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Should the Navy Keep Using Vieques Island?

Aired June 19, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, bombs away.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's out of here, out of here, out of here.


PRESS: Or away with the bombs? President Bush says the Navy will stop bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in two years, but should the bombing stop sooner, or should it stop at all?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, member of the Armed Services Committee, and in New York, Robert Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Sometimes you can't win for losing, as President Bush discovered on Puerto Rico's Vieques island. The decision of his Navy secretary to stop using Vieques as a practice bombing range in the year 2003 infuriated Senate Republicans, like tonight's guest, Senator James Inhofe, who argue there's no place else to turn.

But it didn't satisfy opponents either, who want the bombing stopped now, not two years from now. So the mock war goes on. Both sides continue to fight, the Navy continues to bomb, and protesters continue to get arrested. The wife of Jesse Jackson, the latest celebrity to go to jail in Puerto Rico. Reverend Al Sharpton is serving 90 days in New York after being arrested in Puerto Rico earlier this spring.

Tonight: is Vieques really the only place the Navy can bomb? What harm is being done there? And was the Bush administration motivated by military policy or Latino politics? Bob Novak is back tonight.


Mr. Kennedy, thank you for coming in. You and the other protesters say that two years is too long, the bombing has to stop immediately, but there was -- that gives us no time at all to have and to find an alternative bombing place. Isn't that being just absolutely disdainful of the demand of national defense and national security?

ROBERT KENNEDY JR., PRESIDENT, WATERKEEPER ALLIANCE: No, actually, Bob, it's important for national security that we stop using Vieques because the troops that are using Vieques are not getting proper training there. They are not allowed to do -- because Congress passed a statute banning live ordinance there, the troops are simply not getting the kind of training that they need.

The Navy did a study back in 1999, a national security study that looked for alternatives. They found plenty of them. Dog Island near St. Martin's is one of those, but there are many others as well, at Camp LeJune, Egland Air Force Base. There are many other places where they can do actual live ordinance fire, which, if we were really concerned about troop readiness, if we were really concerned about adequately training our men in arms, we should not be using Vieques, because in Vieques we can't do the kind of practice that these men need before we send them off to war.

PRESS: Senator Inhofe, just a quick question to you: I mean, the people of Puerto Rico clearly don't want this, you are destroying the environment there, and as Bob Kennedy mentioned, there are other places to go. Why don't you bomb someplace else?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, first of all, we are not destroying the environment. In fact, it's actually better and cleaner there as a result of some of the things that we are doing, in terms of endangered species and others thing.

But there is no place else. And you know, I didn't think I would agree with Bob on anything, but I do degree that we should be doing it with live ordinance. You have to do it with live ordinance to get the right kind of training. And so, that's what we want to do. That's what the referendum is all about.

And I believe, Bill, that the people who make this decision should be the people from Vieques, who live on the island, not the politicians in Puerto Rico.

NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy, of course, the use of -- the prohibition of live ammunition was a temporary expedient by the Clinton administration, but contrary to what you say about plenty of other places, let me read from a 1999 Defense Department report, quote: "There are no potential sites that can meet the current states requirements for combined arms live firing," end quote. No potential sites.

And then, the former commander of the 4th Fleet, Vice Admiral Daniel J. Murphy says, quote: "The loss of Vieques would cost American lives." Doesn't that, the inability to find another place for live firing and the loss of Vieques endangering American lives, doesn't that give you some pause?

KENNEDY: Well, if it were true it certainly would, but it's not true, and I have Admiral John Shanahan who is testifying in our Endangered Special Act cases on the island, and he is the former commander of the Atlantic Fleet, he was President Bush's -- the original President Bush's top naval adviser, and he himself invaded Vieques dozens and dozens of times while he was in command of the Atlantic Fleet, and he says that those claims are absolute baloney, that there is no national security justification for using Vieques.

There are many things, Bob, that are done on Vieques that do have a strong national security rational, but none of those things require the use of Vieques. And as I said, you can't use live ordnance on Vieques anymore You never will be able to again, and the reason for that is there would be an absolute revolution in Puerto Rico. It's absolutely unconscionable for us to do so, knowing what we now know about the health impacts to the people of the island. This island has the highest...

INHOFE: He's trying to get everything at once here, and let's do this one at a time. First of all, it isn't true. I've been to every possible alternative site all around the world.

KENNEDY: Have you been to Dog island, senator?

INHOFE: Yes. I know all about that.

KENNEDY: Have you been to Dog island?

INHOFE: That's close to population, it would be impossible to do it there.

KENNEDY: It's farther from population than in Vieques!

INHOFE: Will you not interrupt me for just a minute, Bobby?

