WASHINGTON -- President Clinton told his national security adviser in July that it was "wrong" for the Navy to continue using a bombing range in Puerto Rico that many island leaders want closed -- even though the president had just created an independent panel to determine the future of the 58-year-old range.
In a handwritten note to his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, on July 26, the president signaled his support for a leading Puerto Rican activist who had urged Clinton to abandon the range on Vieques Island. The activist, Ruben Berrios Martinez, argued that residents there were being treated like a "colonial commonwealth" by "U.S. defense interests."
"Sandy -- I agree with this," Clinton said in the note, which accompanied a letter from Berrios Martinez, the president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and one of dozens of protesters who have occupied the range since April. "This is wrong. I think they don't want us there. That's the main point. The Navy can find a way to work around it."
White House aides stressed, however, that Clinton did not say that the Navy had to abandon the island, only that naval officials had to find a solution that was acceptable to Puerto Rico and that met U.S. security needs. They said his note merely reflected "compassion for the Puerto Rican people."
Last night, an administration official said: "I can assure you no final decision has been made, that the president understands the legitimate concerns of both sides of the issue, but remains committed, absolutely committed to the [independent] panel, the recommendations from the secretary of defense, and will ultimately make a decision that carefully balances all of the concerns."
Nonetheless, the memo is sure to provoke a response today on Capitol Hill from Republicans and Democrats who want to preserve the bombing range on Vieques. The House and Senate military readiness subcommittees plan hearings on the issue today, and Republicans remain angry at the president for his last policy decision regarding Puerto Rico, the conditional clemency he offered to 16 Puerto Rican nationalists.
"If this comes out now, it might put [Clinton] in a difficult situation," said Carlos Romero-Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate in the House. "People are always trying to make this into a political issue, and national security can always be used for political purposes."
The Clinton memo will provide ample political fodder, as will the way the issue came to the president's attention. Berrios Martinez appealed to Clinton as a fellow alumnus of Georgetown University, Oxford University and Yale Law School. Berrios Martinez even mentioned that "the Council of the Socialist International -- which includes most of your allies in Europe -- recently approved a resolution" supporting civil disobedience on Vieques.
The letter was hand-carried to the president by a top Clinton-Gore fund-raiser and a former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Miguel Lausell, a Puerto Rican lawyer who met with Berrios Martinez on Vieques. Lausell, now a vice chairman of Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, was a "top-10" supporter on a list of campaign contributors that the Democratic National Committee's former finance chairman, Terrence McAuliffe, submitted to the White House in 1995 for meetings with the president.
"We know [Clinton] read it because he read it in front of someone who told us he was there -- Miguel Lausell," said Manuel Rodriguez, an official with the Puerto Rican Independence Party.
When word leaked out of the Clinton memo's existence, administration aides scrambled to have all copies of it returned to the White House, congressional sources said. Romero-Barcelo said he requested a copy and "just got the runaround."
Still, Rodriguez lauded the Clinton memo to Berger. "That's excellent news," he said. "I'm glad that it got to him in more ways than just physically."
The Vieques issue will play out as Round 2 in the president's battles with Congress over Puerto Rican issues. Clinton released yesterday his first written explanation of his clemency decision, after weeks of political attacks by Republicans who charged that the president's clemency offer was an effort to win Puerto Rican votes in New York for his wife's likely Senate campaign.
In a five-page letter to Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, the president acknowledged that his decision to grant clemency was difficult, and that a fair-minded leader could have decided against it. Nonetheless, he wrote, the Puerto Rican nationalists -- most of whom had already spent 16 to 19 years in prison -- were serving sentences that "were out of proportion to their crimes."
The clemency decision was "based on our view of the merits of the requests -- political considerations played no role in the process," Clinton wrote.
White House aides are eager to make sure the coming Vieques decision is not similarly consumed in partisanship. The president's four-member panel, created in mid-June, is putting the finishing touches on its report and is calling for the Navy to leave Vieques within five years but continue live-fire training on the island, though curtailing the number of days it uses the range, according to sources familiar with the report.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was briefed by panel members last week and is expected to offer his recommendations to the president for the final decision.
Puerto Rican leaders, on both the island and the mainland, are unanimous in opposing any more bombing on Vieques, especially after a security guard was killed and four island residents were injured in April by an errant bomb from a Marine Corps F-18.
"We do not want more bombs," said Manuela Santiago, mayor of Vieques. "The only thing that we accept is that the Navy has to leave our land to ourselves."
But the Pentagon's top military officers say the Navy's only East Coast live-fire range is vital to national security and has been a key training area for U.S. troops, from World War II to the spring attacks in Yugoslavia.
Ships and aircraft practice gunnery and bombing while Marines storm ashore in mock amphibious landings.
Navy officials say some ships headed for the Persian Gulf will not be qualified to shoot their 5-inch guns unless they can return to Vieques by December. Navy officials say there is no alternative live-fire site on the East Coast, and the presidential panel has not suggested one.
Puerto Rican leaders have long complained about the noise and pollution created by the Navy, which owns two-thirds of the 18-mile-long island that 9,300 people call home. And they say the Navy has reneged on pledges to provide jobs and economic development to the islanders.
Political reverberations from Vieques are also being felt on the mainland, where Puerto Rican leaders, particularly in New York, are pressing both Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton, an expected New York Senate candidate, to side with the Viequans.
In his July 21 letter to Clinton, Berrios Martinez said that Vieques was a human rights issue.
"Over 9,000 Puerto Ricans are forced to live under constant threat to their lives in a narrow strip of land surrounded by 26,000 acres -- out of 33,000 -- controlled by the Navy," Berrios Martinez wrote, saying the Navy has created "an ecological abomination" on the island, leaving "a lunar wasteland of unexploded ordnance dead wetlands and lagoons, scorched earth, and devastated marine turtle nests."
Pub Date: 9/22/99