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Secretary of the Navy Briefing on Vieques

Presenter: Secretary of the Navy Gordon England
June 15, 2001 2:00 PM EDT

Friday, June 15, 2001 - 2:00 p.m. EDT

(Special briefing on Navy training at Vieques. Also participating was Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, Navy chief of information.)

Pietropaoli: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Secretary of the Navy Gordon England has consented to come down and take some of your understandable questions on where we are on Vieques right now. He's a little bit pressed for time. We have probably about 15 or 20 minutes at the most, so if we could keep this to a single subject, and those of you who are interested in asking lots of questions about revolution in business practices and doing a better job will save that for another day, we promise to be back.

So, Secretary England.

England: Admiral, thank you very much.

Good afternoon, everyone. It's a pleasure to be here. Given the swirl of reporting on our thinking about the way ahead in Vieques, I thought it was important for me to come down here and try to clear the air on this important issue.

In a nutshell, there are three parts to our current approach. First, the department will seek legislative relief from the current requirement to conduct a referendum on training at Vieques. Two, the Navy is actively planning to discontinue our training operations on the range on Vieques in May of 2003. And three, I am directing the creation of a panel of experts to reinvigorate our efforts to find effective alternatives to Vieques for training our forces.

I would emphasize that I brought this proposal forward within the DoD and to the White House. I believe that this approach best reduces what I consider to be the greatest risk to the Navy, to our sailors and Marines, which would be to lose the ability to continue critical training on Vieques for the next two years while we seek alternatives.

It was also important that the Navy seize the initiative on this issue and make it clear that the right place to make decisions about how we train Naval forces is right here in the Navy Department. We have both the authority and responsibility to decide such issues that affect our ability to train.

Finally, I believe that by publicly announcing that we are planning to discontinue use of the range in 2003 it would help to decompress this issue, that is remove some of the current passion and emotion surrounding the discussions. It is my impression that this level of emotion often distracts our attention from the real issue.

It is not about how long we train on Vieques. The real issue is about providing effective training for naval forces.

I appreciate the support of the president and Secretary Rumsfeld as the Navy works to find alternatives to Vieques. A two-year timetable is certainly challenging, but in my judgment, it is reasonable and achievable. We need to take this opportunity to refocus our effort on the appropriate over-arching objective here, and that objective is how best to provide effective training for our deploying Navy and Marine Corps forces.

Although we plan to discontinue training on Vieques in May of 2003, we will continue to use the range facilities on Vieques in accordance with the currently accepted restrictions on live fire and usage rates. There is currently no viable near-term alternative to the facilities in Vieques.

Thank you. And I'd be pleased to take any questions you may have. Yes, ma'am?

Q: Yes, Mr. Secretary. The Navy for the longest time has described Vieques as the crown jewel of the Navy. And I wanted to know if you no longer share that view. And I have several follow-ups. How many times did the president meet with the CNO [chief of naval operations] and the commandant and members of the NSC [National Security Council] to discuss this issue or have they met with you to discuss this issue?

England: Okay. The first question now about the crown jewel: Vieques is a crown jewel, unquestionably. That does not, however, mean that we cannot find a suitable alternative for Vieques. That does not mean that we will find, quote, "another Vieques." I feel most of our efforts in the past have been to find a direct substitute for Vieques. My approach is to find a suitable alternative. Suitable alternative can be other means and techniques, using more than one base, for example, incorporating technology. So we will look at all different types of alternatives to satisfy this requirement.

We will adequately train our sailors and Marines. That is the issue. The issue is not where; the issue is have we trained them adequately. I felt it was important that we focus our attention on that primary issue and not on the issue of a specific place.

Regarding consultation with the CNO and with the commandant, I have met with the CNO and have met with the commandant many times in the last couple weeks on this issue and this subject.

We both agree or they both agree with me on this subject that the issue is not Vieques, it is effective training. I will keep coming back to that. We are in absolute agreement; effective training is what is essential and necessary. The issue is not Vieques, the issue is how do we have effective training for our deploying forces.

Q: Is this a formal --

England: Pardon me.

Q: Just a question: Why cut yourself off from the referendum, though? Why not hold out hope that the referendum will go your way, while simultaneously looking for alternatives?

England: In my judgment, this is very bad public policy -- to have a referendum on issues critical to the Department of the Navy, issues critical to our men and women in uniform, and it sets very bad precedents. I do not believe we should go ahead with the referendum, which is why I indicated that we would seek relief to the law.

Q: But sir, isn't an equally bad precedent to set national security policy based on the objections of a small but vocal number of protesters? Aren't you setting a bad precedent for other communities in the United States and other places around the world where training facilities are not popular among the local residents?

England: Jamie, I don't think so. I mean, my judgment is, it's better for us to be in control, for us to take the initiative, for the Department of the Navy to decide how we will proceed in the future in training our forces, rather than leave it to local referendum. My judgment -- leaving that to a local referendum is a very bad precedent. I would much rather be in control of this situation, have us make the decision, have us control our destiny.

