Base's future now in hands of US Congress by Don Grearson News Editor

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WASHINGTON D.C. -- Bermuda looks like it will survive a Congressional threat to abruptly close the US Naval Air Station. But it remains to be seen what lease on life the Base will be granted.


WASHINGTON D.C. -- Bermuda looks like it will survive a Congressional threat to abruptly close the US Naval Air Station. But it remains to be seen what lease on life the Base will be granted.

A select group of Congressmen and Senators will shortly sit down to work out a 1994 Defence Spending Bill which has a clause that could shut down the Base within 90 days of passage.

Premier the Hon. Sir John Swan's Capitol Hill lobbying over the past two days has all but secured its removal. But the significant question of what will replace it remains.

Yesterday, in meetings between Sir John and a top US Senator, it emerged that the US might still want to use part of the Base as a drugs interdiction centre.

But no-one on Capitol Hill, nor the Premier, was prepared to commit to anything specific this week.

Nevertheless, winning a reasonable amount of time for Bermuda to take over responsibilities now handled by the US Navy remains the Island's big challenge. And as the 1994 Defence Authorisation Bill Conference begins, possibly next week, it represents a huge uncertainty for Bermuda.

Conference participants have already pledged to address the clause to withdraw funding for the US Base within 90 days of passage. There is clearly no intention to adversely affect Bermuda as the 90-day clause would.

But sources close to Bermuda's diplomatic push say they are not sure what will emerge.

Possibilities range from a commitment to study the Base further to a more generous time frame for closure. But even if the conference decided to give more time -- say two years as was floated in one British embassy correspondence -- it would be far less than the Premier's optimum goal of a five-year transition.

What Bermuda's case appears to rest on for now is the goodwill of Congressmen and Senators with influence in the Conference process.

One of the key turns in Bermuda's favour appears to have occurred at a recent dinner attended by Congressman Charles Rose, and his colleagues in Conference Rep. Ron Dellums, Rep. Norman Sisisky and Rep. Patricia Schroeder, who first called for the shutdown of the Base following Sam Donaldson's PrimeTime Live report last December.

Rep. Rose yesterday told the Premier that the main subject of discussion at the dinner was the Bermuda Base question where the diners tried to see a way out of the 90-day clause.

Mr. Rose said the group didn't come up with a specific answer but rather a resolution to "just do it''. It was a statement that left little doubt the 90-day clause would be dropped but with no indication what might take its place.

Similarly on Tuesday, Mr. Dellums pledged to avoid hurting Bermuda without saying anything specific about alternatives.

He said he hoped "that somewhere in the conference we'll work out some kind of wording'' that will meet US determination to close the Base with an appropriate period of transition for Bermuda.

"I'm confident we'll resolve the problem,'' he added.

When asked about his lobbying efforts and the uncertainty that remains, the Premier last night said: "I think we've made progress.

"We have a chance of getting a review of the Base question. Now that Mr.

Dellums is prepared to make a concession and help us, we're in a position to get as much as we'll be able to get.

"What that represents, I can't say. But it would be wrong for us to push too hard on the flexibility this process needs.

"We're not in a position to make demands. If you make things too unreasonable we could get slapped with a year (closure deadline).

"What we've done over the past few months is made people aware of Bermuda's peculiar situation. We have tried to nurture a senstivity to it and we have those people in place.'' The Premier also said it was important for Bermuda to understand that the Base issue was "something that could take a long time to resolve''.

One of the best results Bermuda could hope for from the Defence Bill Conference is a decision to review the status of the Base.

A review would allow the Island an opportunity to involve NATO's point of view that Bermuda has an strategic value. It would also allow the Navy, which might want to keep a presence on the Island, to weigh in on the issue. In addition, it would give the Island time to show US legislators new perspectives on the Island.

Premier Swan took a step in that direction yesterday in a half-hour meeting with Senator Dennis DeConcini, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sir John raised the issue of Bermuda's role as a drug interdiction centre within minutes of Senator DeConcini's involvement in a Judiciary Committee meeting on US drug interdiction efforts.

Afterward, the Senator said Bermuda could play an "anti-narcotics role'' for the US.

"I'm going to look into it,'' he told The Royal Gazette , adding that one of two pillars of the Administration's new drug strategy is drug source detection "to know where it's coming from''.

He said the "potential loss of the Base'' could be new threat on the horizon.

"I'm glad the Premier's brought it to our attention. There is a role there for the DOD (Department of Defense) there, certainly if NATO still wants it.''

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