WASHINGTON -- Eager to ease a political and national security headache, the Clinton administration has decided to mediate the fate of a Puerto Rican island that has served as a Navy bombing range for 58 years, administration sources said yesterday.
Undersecretary of Defense Rudy F. de Leon has been selected to try to resolve the issue with Puerto Rican officials, who are demanding that the bombing stop and are pressuring Vice President Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely New York Senate candidate, to side with them.
The Pentagon's top uniformed officers are urging that the live-fire range on Vieques Island remain open, saying it is the only East Coast site where sailors and Marines can sharpen their skills.
A presidential panel led by a de Leon deputy, Assistant Defense Secretary Francis M. Rush, is expected to recommend that the Navy leave the island in five years but until then continue bombing for about 130 days a year, rather than the current 180 days, sources familiar with the report said.
The release of the panel's report, now expected Monday, had been delayed while the administration tried to resolve the issue.
The four members of the panel will be asked to help mediate the dispute, the sources said, even though Puerto Rican leaders object to the panel's expected recommendations.
"This would imply there's more work to be done, a little more dialogue," said one Pentagon official.
De Leon's efforts to mediate a resolution between military leaders and Puerto Rican officials could heighten the suspicions of Pentagon officials and some members of Congress that politics, not national security, is influencing the administration's actions on Vieques.
President Clinton met with the House Hispanic Caucus this week and said he favors a solution to ensure the safety of the 9,300 Vieques residents while meeting the Navy's training needs, said lawmakers who attended the meeting. Those views echo a letter Clinton wrote last month to Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee.
One committee member, Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, was critical of Clinton last month after The Sun reported that Clinton, in a memo to his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, had termed the use of Vieques "wrong."
The Puerto Ricans "don't want us there," Clinton wrote. "The Navy can find a way to work around it."
Attached to the memo was a letter from a Vieques opponent, which had been hand-carried to the president by a top Clinton-Gore fund-raiser, Miguel Lausell.
Whether an agreement can be reached is uncertain, because the Navy and Puerto Rican officials are far apart. Puerto Rico has long complained about the noise and environmental damage from the bombing. That resentment turned to rage in April, when a bomb accidentally killed a Puerto Rican security guard.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig agreed to suspend the bombing until the presidential panel issued its report. Since then, dozens of protesters have camped out on the closed bombing range.
Puerto Rican officials have said they are firmly against any resumption of the bombing as expected to be called for in the Rush report.
"If negotiating means continuing limited bombing, no," said Flavio Cumpiano, a lawyer who represents residents on Vieques. "That shouldn't be on the table."
The Pentagon's military leaders say the firing range should stay open. From World War II amphibious landings in the Pacific to the NATO attacks in Kosovo, American ships and aircraft have first trained on Vieques.
"The success of our military forces around the world depends on regular access to our national training facilities at Vieques Island," Adm. Jay Johnson, chief of naval operations, and Gen. Jim Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, wrote in a newspaper editorial last month.
The Navy is concerned about whether the battle group of the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower will be able to train at Vieques before it heads to the Persian Gulf early next year.
Vieques will be a topic next week at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Witnesses are scheduled to include members of the Rush panel, Gov. Pedro Rosello of Puerto Rico and Carlos Romero-Barcelo, Puerto Rico's nonvoting Democratic delegate in Congress.
Rosello, a top fund-raiser for Gore, said this summer that the vice president has sided with Puerto Rican officials who want the Navy to leave, though Gore aides said he wants a solution acceptable to both sides.
Members of Congress and city officials in New York, where there are many Puerto Rican voters, have been urging Hillary Clinton to oppose the Navy bombing. The first lady has said only that she is awaiting the Rush panel's report.