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Jamie McIntyre: Vieques bombing to halt

The U.S. military has conducted military exercises on Vieques for more than six decades  

Jamie McIntyre is CNN's longest serving military affairs correspondent. He is reporting from Washington, D.C.

Q: Why has there been so much controversy recently over the bombing exercises on Vieques?

McIntyre: The Navy has insisted that it has no other place where it can conduct the kind of exercises it needs in order to prepare its ships and sailors for potential conflict overseas in war zones such as the Persian Gulf, where the United States is flying planes into combat every day patrolling the no-fly zones. The controversy erupted back in 1999 when a security guard was killed by an errant bomb, and protestors on the tiny Puerto Rican island took over the bombing range and prevented the Navy from using it for some time. An agreement was worked out with the government of Puerto Rico at the time under which the Navy would use only non-explosive ordnance till May of 2003, while arranging for a referendum of all the island's residents to decide whether or not the Navy should stay. If Viequans voted for the Navy, they'd get a package of economic benefits from the Navy totaling about $90 million. The Navy was hopeful that in November, they'd be able to win this referendum and continue using the east end of the island as a training range. Vieques, they say, is the only place they can train on the east coast.

The U.S. military  

Now what's happened is that the Bush administration, while saying it would support the agreement during the campaign, has now changed its mind, since the Navy had little chance of winning the referendum and Vieques is becoming a political liability, and decided to cut its losses and end training at Vieques when the agreement expires in 2003. In doing that, it is over-ruling the Navy senior military leadership that felt there was a national security need in having training there continue.

Q: What has been the reaction from protesters and Congress?

McIntyre: This decision isn't sitting well with anybody. The Puerto Rican protesters in Vieques and their supporters in the United States are not happy because they believe the bombing should stop now, not wait until 2003. They've argued that the bombing has deleterious health effects on the population and they want it to stop immediately. Conservative members of Congress, who insist there's a national security need that over-rides the objections of local residents are not happy because the Bush administration has essentially pulled the rug out from underneath the Navy. The Bush administration has dispatched the civilian head of the Navy, Navy Secretary Gordon England, to the Hill today to try to explain the decision, and to promise that the Navy will find an alternative to Vieques in the future.

Q: Are there any environmental concerns in returning the bombing range to civilian use?

McIntyre: The east end of the island has been used as a bombing range for 60 years. Obviously if you are going to return that to civilian use there would have to be a clean up. As for how serious the damage from the bombing is, I think that's open to debate. Residents on the island have contended all along that the bombing is a health hazard and has resulted in higher rates of illnesses. The Navy has cited statistics to show there is no greater incidence of any health problem that's related to the bombing exercises. But if that part of the island were to revert to the government of Puerto Rico, there would have to be a clean-up, and I am not sure what that would involve.

Q: What are the implications of this decision for the administration's relationship with the military?

McIntyre: This is another instance in which the military is discovering that the candidate it generally supported -- President Bush who said he was pro-military -- that the Bush administration is very independent minded when it comes to military matters, and they are not necessarily going to follow military recommendations when it comes to issues. There have been a number of cases in which the Pentagon has been surprised to discover that the Bush administration has not been supportive of the military's desires, and this is yet another example of that.

• U.S. Navy
• Vieques activist groups

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