NOVAK: Let the senator go, please.

INHOFE: Dog island was part of the search that went on when Pace and Fallon got involved in it, the two top people in the nation. Then, that was followed up with the Rush Commission. They looked at all possible alternative sources.

I have been to these places, and let me tell you, the worst part of this is not just going to be that we are going to be sending our troops out there untrained into combat environments, but it's going to have a domino effect. I can assure you that Cape Wrath in Northern Scotland and Southern Sardinia, Capoteulado, they are not going allow us to train there. We can't be training on land that we own today.

There is no place else that has integrated training. That's the Marine expeditionary units coming in, live fire -- has to be live fire -- going over from the Navy, then the F-14s and the F-18s coming in. And we have already lost five American lives because we had inadequate training, and we are not able to get the live fire training on Vieques when all of this started. We need to get back to live fire...

NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy, you want to respond to that? KENNEDY: Yeah. First of all, there is no telling how many lives that we have lost in the Navy, it's never allowed these studies to be done. How many lives we've lost from the people of Vieques which now has the highest cancer rate in the Caribbean.

INHOFE: It's just not true.

KENNEDY: Let me finish, because I let you finish. The highest infant mortality rate in Puerto Rico, the highest overall mortality rate. There is recent studies that show that the majority of people on the island have a heart disease that is associated with persistent exposures to sonic boom.

Every test that has been done on that island has demonstrated that bioacids, taking of fecal tissue, of blood, and of hair tissue, that the people on that island have high concentrations of arsenic, cyanide....


INHOFE: I have heard those lies over and over and over again, and they have been disproven. When you talk about infant mortality...

KENNEDY: They have not been disproven...


INHOFE: ... herself said in Puerto Rico that it was a lie. Those are her words, not my words.

KENNEDY: That is not true, senator. That is not true.

INHOFE: They didn't use the statistics from 1996 through 1998, and if you take those statistics in, the infant mortality rate on Vieques is actually less than it is in Puerto Rico. John Hopkins came in and said there's nothing cardiovascular in terms of the problems there, and as far as the cancer rate, it goes -- it's above and below the island of Puerto Rico.


NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy, let me ask you a question...

KENNEDY: What you are saying is not true, senator.

INHOFE: It is true.

NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy...


NOVAK: Wait a minute, just yelling "it's not true" is not going to settle anything. Let me ask you a question.


NOVAK: Wait a minute, Mr. Kennedy...

KENNEDY: ... I don't have to yell, I don't have to yell, I can tell you what really happened, if you give me a chance.

NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy, let me ask you a question: how do you explain the fact that Puerto Rico has a lower cancer rate than 49 of the 50 United States states? Doesn't that indicate something different is happening there? That this is not a serious problem?

KENNEDY: No. The bombing is taking place in Vieques, Bob, which is a distance from Puerto Rico. And if you compare the cancer rates on Vieques to the cancer rates of every other municipality in Puerto Rico, it has the highest cancer rates. It's washed by the trade winds, so it has -- and it has no other industry. The Navy is the only industry out there.

INHOFE: And that isn't true, but I have a better way of answering that, Bob. And that is, if you take my state of Oklahoma, we have Fort Sill, we have a lot more ordnance taking place there than ever has taken place on Vieques. As an example, Fort Sill is open 328 days a year, Vieques only reached a peak at 160 days a year, and yet we don't have those -- the heart disease and the cancer, all those things. Why would we not have it, if they have it there?

KENNEDY: Can I answer that question?

INHOFE: The scientists and the doctors...

KENNEDY: Can I answer that question?

INHOFE: ... the doctors have said it just isn't true.

PRESS: Go ahead.

KENNEDY: Can I answer that question? First of all, the doctors have not said that it isn't true. One doctor, Dr. Samet, who was paid $46,000 dollars for one-week study based on...


INHOFE: I would say John Hopkins -- John Hopkins is more than just one doctor, wouldn't you say?

KENNEDY: No, it was one -- I beg your pardon, senator...

INHOFE: It was John Hopkins.

KENNEDY: ... it was Dr. Samet, who was a single doctor from Johns Hopkins, who was paid $46,000 for a one week study and he himself has publicly said he was not given adequate information to make the conclusions that the Navy asked him to make.


PRESS: I want to get in here and talk about the politics of this decision a little bit with you, Senator, if I can, because you worked very hard last year on some legislation in Congress that set up -- the way to resolve this was to give the people on Vieques Island a choice this November. You got the legislation passed thinking that Al Gore might be president of the United States.

