Published on Friday, April 28, 2000 in the New York Times
Federal Authorities Said to Be Preparing to Rout Protesters on Vieques
by David Johnston
WASHINGTON - Prodded by the Pentagon, federal authorities are preparing a sea-and-land law enforcement operation next week on Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico, to clear demonstrators from a Navy bombing range there, government officials said today.
Preparations to move a large number of federal special weapons and tactics teams to Vieques are under way less than a week after armed immigration officers stormed a house in which the Cuban boy Elián González was staying with his great-uncle in Miami.
As the furor over the Miami operation continues, Attorney General Janet Reno has been planning the much larger and potentially risky operation in Vieques. She has met with the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Louis J. Freeh, whose agents would play a central role in the assault, and with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, the officials said.
The Vieques protesters have been demonstrating against an agreement reached on Jan. 31 by President Clinton and Gov. Pedro J. Rosello of Puerto Rico. The deal allowed the Navy to conduct limited exercises on Vieques in exchange for an American promise to abide by a referendum in Puerto Rico on whether to close the range.
The officials said that most days 50 to 75 protesters are camped on the island in the path of aircraft on bombing runs. Their ranks are expected to swell as knowledge of a pending operation spreads. Protesters are expected to arrive by boat and congregate at entry gates to the base.
Today, a Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said that the Pentagon had been consulting with other government organizations, but would not discuss the status of the law enforcement operation.
"We've been in consultation with the Puerto Rican government, with the Department of Justice, to work out a way to clear the range of the trespassers," Admiral Quigley said. "That process continues, and I am just not going to go into any further detail on that process at all."
Several civilian federal agencies are involved in the law enforcement operation, the officials said. Among them are the Treasury Department and the Transportation Department, which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard, which would help block the flotillas of demonstrators expected to arrive by sea from Puerto Rico.
The officials said that federal authorities are prepared to clear the bombing range, but have expressed serious reservations about the operation, which is scheduled for next week if the White House approves it.
They said that Pentagon officials have been insistent that the Navy needed the bombing range for training exercises, even though Justice Department officials have said that another military-style assault would provoke another avalanche of criticism of the Clinton administration.
The officials said they feared that neither the F.B.I. nor the federal marshals were adequately prepared for such a large-scale enforcement action so far from the mainland.
The operation would take place over a large area in which there would be virtually no chance for a surprise raid, on beaches and open terrain including some areas where live munitions are thought to lie.
Moreover, the officials said, they feared the law enforcement operation would provoke demonstrations in other parts of Puerto Rico, and that local authorities were unprepared for large-scale disruptions.
Under the tactical plan, the officials said, marines would arrive aboard ships to provide perimeter security, but only after the operation, and the Puerto Rican police would be responsible for crowd control.
When the arrangement between the White House and Puerto Rico was announced, Mr. Rossello said he would help federal efforts to stop trespassing at the bombing range, but little action has been taken against the protesters.
Exercises on Vieques, where the Navy maintains a bombing range that it considers essential to the training of its Atlantic fleet, were suspended last spring after a wayward bomb killed a civilian security guard, an accident that intensified longtime protests against the military presence. The Pentagon has been putting pressure on the Justice Department to clear the bombing range of protesters. Earlier this year, an aircraft carrier battle group had to conduct some training exercises in different places, including using a bombing range in Scotland.
The next carrier group, led by the George Washington, is headed to sea in coming months and the Navy is eager to use the range, which officials say offers the ideal location for coordinating air-ground-and-sea training exercises.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company