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Bush, at Annapolis, defends closings

Says the military is wasting funds on its facilities

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Speaking out for the first time in favor of base closings, President Bush said yesterday that the country is wasting billions of dollars on military facilities and needs the money for the war on terrorism.

Bush, who faces opposition from many states to shutting down bases, tried to be reassuring. He said the bases would be chosen fairly and the government would do all it could to help affected communities recover.

But he made clear that the process -- however painful -- cannot be avoided.

In a speech to graduates of the Naval Academy, he said the closings and realignments ''will result in a military that is more efficient and better prepared so you can better protect the American people against the dangers of this new century."

''In this war, there is only one option and that is victory," he said, to cheers from midshipmen, relatives, and faculty.

When Bush last spoke at a Naval Academy commencement, it was four months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and his focus was his administration's effort to reshape the military into a faster, lighter, and more flexible fighting force.

Since the attacks, a military transformation is even more necessary, Bush said. Keys to the success are new technology, repositioning of forces, new weapons, and realigned bases, he said.

Bush said he understands the fears in areas where bases have been marked for closure. The announcement of the first closings in a decade have members of Congress and local officials working to protect 33 bases slated for closure and 29 for downsizing.

''I know firsthand how hard base closings can be on local communities," he said.

Members of the congressionally chartered Base Closure and Realignment Commission will visit bases and hold hearings on the Pentagon proposal. The plan aims to save $48.8 billion over 20 years by eliminating facilities and promoting cooperation among the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

The panel will decide on any changes to the Pentagon plan and then will give a list to Bush and Congress this fall for approval or rejection.

The commission chairman, Anthony Principi, yesterday joined lawmakers demanding that the Defense Department quickly release the thousands of pages of data backing up its recommendations.

''We cannot make informed decisions without the data," Principi said on Capitol Hill. ''That's critical to our work."

Bush suggested most efforts to save given bases would be futile.

''We have more bases than we need," Bush said in his address.

''Supporting these facilities," he said, ''wastes billions of taxpayers' dollars, money that can be better spent on giving you the tools to fight terrorists and confront 21st century threats."

The graduation ceremonies got under way with 21 cannon blasts and a flyover by the Blue Angels, the Navy's team of F/A-18 Hornets. After speaking, Bush handed out diplomas to those graduating with distinction and shook the hands of all 976 graduates. In return, the Class of 2005 gave him Naval Academy blankets and a jogging suit, and he promptly put on the jacket in place of his suit jacket.

The graduates then hurled their white hats into the blue sky.

In his 30-minute address, Bush said: ''Show courage, and not just on the battlefield. Pursue the possibilities others tell you do not exist," he said. ''The opponents of change are many and its champions are few, but the champions of change are the ones who make history. Be champions, and you'll make America safer for your children and your grandchildren, and you'll add to the character of our nation."

Bush thanked those whom he had addressed four years earlier and who went on to serve around the globe. He recounted the wartime deeds of several by name, and one whose name he said he could not reveal because he was now a Navy SEAL.

''They are serving our nation with valor and distinction," Bush said, ''and soon you'll join them."

A graduate pointed out his family to President Bush, who spoke of a need for base closings.
A graduate pointed out his family to President Bush, who spoke of a need for base closings. (Getty Images Photo / Mark Wilson)
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