Clinton's Decision on Dec. 3, 1999

Friday December 3 4:58 PM ET
Text of Clinton's Vieques Statement
By The Associated Press

Text of President Clinton's statement Friday on U.S. military training on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico.

For several weeks, we have been working on how best to reconcile the imperative of providing satisfactory training for our armed forces, with the strong feelings of many residents of Vieques and Puerto Rico about the impact of training operations there. I have discussed this with the governor of Puerto Rico, the secretary of defense, the secretary of the Navy, the chief of naval operations, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and others.

Today, the secretary of defense has recommended a plan of action which I believe offers the best avenue to addressing both needs. I have accepted that recommendation and am directing the secretary of defense to work with the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico so that we can move forward in a cooperative manner.

I understand the longstanding concerns of residents of the island. These concerns cover a wide range of issues, from health and safety to the economy and the environment. They reflect a distrust that, unfortunately, has been building for decades. Those concerns must be addressed, and I believe our plan will do so in a constructive manner.

At the same time, as commander-in-chief, I cannot send our servicemen and women into harm's way if they have not been adequately trained. The training that our Atlantic Fleet has undertaken on Vieques since 1941 is important. While the Navy and the Marine Corps will develop a satisfactory alternative for the upcoming exercise, it will take several years to develop a comparable long-term replacement.

The plan I am adopting today provides for the end of training on Vieques within five years, unless the people of Vieques choose to continue the relationship; restricts training activities during the transition period to those required by the services; sets forth an ambitious economic development plan for Vieques that would be implemented during this transition and gives the people of Puerto Rico and the Navy an opportunity to discuss this plan in order for it to be understood fully before training resumes this spring for this transitional period.

In particular, the following steps will be undertaken:

First, the Navy and the Marine Corps will make alternative arrangements which they deem satisfactory for training of the Eisenhower Battle Group and the WASP Amphibious Ready Group, scheduled for December. While such arrangements can be undertaken for the Eisenhower and WASP groups, they do not constitute a long-term alternative to Vieques. Rather, this period will provide an opportunity for the people of Vieques to discuss this plan with the Navy and the Marine Corps and understand it fully.

Second, we will resume training next spring for a transition period, no longer than five years. This will enable the Navy to develop a suitable, long-term alternative. Training on Vieques will cease after this transition period unless the people of Vieques decide it should be continued. The Navy and the Marine Corps will develop a timetable to phase out operations in Vieques as soon as possible during the transition period, including transferring title of land to Puerto Rico beginning with the western quarter of the island.

Third, when training resumes for this transition period it will be limited to inert ordnance only -- no live fire -- unless and until the people of Vieques decide differently. Training will be authorized for 90 days a year, what we need to meet our essential training needs.

Finally, when training resumes we will implement an ambitious program that addresses the concerns that the community has had for so long -- and that has been spelled out by the secretary of defense.

I am convinced that this plan meets my essential responsibility as commander-in-chief to assure that our military forces are satisfactorily trained and ready, while at the same time addressing the legitimate concerns of the people of Vieques. It provides some breathing space so that the people on the island and the Navy and Marine Corps can proceed in an orderly and mutually respectful fashion.

Puerto Rico's reaction

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Clinton Proposes Concessions On
Navy Training; Puerto Rico Says 'No'
Updated 8.25 p.m. ET (0125 GMT) December 3, 1999

AP- WASHINGTON President Clinton said Friday that Navy bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques would resume next spring at a sharply reduced level and only with dummy bombs. He offered Puerto Rico $40 million to go along with the plan, which includes phasing out all training on the island within five years. Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello quickly rejected the plan, leaving the Navy with no assurance it will ever regain full use of its "crown jewel" of training ranges. Rossello's resistance also raised questions about what Clinton would do if protesters who are camped out on the bombing range refuse to leave next spring.

Clinton's plan would mean that for the next five years the Navy and Marines would train only with "inert," or dummy, bombs on Vieques instead of the live ammunition that is part of advanced combat training.

After that, the Navy would get out of Vieques altogether. But even those concession were too little, Rossello said.

A visibly disappointed Rossello told reporters in San Juan, "Personally I feel deceived with the position that's been taken because it doesn't faithfully reflect what we have been discussing with the president."

The standoff raised the possibility that the Pentagon might reduce or eliminate its presence elsewhere in Puerto Rico in particular the Roosevelt Roads naval station unless the Puerto Ricans changed their minds about Vieques, Defense Secretary William Cohen said in a report to Clinton on Friday.

In the short term, it means the next aircraft carrier battle group to deploy abroad from the East Coast, led by the USS Enterprise and the USS Wasp, will leave their home station of Norfolk, Va., in February in a reduced state of combat readiness, officials said. The battle group, which got under way this week for final pre-deployment training, will skip the usual live-fire training session on Vieques, officials said.

As an alternative, some ships in the battle group will conduct naval gunfire exercises in Scotland on their way to the Mediterranean, officials said, and other live-fire training will be done after the battle group arrives in the Mediterranean. The officials said the exact location and timing had not been worked out yet.

The level of combat readiness of Navy and Marine Corps forces departing on six-month deployments abroad is an important consideration because two of the last three battle groups sent to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf were required to commence combat operations on their first day there.

"I cannot send our servicemen and women into harm's way if they have not been adequately trained," Clinton said.

Although some in Congress applauded Clinton's proposal, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, called it a risky approach that "jeopardizes American forces."

Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, sharply criticized both the administration and Puerto Rico.

"This will mark the first time in our nation's over 200-year history that America and its territories have knowingly turned their backs on the responsibility to properly and fully train those who go forth in harms' way to protect our national interest," Warner said.

As part of a plan that includes $40 million in economic incentives to Puerto Rico, Clinton said the Navy would withdraw completely from Vieques within five years. The pullout, which Navy officials had resisted out of concern for the loss of training, takes into account Puerto Ricans' antipathy toward the Navy, Clinton said.

"They reflect a distrust that, unfortunately, has been building for decades," the president said.

Puerto Ricans have long objected to the Navy's practice bombing on Vieques, but the controversy boiled over after a civilian security guard was killed by an errant bomb in April. The Navy then suspended training on Vieques but has sought a way to resume it.

No sooner had Pentagon officials spelled out publicly the details of Clinton's plan than Rossello rejected it. The governor, a staunch Clinton ally who supports making Puerto Rico the 51st U.S. state, told a news conference in San Juan he could accept no arrangement that included a resumption of Navy training on Vieques.

Rossello called Clinton's plan "unacceptable for the people of Puerto Rico and the people of Vieques." He added, however, that he was willing to continue talks in hopes of finding a mutually acceptable solution.

The dispute presents Clinton with a tricky challenge: to try to win back Puerto Rican support for the Navy without making so many concessions that the Navy and Marine Corps cannot train adequately.

Adm. Jay Johnson, the chief of naval operations, told a Pentagon news conference Friday that there was no substitute for Vieques as a site to conduct live-fire training that simulates all aspects of sea, land and air combat.

"It's the crown jewel training experience for us," Johnson said.

Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said he was sending an envoy, Rear Adm. Kevin Green, to Puerto Rico for talks on implementing Clinton's plan.

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