And low and behold, instead, your pal, the guy you supported, George Bush, is president of the United States. And now he's acted to cancel the bombing and ask you to cancel referendum -- in fact (UNINTELLIGIBLE) back your legislation. My question is: Do you feel betrayed, and if so, by whom?

INHOFE: Well, first of all, what you say is true, and I have to admit that when we put the legislation together, since the governor down there during the primary had told Al Gore, if you want to get all the Puerto Rican vote, just say, when I'm elected I will close the range in Vieques.

And so, that's what thought would happen if Al Gore would get elected. Quite frankly, I never believed that if George Bush got elected that this problem would come up. None the less, the law is in effect. There is going to be a referendum and I've talked to the people in Vieques. They're going to vote in favor of keeping a live range open.

PRESS: Now there have been reports that this decision was made at the -- even though the Navy secretary announced it -- that the decision was really made at the White House by the chief political adviser, Karl Rove, who's listening to people who say, Republicans need to do something to get the Latino vote.

Your colleague, Trent Lott, was asked whether he thought it was political and he said, "No. I think it was a decision made in conjunction with new secretary of the Navy that with modern technology and use of other facilities something could be done." Do you think it was political? Let's admit it, it was really just pure politics, wasn't it?

INHOFE: Bill, I can (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this a lot easier for you. Yes, I think it was political. No, I don't agree with Trent Lott in this case. I spent two years of my life going around just to see that we don't -- take away our ability in the Army, in the Air Force, in the Navy to have live ranges. And yes, Karl Rove, I believe made that decision.

NOVAK: We going to have to take a break. And when come back we'll ask whether this is something that the people of Puerto Rico ought to decide.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct these exercises for a lot of reasons. One, there's been some harm done to people in the past. Secondly, these are our friends and neighbors and they don't want us there. (END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The people of Puerto Rico will get to vote on the U.S. military bombing of Vieques in a referendum scheduled for November, maybe sooner. Is this anyway to run a Navy, or is it pure democracy? We're asking Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Senator Inhofe, I want to pick back up on this referendum which says in this legislation that you passed and the president signed last year that says in November the people of Vieques will decide. They're given a choice: Continue the bombing with live ordnance or the Navy gets out. You'd abide by that and they get some money for economic development or something. Here's my question -- My question is: Why let the people of Vieques decide? Shouldn't all the people of Puerto Rico decide? Isn't that sort of like saying, the people of Block Island can make decision for the whole state of Rhode Island?

INHOFE: There are the people who live there.

PRESS: But it's part of Puerto Rico.

INHOFE: Nine thousand three hundred people who live on the island, they are the ones that they say are receiving all this damage -- all these things you are hearing about -- the health problems and all that. So they are the ones who are concerned. Who can argue against self-determination? I have been on that island several times and I have talked to people. And, Bill, I can tell you, they are going to vote to keep the Navy there. They like the Navy and they don't like the politicians on Puerto Rico.

NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy, I want to ask you a kind of tough question: People of Puerto Rico have a pretty good deal, a lot of us think. They get a lot of aid from the United States government. They don't pay taxes. They don't pay a federal income tax. What a blessing they have.

Do you think maybe they owe the United States government something to withstand this inconvenience of the bombing like the people of Oklahoma do near Fort Sill in Senator Inhofe's state?

KENNEDY: Well, you know they have endured it there for 60 years. And there are now a series of studies that have come out that indicate that the people on that island are very, very sick. I love the U.S. Navy. I was raised in a Naval family. I believe that we need to have a strong national security. I believe also that every nation has the right to ask its citizens to sacrifice their lives for their country during times of war. And my family has risen to that call many times.

But I don't believe that we are entitled to sacrifice lives of children and women and people who haven't volunteered during times of peace for a dubious military exercise that could be done someplace else. And I'd like to make one other point about that and it's taking up on something that Senator Inhofe said. He said that the Navy rejected Dog Island because of its proximity to a population center.

That population center is on Saint Martin's, ten miles away from the bomb site, yet here on Vieques we have a much larger population eight miles away and directly up wind which is not the case on Saint Martin's. So all of these contaminants from the detonations are blowing onto the civilian population.

NOVAK: Go ahead, Senator.

INHOFE: Well that Saint Martin's island has a much larger population than the 9,300 people...

KENNEDY: Not within range of the bombing site.

INHOFE: In my state of Oklahoma, they're within three miles of a population of 100,000.

NOVAK: Mr. Kennedy, you completely disregarded my question. I was asking you a question of whether the people Puerto Rico owe something to the United States government. They got a very good deal, and I find that a lot of the demonstrators are people from the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Party, people who want independence from Puerto Rico.