So it's a judgment, but that is my judgment, examining all the facts, and that is the approach we're proceeding --

Q: When do you plan to start the bombing -- to restart the bombing exercises?

England: We have exercises scheduled for next week.

Q: To some extent, hasn't this all just backfired in the last day or so? There isn't anybody that supports what the White House or the military has done. The people who are against training are even more vocal in their protests, and people like Trent Lott are coming out and publicly saying they will not support legislative relief; they didn't believe the Navy should stay there. Who supports the Navy and you on this initiative?

England: There's people on many sides of this issue, and everyone has their view of how to resolve this issue. As the person in charge of the Naval Department, responsible for our sailors and Marines, I felt it was essential that someone take a position on this, have a way ahead on this issue.

Unfortunately -- perhaps I'm naive in Washington -- I found out, by the way, that communications in Washington -- we should probably patent the communication channels, because they're much speedier than any information system we have in the military.

My approach was really quite straightforward; that is, propose a decision to the White House, consult with the Congress. After obtaining concurrence and discussion, proceed with a decision. Unfortunately, communications work much quicker than that approach could operate.

Q: Part of that communication plan, though, was apparently you met with Senator Warner on Wednesday but did not meet with Senator Levin until Thursday, and Senator Levin is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Could you address that sequence of events?

And also, could you talk -- I'm having a hard time with the logic of how the Navy is going to seize control of this issue and make the decision by itself when you're essentially assenting to the decision that the Puerto Rican protestors want you to do. I mean, it seems like you're narrowing your choices rather than expanding them.

England: First of all, regarding the coordination, I did talk to Senator Levin by phone. I have made a number of calls on the Hill for lots of subjects, some of those just courtesy calls. Some of this overlapped, so some of this overlapped just my own efforts making courtesy calls with our senators and congressmen.

I believe this area is quite clear to me. In my view, the downside risk to the Navy is much greater than the up-side potential. The downside risk in this highly emotionally charged environment is that we would not have time to find alternative training for our naval forces. The upside for us, of course, is to stay on Vieques. But I am firmly convinced that in this time period we can find an alternative for effective training for our Naval forces. So in my view and in my judgment, what my decision was based on was to mitigate the risk of losing Vieques as opposed to making sure that we had training facilities available to all of our deployed sailors and Marines.

Q: Mr. Secretary, part of the law that reflects an agreement from the last administration said the Navy is going to put $40 million into the economy of Vieques. Does this still hold?

England: Well, the current law that's codified in the Defense Authorization, I believe, is that appropriate up to $40 million. And if the law was changed, then we will wait to see what the outcome of those changes are.

So if we change the law, then we'll see what the impact of that is on our spending in Vieques.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Mr. Secretary, just to clarify, two questions. You're open, when you say to an alternative, to --

England: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.

Q: When you said you're looking for an alternative, you're open to some kind of combination and not just one site, including a new site and simulation, other techniques and so on?

England: Yes.

Q: A combination of things. And secondly, who have you put in charge of a plan for the Navy to leave Vieques?

England: We will have a panel of experts, as I mentioned. We are putting that panel together right now as we speak. We're looking for both active and retired military personnel. We'll also, most likely, bring in some technology people from our labs. So we will have a comprehensive look at this whole matter of alternate training. I mentioned a combination of sites because at other places, we do use a combination of sites in our training, not one specific location.

Q: You said this was your decision. If I could just clarify this one point.

England: Please.

Q: You said this was your decision.

England: Yes.

Q: Your proposal that you brought forward.

England: Yes, sir.

Q: Is the proposal -- or the plan that you've outlined now precisely the same as the one you presented to the White House on Wednesday, or has it been refined or modified after discussions with the White House?

England: No, sir. This is my recommendation and I was authorized to go forward, consult with the Congress and implement this plan.

Q: Well, just to stay with that for a minute, Mr. Secretary, it was your recommendation and they authorized you to go forward, but I think a lot of us have heard from multiple sources that while you were on the Hill explaining this recommendation or this idea, that journalists were getting calls from the White House indicating that it was a done deal. Do you feel like you had your legs cut out from under you on this while you were trying to formulate something?

England: No, sir, I don't. I feel like I had the support of the White House. I went to the White House. I made the proposal. I made the recommendation. This was my decision based on the facts. This is all based on my recommendation to the White House. I did have the support of the White House. I went forward on the Hill. Unfortunately, however, news leaks in Washington. It did leak. But nonetheless, I feel like we took a proper approach. I have examined the facts. I am absolutely convinced this is the best way forward for the Department of the Navy.

It is important, it is vitally important that the Department of the Navy take responsibility, have the authority and responsibility for decisions that affect our sailors and Marines. So it is vitally important that we retain that responsibility here within the Department of the Navy.

