First in a four-part series

Nowhere is safe.

Every U.S. military installation across the country is vulnerable to the power of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has reconvened after a 10-year hiatus.

It's the "mother of all BRACs," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said, where nearly a quarter of the nation's military infrastructure will be closed or significantly reduced. A proposed list of bases on the chopping block is scheduled to be released by May 16.

Hill Air Force Base, Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Ground could all be closed or reduced in size. The Defense Department plans on closing or scaling back as much as 20 percent of its 425 domestic military bases.

"No one is safe from BRAC, no matter how secure you think you are," said Malcolm Walden, BRAC transition coordinator at the Tooele Army Depot. "Every installation in the entire Department of Defense is looked at. Everybody is treated the same, and no one is safe. We thought we were — we weren't."

Failed investment

If anywhere thought it was safe from BRAC, it was TAD in 1993.

Officials there had just christened a $112 million state-of-the-art truck-refurbishing plant at the cusp of the '93 base-closure round. Both state and local officials laughed at the thought of the Defense Department possibly shutting down or realigning TAD after such a costly investment.

"I come from the business world where you would never build something like that in size and then close it," former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, told the Deseret News prior to the release of the '93 BRAC list. "Unfortunately, government isn't like business. The U.S. government is so large it thinks nothing about closing something like that."

Months later, BRAC shut down 130 bases and scaled back 45, including Tooele. Less than a year into operations, the massive Consolidated Maintenance Facility shut it doors and was eventually sold to a private entity.

No guarantees

Tooele's story is a hard example of how uncertain the BRAC process is, Hansen said in an interview. Tossing millions of dollars at Utah's bases might not be enough to save them.

The Legislature recently passed a bill allocating $5 million from the general fund in an attempt to save Hill. The money would be used to invest in multiple projects that would create hundreds of jobs around the base.

At the end of the 2004 session, the Legislature gave Hill $2 million to buy more private land surrounding the base to create a buffer between Hill and the local communities.

Even in tight budget years, the Legislature found ways to whittle out a few million to bolster Hill. In 2003, legislators approved a $2 million expenditure to extend a runway in Tooele County. That airstrip is now being used for emergency landings for aircraft flying out of Hill and over the Utah Test and Training Range in the West Desert. "A lot of people and some of our delegation are saying, 'Now look at the money we are putting up at Hill, obviously they can't close it,' " Hansen said. "Well, they don't know much about base closings if they make that statement. That doesn't mean a thing."

No defender strong enough

Some Utah leaders think Hansen will use his clout and position as a BRAC member to save Hill Air Force Base.

During his 22 years in the House, Hansen fought to defend the base in prior BRAC rounds. He often used his position as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee to protect Hill's interests. The former congressman went toe-to-toe with President Bill Clinton in a battle during the '95 BRAC round to save Hill from a relocation to California.

But that's not his job anymore, Hansen said.

"My responsibility is to do what's best for the United States military to keep us all free," Hansen said. "People think I'm going there as the protector of Hill — that's just not true.

"I can assure you Hill will get a fair hearing. No one is going to beat up on Hill unfairly."

Hansen said it is Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s responsibility to stand up for Hill in the upcoming BRAC round.

Next in the line of defense is Utah's congressional delegation — Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett and Reps. Chris Cannon, Jim Matheson and Rob Bishop, who serves on the powerful House Rules Committee.

The Utah Defense Alliance is also a major player in saving Hill, Hansen said. The group works to build partnerships and promote economic development around Utah's military facilities.

"I'm an old has-been. It's somebody else's turn," Hansen said.

Utahns might think the state has a lot of political clout in the BRAC process, but that's silly, Hansen said.

"No one has that kind of clout," Hansen said.

Not even George W. Bush.

As the governor of Texas, Bush couldn't save Kelly Air Force Base from closure. Bush "about had a heart attack" when he heard Kelly's fate, Hansen said.

"If George W. didn't have that kind of clout, who in Utah will?"

Kelly Air Force Base had all the clout in the world during the '95 BRAC round. It had the powerful Bush as a key ally and even had a local resident serve on BRAC.

Josue Robles Jr., a retired Army major general, lived in San Antonio, and many thought he could use his position on BRAC to save the base. Utah cannot sink into that false sense of security, said Vickie McCall, president of the Utah Defense Alliance.

"When you look at having a BRAC commissioner and political connections, it just doesn't hold water," McCall said.

Divided loyalties?

Hansen is not alone with a potential conflict of interest on the current base-closure commission.

Commissioners Harold W. Gehman Jr. and Philip Coyle also spent years fighting for military bases in their home states.

Can these commissioners remain neutral and do what's best for the U.S. military, even if it means shutting down a base in their back yard?

Hansen said they can.

Coyle recently resigned from his post on the California Council on Base Support and Retention. Like the Utah Defense Alliance, the California group was formed to defend the state's military bases.

The former assistant defense secretary from the Clinton administration stepped down from the panel in February after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Coyle was a possible candidate for the base-closure commission.

Gehman resigned from a similar post in Virginia after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., submitted his name to the White House for a slot on BRAC.

The retired four-star admiral led the Joint Forces Command and has served on several other high-profile government panels. Gehman led the board investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003 and also the probe into the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

"The conflict-of-interest issues are hard to call, because the ones with potential conflicts might have to bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of impropriety," said John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.

org, a nonpartisan defense and research organization.

Hansen said, if asked, he will recuse himself from any vote on closing one of Utah's military bases.

The former congressman said he feels he can make a neutral decision despite his many years of lobbying for Hill Air Force Base and Dugway Proving Ground.

What's next

Rumsfeld must release his recommendations for possible closures to the commission by May 16.

Any base on Rumsfeld's list will likely be closed or realigned, as the law requires seven of the nine BRAC commissioners to agree to remove a base from the closure list.

Once Rumsfeld's list is announced, commissioners will travel to every possible base, compiling data and determining which bases they think should be closed. BRAC must submit its own closure list to the president by Sept. 8.

Just because a base doesn't make Rumsfeld's list doesn't mean it is safe. Hill Air Force Base wasn't on the defense secretary's list in 1995, but base-closure commissioners included it on their list, as well as four other Air Force air logistics centers.

BRAC is the only group that can make changes to the final base-closure list. President Bush must either accept the commission's recommendations in full or reject them all by Sept. 15. If the president wants any changes, he can return it to the commission with suggestions (which the commission may accept or revise by Oct. 20). A final decision by the president on any modified list must come by Nov. 7.

Once the president's final list is sent to Congress, it has 45 legislative days — or until adjournment for the year — to accept or reject the list as a whole. Like the president, Congress cannot make any changes to the list. If it is not rejected, the list becomes final.


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com