- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

In the days before President Bushs stunning decision to abandon the Navys bombing range on Puerto Ricos Vieques island, the man at the center of the decision was not a Pentagon or National Security Council official.
Karl Rove, the presidents chief political adviser and developer of a strategy to capture more Hispanic votes for Mr. Bush, hosted two crucial meetings at the White House before the decision was publicized.
Mr. Bushs announcement has spurred the strongest criticism to date of the president from his allies on the political right. They charge that the White House sacrificed military readiness for potential Hispanic votes.
And yesterday, the American Legion, the countrys largest veterans group, also pointedly criticized the president, suggesting in a letter that he violated a central campaign pledge to bolster the militarys combat readiness.
On June 12, Mr. Rove met with New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who is up for re-election in 2002 and has pressed the president to close the Vieques range. The next day, Mr. Rove summoned Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Navy Secretary Gordon England to the White House to discuss Vieques.
In addition, Puerto Ricos governor, a member of the anti-statehood Popular Democratic Party who wants the Navy evicted, also has a powerful ally on the payroll.
Charles Black, a longtime political adviser to the Bush family and a registered lobbyist for the Puerto Rican government, said in an interview he has had conversations about Vieques with Mr. Rove. Mr. Black said he limited his pitch to urging a meeting among the governor, the Navy and the White House.
Mr. England left Mr. Roves office and went to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers who had waged a vigorous fight last year to keep the all-purpose training site open while Vieques 6,000 residents vote on the issue in a November referendum.
But while Mr. England was telling Rep. James V. Hansen, Utah Republican and House Armed Services Committee member, that leaving Vieques was still only an option, the White House leaked to the TV networks a story that Mr. Bush had made a final decision that the Navy would leave in 2003.
"The White House cut England off at the knees," said a Republican congressional aide.
Mr. Roves role and the sequence of White House meetings have fueled the strong suspicions of pro-defense Republicans that the White House dictated the Vieques decision to the Navy. It comes, they say, at the expense of the Navy and Marine Corps, who will lose the most ideal training site for the Atlantic Fleet to train for ground, air and sea combat.
In the process, Republican congressional sources say, Mr. Bush has driven a wedge between himself and normally loyal Republicans such as Mr. Hansen, Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rep. Bob Stump of Arizona, House Armed Services Committee chairman.
Mr. Inhofe vows to wage an all-out battle to prevent the White House from repealing the federal law mandating the Vieques referendum.
Congressional sources said some senators are so upset with Mr. Bush they are thinking of holding up all future Navy nominations. They may also target the governor of Puerto Rico, Silva Calderon, by voting to mothball a Navy and Army base on the island, and taking away hundreds of millions of dollars in rum-tax revenue.
"Mr. Hansens only point of view is its a rather strange thing for the deputy secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy to be meeting with the presidents political director," said Bill Johnson, the congressmans legislative director. "We know the Marine commandant and the chief of naval operations did not get such a meeting."
Mr. Hansen and 23 other House Republicans have sent a letter to Mr. Bush saying they are "gravely disappointed" by his decision.
"Such a decision will send exactly the wrong message to both our men and women in uniform, and those who would seek to block them from training in Vieques, around the country and around the world," the members said.
Yesterday, the American Legion also criticized Mr. Bush, who actively sought the votes of veterans during the 2000 campaign. National Commander Ray G. Smith, in a letter to Mr. Bush, said he was "surprised and disappointed."
"You campaigned on a promise to shore up combat readiness," Mr. Smith wrote. "By this recent decision, we are abandoning what the Navy and Marine Corps consider their most important East Coast training site. The American Legion urges you to reconsider your decision."
The White House this week defended Mr. Roves role. "Karl is often involved in meetings that deal with matters pertaining to states and in this case Puerto Rico," said spokesman Ari Fleischer. "So that is part of his purview."
The Navy-owned range and its 10-mile buffer zone has been the scene of repeated protests organized by Puerto Rican left-leaning activists and supported by such Democratic Party liberals as the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"I think its fair to say that without this action, the Navy would not have any incentive to look for any other facility in which to train," Mr. Fleischer said. "So by taking this action, the president is able to work with the people who are involved locally to make certain that whatever is done there can be done effectively."
Mr. England told reporters Friday that he brought the exit strategy to the White House. The new Navy secretary, however, knew what the president wanted more than a month ago.
In a May 4 interview with the Spanish-language Univision network, Mr. Bush said that the Navy must leave Vieques.
"The ultimate solution will be, in a reasonable period of time, the Navy needs to find another base," the president said then.
At the time, Mr. England had been picked for Navy secretary, but not confirmed by the Senate, and was in the Pentagon studying Navy issues.
Republican sources were also troubled by the words Mr. Bush chose when he announced his decision on Thursday.
"These are our friends and neighbors, and they dont want us there," Mr. Bush said. By referring to Puerto Ricans as "friends and neighbors" and not the U.S. citizens they are, the president used the preferred words of the commonwealths Popular Democratic Party.
A spokesman for Mr. Pataki confirmed that the New York governor met June 12 with "senior administration officials" to discuss Vieques.
"The governor has had a number of conversations with senior officials to discuss ending the bombing of Vieques," said spokesman Michael McKeon. His state is home to about 1 million Puerto Ricans. "This is an important human rights issue from the governors perspective."
Mr. Black defended the presidents action, saying it defused a dangerous situation and gave the Navy time to find a new site.
"Nobody in either part of the island will tell you that the Navy could win that referendum," Mr. Black said. "The only people who had the pipe dream they could win the referendum was the Navy."
Navy supporters see a ray of hope. The "talking points" Mr. England used to brief reporters contains a clue that Mr. Bush may let the Navy continue its 60-year stay. The words "have decided" are crossed out and the word "plan" is written in.

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