(Cross talk.) Yes, ma'am?

Q: Mr. Secretary, on the issue of training, if there is in fact a gap between the time that we leave Vieques and move to another place, are we going to be able to keep our quals current? Will there be some alternative means for training?

England: We plan to have alternative means before we leave and before our plan to leave in May of 2003.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can I also clarify one other point? For years now, both previous secretaries of the Navy and CNOs and the uniformed Navy has said that Vieques is essential and that they have looked at alternatives and there was nothing adequate. So I guess the question is, were all the previous CNOs and was the uniformed Navy wrong in their assessment?

England: No, my judgment is, looking at the facts -- is that we have looked to find a, quote, "replacement" for Vieques, another place like Vieques. So while we have emphasized Vieques as a unique capability, to replace that specific unique capability, in my judgment, it's not necessary to have a one-for-one replacement. As long as we provide effective training for our sailors and our Marines, we have met our objective. That will be the focus -- not on the specific place, but on effective training for our sailors and Marines.

Q: But why appoint a deadline before you --

England: Yes, sir?

Q: Sir, the history of this issue is that each time the United States government seems to lower its requirements, go to inert ordnance or whatever, rather than being calmed down by this, the demonstrators seem to actually be emboldened and the demonstrations get worse and worse. What makes you think that next week we won't see even bigger demonstrations, now that they smell victory?

England: I hope that is not the outcome. In my judgment, it will not be the outcome. My view is, if we can remove the emotion from this, so that we can reason, discuss this in a more rational environment, we will work out an appropriate way forward. So the importance of this, in my view, is to remove the emotion of the moment.

Yes, sir?

Q: And the government of Puerto Rico or the people of Puerto Rico now understand that you are making a proposal -- it is a commitment, or this is a goal of the Navy? And the second part of the question would be, because it is your proposal, can you explain in details what will happen with the law, not only with the 40 million, in which way the referendum will be eliminated? You are going to eliminate completely the directives of President Clinton and the text of the law that was approved last year?

England: Okay, this is the approach forward that I have proposed. We will seek relief from the current legislation that requires a referendum.

So we will seek relief from that law, so we plan not to go forward with a referendum. We will ask the Congress to change that law.

Q: Mr. Secretary, one thing that many congressman and senators have stated over the years is that if the Navy no longer has the training range in Vieques, then the other military bases in Puerto Rico, our military installations, are no longer needed. Is the Navy also leaning towards that direction? And has the Navy, as a follow-up, been in conversations with the government of Puerto Rico as to where they are headed?

England: I did not assess the other military installations in Puerto Rico. I frankly only concerned myself with effective training; that is, finding a suitable alternative for Vieques. I have not looked at any other bases in Puerto Rico.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Q: What happens if you don't get the legislative relief?

England: If we do not get the legislative relief, we will certainly follow the law and we will work to win the referendum.

Pietropaoli: Last -- couple more.

Q: Who will be on this --

Q: Is the CNO or the commandant -- and the commandant together prepared to issue a statement or certify that Vieques is not necessary, if you don't get the legislative relief?

England: They're certainly not at this time. No, ma'am. I mean, we definitely need a suitable alternative to Vieques. Again, our approach is to be sure that we have a two-year period so we can find a suitable alternative. So it is necessary that we remain on Vieques, and we utilize Vieques until we have a suitable alternative. So I'm sure they would not certify that now.

Q: (Inaudible) -- the law. The law requires them to make that statement, for Congress to waive the referendum.

England: We have made an alternate proposal to the Congress other than that, so obviously they cannot make that statement today. I certainly wouldn't ask them to do that. It's certainly necessary, until we have a suitable alternative, that we remain on Vieques.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Q: You said something very interesting. You said that if you don't get legislative relief, you would hold the referendum and you'd try to win it. That raises the question that if that were to happen and you were to somehow win the referendum, would you then reconsider the --

England: Certainly, we would consider. It would be a lot of expense and everything to move our facilities from Vieques and develop alternate capability. If the people on Vieques want us to stay on Vieques in the referendum itself, certainly we would reconsider this position.

Pietropaoli: This has got to be the last one.

England: Last question.

Q: To what extent --

England: How about here, the new fellow.

Q: Mr. Secretary -- I apologize if you've already addressed this in your opening remarks. I came in late. But I just wanted to ask if the cost of the cleanup associated with an eventual pull-out from Vieques, you know, are we dealing with a possible Superfund site here, another issue for the Navy to have to balance with its operation and management budget?

England: Sir, I, frankly, have not looked at that issue. The overriding issue to me is training our men and women in the military. That's the overriding consideration. If there are costs associated with that, obviously we'll pay whatever costs are required.

Q: Mr. Secretary?

Q: Did you --

Q: Did you ask the -- (inaudible) -- to come with you today?

Q: Mr. Secretary --

England: No, we didn't.

Okay, thank you all very much.

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