- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

Navy Secretary Gordon England testified yesterday that his service will lose a scheduled Nov. 6 referendum in which residents of Vieques are to vote on whether to keep or close a U.S.-owned bombing range.
His testimony before skeptical members of the House Armed Services Committee presented a dilemma for the Navy. Mr. England said on June 15, and again yesterday, that if Congress refuses to cancel the vote the Navy will try to win it.
But his assessment that the vote will be an inevitable defeat means the Navy would be spending millions of dollars approved by Congress on a lost cause.
"In my judgment, and the judgment of a lot of other people, we will lose the referendum," Mr. England told the committee yesterday. His testimony was designed to convince the committee to back President Bush's surprise decision to seek cancellation of the vote and get the Navy off the training range by May 2003.
At the Pentagon on June 15, Mr. England told reporters, "If we do not get the legislative relief, we will certainly follow the law and we will work to win the referendum."
Republican congressional aides say that holding out the possibility of victory, as Mr. England did in his June 15 comments, goes against the White House's position that the vote is not winnable and that Congress should approve Mr. Bush's plan to abandon the island. The sources said the administration is withholding most of the $40 million Congress appropriated to help the Navy win the referendum by improving living conditions on Vieques.
In the first congressional hearing since the president reversed himself on his Vieques campaign pledge, angry Republicans accused Mr. England of appeasing left-wing demonstrators in Puerto Rico, while Democrats said Mr. Bush's decision rested on politics.
The assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Williams, testified he does not know of an alternative site that would bring Marines to the needed skill level before deploying overseas. Vieques has served as a prime training ground for the Atlantic Fleet for simultaneous aerial bombings, amphibious assaults and naval gun practice.
"We cannot allow a small group of people to put at risk our men and women, our national security," said Rep. Robin Hayes, North Carolina Republican, referring to demonstrators, including liberal activists, who have protested on Vieques.
"The Clinton administration pandered to Hispanic votes in making the request they made last year," said Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi Democrat, referring to the referendum compromise deal made in 2000. "I also deeply regret that this president is pandering to Hispanic votes based on limited knowledge of the true facts, and it's going to hurt national security in doing so."
Mr. England responded that "there is absolutely no circumstance in which I would ever, ever endanger national security."
Mr. Bush announced his decision to leave Vieques at the urging of New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who is up for re-election next year and is courting the votes of about 1 million Puerto Ricans in his state. Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, who is mapping a strategy to capture more Hispanic votes for the Republican Party, hosted several crucial meetings on Vieques, including one with Mr. England.
Mr. England asserted again that he, not the White House, proposed leaving Vieques. He said continued disruption by demonstrators made it difficult to conduct training. He said he is confident that a panel of retired naval officers will be successful in finding new sites that come close to matching Vieques' ideal training environment.
"There are no good alternatives," he said. "But I do believe some are better than others, and in my judgment, I have made what I believe to be the best decision out of a lot of bad opportunities for this decision."
Congress authorized the referendum last year as part of a compromise agreement with the Puerto Rican government, in which Vieques' 6,400 registered voters will have the option of voting Nov. 6 to kick the Navy off the base or to continue allowing live-fire training.

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