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Should the Navy Use Vieques for Live-Fire Training?

Aired May 3, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, showdown over Vieques. As protesters and federal authorities prepare to face off, we ask, should the Navy use the Puerto Rican island for live-fire training?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, and in New York, Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

BOB BECKEL, GUEST HOST: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Bob Beckel sitting in for Bill Press.

What started as routine naval bombing exercises that have conducted on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques since the early 1940s has suddenly become a controversial issue between the U.S. government and Puerto Rico.

Federal agents are prepared to evict the dozens of protesters amassed at the bombing site as two U.S. naval destroyers with 1,000 Marines on-board lay offshore to help.

Last April, a Puerto Rican guard was killed when one of the missiles went off-course. That served to ignite long-simmering resentment among island residents. They contend that the military illegally appropriated the land for bombing in 1941, that there are thousands of unexploded shells that pose significant risk for island residents.

Puerto Rico will receive $40 million from the U.S. government for allowing the bombing and another $50 million if island residents vote next year to allow the bombing to continue. This, of course, raises the question, since Puerto Rico in a sense belongs to the U.S., why pay anything at all?

So who's right? Who's wrong?

Bob Novak.

NOVAK: Juan Figueroa, you're a distinguished Puerto Rican, but you're an American first. I wonder if you might not worry, since according to our military experts, we are sending U.S. airmen aboard the USS Eisenhower into possible combat without having the necessary fire training that we use the island of Vieques for. JUAN FIGUEROA, PRESIDENT, PUERTO RICAN LEGAL DEFENSE & EDUCATION FUND: Mr. Novak, I think it's been a fact that the Navy has not been using Vieques for the last year, and while you have experts that say one thing, there are plenty of experts on the other side that don't for one minute question the military readiness or the fact that the U.S. Navy or military is far superior than any other force in this world.

Moreover, I think the fundamental issues are two really, which is one, why is it that despite popular public and governmental opposition for the Navy to continue in Vieques, the Navy insists on using Vieques, notwithstanding the fact that fellow American citizens have said, look, I'm tired of using -- of having you use me as target practice for the last 60 years? And the second issue is, why is it or how can the Navy justify the death, the destruction, the contamination?

What -- what should really happen, if anything, is we should have the Navy actually compensating and making the people of Vieques whole. That's what (UNINTELLIGIBLE) should happen.

NOVAK: All right. Mr. Figueroa, I want to just stick to this national -- I'm very much interested in national security and our fighting people. And you know, I tend to accept the word of our generals ahead of the word of some politicians as to what national security is. And I'd like to quote General Wesley Clark.

You know General Clark? He was the head of the -- supreme commander of NATO during our recent operation in Kosovo. And here's what he said last August 16th in a letter to the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

He said -- quote -- "The level of precision and low collateral damage achieved by naval forces during the Kosovo conflict was possible primarily" -- let me stress the word -- "primarily due to the realistic live fire strike warfare training the carrier battlegroup completed at Vieques just before their deployment." End quote.

General Clark is a straight-shooter and a straight-talker. How do you dispute what he says?

FIGUEROA: By the same token, you just had on the op-ed pages of The New York Times just yesterday a piece written by somebody who was in the Department of Defense, who knew...

NOVAK: Some politician?

FIGUEROA: No, it was an employee of the Department of Defense. It was not a politician, Mr. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: I need to get into this.

FIGUEROA: ... who basically said, if I can finish, that the Navy has known since 1975 when they gave back, Culebra, which is the adjoining island to Vieques back to the citizens of Puerto Rico, that in fact the Navy has not needed this. They've known this and they have had plenty of other places in which they can practice.

NOVAK: Just one more...

FIGUEROA: The bottom line...

NOVAK: Just a minute, Mr. Figueroa. We don't filibuster here.

The fact of the matter is some men's room attendant at the Pentagon doesn't impress me. I want you to hear right now the official Pentagon spokesman, Admiral Craig Quigley, said. He is the official spokesman of our Pentagon.

He said -- quote -- well, wait a minute. Let's listen to what he says.


ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: There will have to be another site found and developed at considerable expense in order to hope to replicate the training that can be had at Vieques. Money aside, we've simply not found a location that offers the combination of attributes that Vieques offers today.


NOVAK: How do you respond to that?

FIGUEROA: The combination of attributes that you're speaking about here is 22,000 acres of land where the Navy has had unfettered and complete access without any accountability whatsoever. That is why you have had death. That is why you have the destruction of the coral reef. That is why you've had the contamination of lead, with lead, uranium and many other chemicals on the islands.

BECKEL: Juan, I'm...

FIGUEROA: It's just a matter of convenience. If the Navy wanted to find something -- and they've known about this since 1975 -- they could have found some place. And in fact, they haven't.

