencer is a policy analyst for defense and national security at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke to us from his office in Washington. Mr. Spencer, thanks very much.

Mr. SPENCER: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Earlier we spoke with Annabelle Rodriguez, secretary of justice for Puerto Rico , and we also spoke with Rear Admiral Steve Pietropaoli, the Navy chief of information, and with NPR's Philip Davis reporting from Vieques .

In Washington, I'm Steve Inskeep, NPR News.

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