Just a minute here, let me ask the question: If they really don't want to do their duties as American citizens, maybe independence from Puerto Rico's the right answer. What do you think of that?

KENNEDY: No, Bob, the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has a contract with the United States that describes its commonwealth status, and this isn't part of it. And I don't think that we have the right to impose new conditions any more than anybody who writes the contract, can then impose new conditions on the opposite party.

Let me say one other thing: it's not independent (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I was in prison down there with the president of the senate, who was a statehood party with the mayor of Vieques, with a senator from Vieques. If 95 percent of the people on that island, not only support the withdrawal of the United States, but they also support the civil disobediences that are now going down.

INHOFE: To answer the question...

KENNEDY: It's almost impossible to find anybody in Puerto Rico who...

NOVAK: Go ahead, Senator.

INHOFE: The question that he didn't answer was, these things we have done. Bob and Bill, we have done things for Puerto Rico that we wouldn't have done otherwise, but we wanted use of the range. And we give them this big favorable tax thing, at $300 million a year on run tax. You know that would end if we're not there.

Roosevelt Roads, Fort Buchanan, they would have to close down because they are there to support the range. So, it's not going to happen in a vacuum.

PRESS: Let me ask you about something that will happen -- a quick follow-up on that referendum. To cancel this referendum in November, it will mean Congress will have to pass a bill as the president advised. You are against it. Is the president going get his way in Congress or are you going to kill that bill?

INHOFE: We're going to kill to bill.

PRESS: Well, I hope the White House is listening. All right.

NOVAK: Well, just a minute: how will that turn out quickly, Mr. Kennedy, that referendum? The people of Vieques will vote against the referendum and continue the bombing, won't they?

KENNEDY: I believe that they will. I believe they -- no, I believe they will vote against the bombing.

NOVAK: The people of Vieques?


PRESS: I -- I...

NOVAK: I don't know, Bob, but I think the best indication is the last mayoral race on the island...

INHOFE: Can I tell you why I know he's wrong on that?

PRESS: We will find out. I just want to ask you another question of the secretary of the Navy, because the secretary of Navy came out last weekend and made this decision, he said, you know, sure, Vieques is a crown jewel but we can find someplace else and we can have some computer simulations and other technology that will totally take the place of what we are doing down there.

Are you saying the secretary of Navy doesn't know what he's talking about?

INHOFE: No, I'm saying that the secretary of the Navy -- Secretary Egland -- has not been around the world to all the alternative sites, like I spent two years doing.

PRESS: But don't you think he consulted with his Navy personnel before he...

INHOFE: Well, I don't know. You ask the CNO of the Navy or you ask the commandant of the Marine Corps. Both of them are very much on our side, and very much on the side of what I consider the majority of the people on Vieques.

NOVAK: Do you think they...

INHOFE: I think they will vote for the Navy, and the reason I think so, there are only 6,400 registered voters, 2,500 of them have signed a petition to secede from Puerto Rico. So I think that pretty much says what will happen.

PRESS: It will be an interesting election, if it happens in November. Senator Inhofe, thanks very much for coming back in.

INHOFE: Thank you.

PRESS: Robert Kennedy up in New York, thanks for joining us, great debate, gentlemen.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

PRESS: Robert Novak and I will be back with closing comments, my chance to drop a couple of bombs on Bob Novak about Vieques Island.


PRESS: Bob, here is the problem: Bush only got this half right. He was right to stop the bombing, but if he's going to stop it, he ought to stop it now and not say, I'm going stop it in 2003.

You know, Charlie Rangel said this, it's like my telling you, I'm going to stop beating you in the head with a hammer two years from now.

NOVAK: Well, he was bound to get that reaction. You know, there was nobody from the White House on our program tonight, not because we're not fair. They wouldn't put it out, because they claim the White House -- it wasn't their decision, it was the Navy's.

PRESS: You don't believe that.

NOVAK: I don't believe that for a minute. Sometimes, you have to make the hard decision, like continuing the bombing in Vieques and bombing -- and vetoing bombing a rotten patients' bill of rights to be a good, strong president. It isn't always the easiest political thing, but the right thing to do.

PRESS: And I think we discovered here that George Bush would have abandoned his longtime supporters if he thinks he can pick up a few more votes.

NOVAK: Well, let's not generalize!

PRESS: That's exactly what he's doing. That's what he did in this case!

NOVAK: Don't be a cheap Democratic politician, Bill!

PRESS: I'm not, Bob.

NOVAK: Let's say -- a lot of things he has stuck with the right on, on the national missile defense, on the Kyoto Treaty. So don't be so partisan!

PRESS: Bob! You want me to change my entire life?

NOVAK: I can't do that.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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