BECKEL: OK. Juan, excuse me. I'm on your side.

First of all, it's nice to see Bob Novak change view on Kosovo. It was a lousy war last time I heard him talk about it.


BECKEL: Senator Inhofe, let me ask you a question, and first of all, thanks for being with us tonight.

INHOFE: You bet.

BECKEL: Is a bombing exercise, during peacetime particularly, that causes this kind of furor, that now gets on the front page of newspapers and here tonight, is it really worth the controversy? And you know, now Jesse Jackson's into this. The Puerto Rican delegates in the Congress are on the way down there, the two from New York. Is it really worth doing this?

INHOFE: Absolutely, because we're talking about American lives, Bob. And what Juan says about, you know, some guy -- some employee in the Pentagon said that we don't need to have this, every single, from the chiefs on down, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Hugh Shelton, say we absolutely have to have this.

It's called "integrated training." We have the Marine expeditionary going in. We have the live fire of the Navy. At the same time, we've got the F-18s and F-14s going in there and bombing.

Now, the football analogy that was given to me out on the USS Eisenhower when they were trying to train without using Vieques, they said, fine, you can have your quarterbacks training over here, your halfbacks training over here -- you're an old football player -- but they've played together in a game, but they're the best there are but they have not trained together. Now, if they then in the first game -- the day of the game comes up and they lose.

They have to have the integrated training. And I have gone personally to every alternative possibility worldwide, including Capo Teulada in southern Sardinia, including Cape Wrath in northern Scotland. There is no place else that we can give the training to our kids.

And when they are shipped over there through the Mediterranean, from a deployment on the East Coast to the Gulf, they have to be prepared for battle, because the chances are 50/50 they'll be in battle.

BECKEL: We'll -- you know, there are some people who disagree with you that there are other sites. But let me ask you this...

INHOFE: No, there really aren't. Not experts.

BECKEL: OK. We have not bombed there since last April, since this guard was killed. We are going to use ordnance, which is not new ordance really, and it's going to be dummy ordnance. I mean, why not wait for this referendum? I mean, after all, it's going to be in April. It's only a few short -- it's early next year. We haven't bombed for a year.

Why not let the island residents vote? If they vote for it, go ahead. If not, let's find an alternative.

INHOFE: Well, first of all, there are -- we have already looked for -- the Pace-Allen (ph) -- the Pace-Fallon (ph) report has gone to every possible alternative. And I'd like to ask Juan if he knows of an alternative, because we have been to all of them, and there is not an acceptable alternative.

BECKEL: Well, can I offer you two before you ask Juan?

INHOFE: Now, keep in mind that we have deployed the USS Eisenhower without proper training. Now, if we have a death over there, all of the sudden we'll have American opinion on our side because we sent them over there without adequate training.

We have the USS Washington going over in June. They are not going to be able to train.

Inert ordnance is not a way to train.

BECKEL: Senator, since Bob (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a question, I'm going to ask you a quick one. Did we learn nothing from Elian Gonzalez's picture of that, of storming that house? If we have to go in and remove these, including people who, by the way, are on the range, not just at the gate, the pictures will be ugly. Already, you've got some animosity growing in the Puerto Rican community in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Why go through this? I mean -- I mean, we are setting ourselves up for a public relations disaster, and military, frankly, doesn't need anymore disasters.

INHOFE: Look, I've been trying to get Janet Reno to enforce the law since last September. I've written her a letter saying that if someone dies over there, the blood is going to be on your hands. We have to have that training capability.

Now, if it's an ugly scene there when they go -- it should not be -- certainly it couldn't be as bad as going in after -- after Elian.

NOVAK: Mr. Figueroa, the senator asked you if you could name another place that could be used. Could you briefly name a couple of places?

FIGUEROA: Well, look, I'm not a military expert. But if you look at islands, I mean -- look, the point here is...


FIGUEROA: ... if this had been happening off the Florida Keys or off some other islands, I can guarantee you this would have been done and over with a long time ago. But the fact is for the last year the Navy has found places both off the Florida coast and California to train. And there are many experts that dispute what the senator has said. In fact, our military is ready.

NOVAK: OK. Mr. Figueroa, I want to ask you a question, and I mean no disrespect to the Puerto Rican people, believe me when I say that, because I'm a many-times visitor to Puerto Rico, and I love the people on the island. But the Puerto Rican people have a very good deal. They don't pay federal income taxes, they get all the federal programs, have their own team in the Olympics and so on. If they don't want to do a patriotic service by having this little island used as bombing range, why don't you go independent? You could go independent tomorrow. Nothing is holding you back, if you want to. Wouldn't that be a good idea, and you don't have to bother with patriotic duties?

