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BRAC panel calls closure round premature

Commissioners say Pentagon closures should have been put off until Pentagon completed review of defense strategy.

The Base Closure and Realignment Commission concluded in its report to President Bush that the current effort to shrink the nation's military infrastructure should not have started until after the Pentagon had completed its sweeping review of defense strategy, plans and forces early next year, according to a draft reviewed by CongressDaily.

The independent panel also wrote that the base-closure process has "repeatedly proven its worth" since it began in 1988, but recommended holding off on another round of closures until 2015, giving lawmakers and communities a decade before launching into the long and sometimes painful ordeal.

The commission's criticism of the timing of the base-closure round echoed concerns voiced repeatedly by opponents of the current base closure round during a frenzied summer spent assessing the need for military and civilian defense facilities.

By completing base-closures before the Pentagon concludes its Quadrennial Defense Review, which is due to Congress in February, the commission concurred with BRAC opponents, saying it was forced to make assumptions about the military's needs for the future. By law, the QDR requires the Defense Department to undertake a sweeping review of military strategy, missions and capabilities.

"The commission finds illogical the seemingly inverse order that the department followed in arriving at its list of facilities for closure and realignment," the report said.

The nine-member panel chose the 2015 date for the next round to coincide with the conclusion of the 2013 quadrennial review. After 2015, commissioners recommend conducting a base-closure round in eight-year intervals that would follow the completion of the four-year review. The current round was authorized by Congress in legislation signed into law in December 2001.

The commission sent its final report to the White House late Thursday after New Jersey lost an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court involving the Fort Monmouth Army base. New Jersey lawmakers had sought an injunction that would have prevented delivery of the list to the White House.

The president must decide by Sept. 23 whether to accept all of the commission's base closure recommendations or send it back to the commission for revisions. If he accepts the recommendations, Congress would have 45 days to vote its disapproval, or the commission's list of changes becomes law.

The bound, 337-page draft report reviewed by CongressDaily appeared to be a final version but without portions addressing issues now in litigation. Several pages contain criticism of the Pentagon's approach to this base-closure round, including the commission's complaint that there was a "lack of sufficient interagency cooperation" between the Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Departments.

In particular, the commission criticized Homeland Security officials, who turned down at least one request to testify before the panel. "Neither the commission nor [the Defense Department] was well served by the lack of Department of Homeland Security input," the report said.

The commission also chided the Air Force for failing to consult with governors and state adjutants general on major changes proposed for the Air National Guard. For future rounds, the commission recommended gathering "early and constructive" input from states on decisions affecting the National Guard.

Further, the report said the Pentagon failed to complete a 20-year threat assessment that was required under base-closure law. A formal request for the assessment in July from the commission to the department "confirmed" that officials had not conducted the mandatory review, the report said.

Commissioners also highlighted the Pentagon's delay in sending information pertaining to base-closure recommendations to both the commission and Congress, an early sticking point for lawmakers intent on stalling the base-closure round. The Pentagon responded that it had to scrub the documents for classified data.

The entire process "could have been expedited had the department anticipated the potential security risks presented by the ... data and planned ahead to prevent problems with its release," according to the report.

In future rounds, commissioners urged the Pentagon to consider input from combatant commanders early on in their two-year review of military installations. In the current round, combatant commanders were not consulted until October 2004, just eight months before Defense Secretary Rumsfeld completed his recommendations and sent them to the commission and Congress, the report said.

Commissioners also recommended giving more weight to input from so-called joint and cross-service groups to help further the department's move to a more unified fighting force.

As part of a long appendix to the report, the commissioners offered new base-closure legislation that would make substantial changes to the base-closing process, including giving a future commission an additional three months to complete its work.

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