No More Bombs Over Vieques

Months of protests and a grassroots campaign to halt U.S. Navy training runs with live bombs over the island of Vieques have paid off, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports.

CBS News has learned that the Clinton Administration is on the verge of abandoning, the time being, its efforts to conduct controversial military training exercises at the bombing range on the Puerto Rican island.

Some are sure to criticize the move as a presidential olive branch toward tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans living in New York City -- where first lady Hillary Clinton has begun her bid for the U.S. Senate.

But the record also shows that Clinton has personal difficulties with the Navy's plan.

In a recent letter to his national security adviser, Clinton attached a note that read in part: "This is wrong. I don't think they want us there; that's the main point. The Navy can find a way to work around it."

The concession also means that the Eisenhower Battle Group may become the first armada in the Atlantic to go overseas without live-fire training.

The Pentagon has put together a backup training plan that will include Marines storming the beach in North Carolina and jets dropping live bombs at Eglin Air Force base in Florida. But senior military officers say it will not make up for the loss of Vieques, and that they will have to advise the White House the battle group will deploy in a reduced state of readiness. "I'll be able to tell [the White House] that the carrier battle group is battle ready with degraded training, degraded readiness in some mission areas," says Rear Adm. John Foley.

Vieques is usually a quiet place. Just off Puerto Rico's east coast, it is a small island with around 9,000 inhabitants, mostly American citizens.

The Navy owns two-thirds of the island and for the past 50 years has regularly used part of that land as a practice range to train its troops to use live ordnance.

Much of the Navy's land is a buffer zone between the residents and the bomb range on the eastern tip. That tip is the only place in the Atlantic where the Navy can practice an all-out assault combining marine landings, naval gunfire and air strikes.

But the islanders say that living in a quasi-war zone has seriously damaged their environment and health.

"I think that if this were happening in Manhattan, or if it were happening in Martha's Vineyard, certainly the delegations from those states would make certain that this would not continue," Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello told CBS in November.

Twice a year, the Navy disposes of unexploded ordnance dropped on land. But according to the Navy, retrieving bombs from under the sea is far too dangerous, and blowing them up where they've dropped would do more harm than good.

But leaving them also poses a danger: The bombs eventually rot away; the explosive inside, a suspected carcinogen, leaks into the environment, expers say.

These environmental and health concerns have worried Puerto Ricans for decades. But Vieques became a full-blown crisis just six months ago after one disastrous mistake.

Last April, a young Marine pilot, fresh out of flight training, was trying to drop two 500-pound bombs. It was a cloudy twilight; the pilot thought he was low on fuel.

At that point, he thought he spotted his target. He was wrong: He zeroed in on an observation post more than a mile away. The two bombs killed David Sanes, a civilian security guard.

Sanes' death galvanized a full-blown revolt, which spilled out onto the bomb range itself. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans invaded the target area. Many dug into the beach as human shields. About 50 are still there.

The Navy insists that Vieques is the only place for this training, because the sea lanes and airways are generally clear of commercial traffic. No other island offers so much uninhabited space. And taxpayers have already invested billions on tracking stations and sensors that monitor the war games.