FIGUEROA: That's not the issue here, Mr. Novak. I think the issue here is the fairness and justice to American citizens who have paid with their lives in the Second World War, in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Gulf War, certainly the people of Vieques who have paid with their lives as well as land in preparing the military. That's what at issue here.

This isn't about status. This is a question of, if this existed in the Florida Keys, or if this was in New York or even in your home state, do you think that 60 years of target practice is enough? Is that enough of a contribution. How much are people expected to pay?


INHOFE: Are you aware that Fort Sill, Oklahoma has a live range that operates 320 days out of the year. The most day that Vieques ever operated was 180 days. We are within a population of 100,000 people, with a three-mile buffer zone. You have a 10-mile buffer zone and only 9,000 people. And you talk about this happening in the Florida Keys -- this is my state of Oklahoma.

FIGUEROA: And senator, what I'd like to know...

BECKEL: We're going to have to take a break. You can respond when you get back.

NOVAK: OK, we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we'll talk about what in the world do Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have to do with this issue.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

If any shots are fired in Puerto Rico to open the island of Vieques for U.S. Naval gunfire, they will be heard all the way to New York. That's because of the Puerto Rican vote in November when the Empire State chooses for U.S. Senator between Hillary Rodham Clinton and probably Rudy Giuliani. They're both weighing in on the Vieques issue. We're talking to Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Educational and Legal Defense Fund, and to Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. He's here in Washington.

BECKEL: Senator, first of all, let me make it clear, I think Puerto Rico ought to be an independent country. It has a right to. It was taken illegally after Spanish-American war. But leaving that aside, let me give you two alternative islands, one of which I've been on. You've been on all of them, I take it.

BECKEL: Tell me what's wrong with Mono Island and Dog Island, Dog Island being a British island, giving us permission to use it?

INHOFE: Well, first of all, one of the big complaints they have is that proximity to a populated area.

BECKEL: But you're aware of the two I'm talking about?

INHOFE: I'm fully aware of it, yes. Let's just take Dog Island. BECKEL: I've been on Dog Island.

INHOFE: Dog Island is one that might work otherwise. It is a British island. But the problem is, it's within a -- 15 miles of 67,000 people. We're talking about 9,000 people and the same distance on Vieques. As far as the other island's concerned, it does not have a beach for the purpose of offering this integrated training for the Marine expeditionary landings.

BECKEL: OK, this has raised the issue of...

INHOFE: And besides, there is controlled airspace above it, so they can't do the high-level bombing.

BECKEL: OK, you've talked about readiness -- that's your expertise in the Senate. There is not a big hue and cry in this country right now about the military, as you know, but readiness is an issue. Politically, Bob raised this issue: Al Gore says we ought not to be doing the bombing here. Hillary Clinton wants a moratorium, is what she said. George Bush, as usual, ducked it.

If you were to give George Bush advice, would you say to come out and say, let's bomb, and if we have to move these people by force, let's move them.

INHOFE: No, I would say we have to have that whatever it takes to get...

BECKEL: Whatever it takes?

INHOFE: Whatever it takes.

BECKEL: So you think that George Bush is not saying that, he's ducking..

INHOFE: No, no, he's not ducking, but maybe he isn't that familiar with the issue.

Let me tell you about Al Gore. Do you know when he made his commitment with this? It was when Rosello, the governor, who is one of his $100,000 fund-raisers, said if you want to get the Puerto Rican vote in America, then you go up there and say that's you're going to stop the live firing on that range.

Wait a minute.

BECKEL: Go ahead.

INHOFE: And he said that -- let me compliment one of your fellow liberal Democrats, because Bill Bradley was in the primary at that time, and they said, well, Gore has committed to stop that live firing, and he said, will do you the same thing? And he said no, because I want to see what kind of ramification it has on our nation's defense. That is a man of character.

BECKEL: George Bush's foreign policy includes people in the Ford administration that ceased bombing another islands of Puerto Rico, as you are very well aware of, 1975. Wait a second. George Bush cannot duck the issue, not knowing about this bombing range. I want to ask you again. Would you call on George Bush to say we should go in and remove? No, but George Bush can't be ignorant.

INHOFE: No, no, no.

BECKEL: Bob, you don't want to talk about it.

INHOFE: I would advise him to do what's necessary to return that, because American lives are at stake.

Now as far as that other island is concerned, the only reason we're able to give that up is because we did have the backup of Vieques, we didn't need to, so we gave that up, and then we were using Vieques, which is the better of the two.


BECKEL: Juan, to get by...

FIGUEROA: Can I get back...

NOVAK: Yes, go ahead, Juan.

FIGUEROA: Yes, I just wanted to address the issue that Senator Inhofe mentioned before...

INHOFE: It's Inhofe.

FIGUEROA: ... about the training range in Oklahoma. What I want to ask him, is do the people in and around his firing range have a higher cancer rate than the rest of the Oklahomans? Do they have a higher...

INHOFE: Absolutely not. Neither do they.

FIGUEROA: No, let me finish...

NOVAK: Wait, you can't make a speech -- ask him a question.

FIGUEROA: No, no, it's just a couple of questions.

INHOFE: The answer is no that they don't, and they have the same type of firing there, and studies have shown that that's a phony issue when you talk about the cancer rate on Vieques.

FIGUEROA: I'm sorry, but I disagree with this. There are a plenty of studies...

INHOFE: We have hearings on this, Juan.

FIGUEROA: ... by renowned medical experts.

NOVAK: I want you to listen to something, Mr. Figueroa, that the very distinguished chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner of Virginia, said.


SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), CHAIRMAN OF ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Unfortunately, the Vieques thing has gotten mixed up into domestic politics. It is all clear to us, Mrs. Clinton is considering a run in New York, New York has a significant number of Puerto Ricans there.


NOVAK: That's what it's all about, isn't it? That's why we're all excited about this?

FIGUEROA: I'm happy to hear that all the senatorial candidates, both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mayor Giuliani, want the navy out of Vieques. I think it's about time that all these policy-makers, whether they're running for the Senate, whether in the White House, recognize it -- the Vieques people have contributed to the national security by allowing the Navy to be there for 60 years. It's time to move on. It's time to move on.

INHOFE: Can I share something with you, Juan? You know that the Army National Guard in Puerto Rico, you know where they do their training? They do their training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. And the other day when I was over there, they said, how can we refuse to let you use a live range here when we, the Puerto Ricans, are going to Oklahoma, to Fort Sill, and using your live range, much closer to the population than we are here in Vieques.

NOVAK: Mr. Figueroa, you quote Mayor Giuliani with approval. So I guess you think he knows what he's talking about. So let's listen to what else he says about this issue.


MYR. RUDY GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK CITY: This didn't have to happen if we had a president who focused on foreign policy and understood the military. This didn't have to happen, and that's his prime job. Above and beyond anything else, he's the commander in chief of the United States military, and the chief executive officer of the United States.


BECKEL: Wait a minute, wait a minute.

NOVAK: Do you agree with Rudy, that the president is to blame for this dispute?

FIGUEROA: I agree with the mayor, that ultimately, the president as commander in chief has the power and ability to deal with this situation as expeditiously and as fair as possible. And we have called upon him. We have called upon him to...

BECKEL: Rudy Giuliani just figured out that the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York were not obscene gestures. He knows as much about foreign policy as Novak about football.

Let me get back to this point here for a second -- basketball, yes.

George Bush took a dive on Elian Gonzalez' brother. Jeb did, too, took off, wasn't around. I want to get back to this point, keep focusing on New York. Do you think this is going to be an issue among all Spanish-speaking American voters?

INHOFE: No, I don't, because I'm anxious to see how a referendum on the island itself would come out. You might remember that there was going to be a referendum and Governor Rosello called it off, and he called it off because polling showed the people of the island would vote to keep the live fire.

BECKEL: You're exactly right.

Senator Inhofe, thank you so much for being with us.

Juan, in New York, thank you very much for being with us.

When we come back, Novak and I are going to settle this. I've got a place where we can bomb. It's an alternative, but it's where Bob stays, and we'll tell you all about it when we get back.


NOVAK: Bob, maybe there is one thing we can agree on this Vieques question, and that is president of the United States, the commander in chief of the armed forces, ought to be making these decisions. All this stuff about referendums, about suspensions, about saying no, we can't have it. If the president says I'm going to follow my military advisers and say it's important or I'm going to follow the politicians, but it's his decision.

BECKEL: Listen, I do agree with that. I think Puerto Rico, first of all, ought to be independent country. I've always thought that.

NOVAK: I agree with that. I agree with that.

BECKEL: But as an alternative to bombing -- you can't see this audience -- but this is a place, Fenwick. Have you ever heard of Fenwick? It's a little place, island up in Delaware. Bob knows a little bit about this. I've three islands off of Fenwick, Bob, and I think we can probably use there.

NOVAK: I have a house there, so...

BECKEL: I didn't want to say that, because I didn't want nuts to get up there.

But anyway, I think we didn't need this, and I think Clinton could have avoided it, I agree with you, but I think Bush has got to attack it, and I want to hear what he has to say. How's that? Now, do you have anything to say? NOVAK: No, I nothing to say to that -- go ahead.

BECKEL: OK, it's nice to with you again, Bob.

From the left, I'm Bob Beckel. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: And it's delight to be with you, Beckel. From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us for next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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