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Secret mission could keep MacDill open

Local congressmen say a last-minute briefing Monday on a top-secret mission could end up being the key to preventing the shutdown of MacDill Air Force base. U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young said he feels strongly that the hastily scheduled 30-minute briefing on worldwide intelligence operations commanded from MacDill could change the minds of Jim Courter and James C. Smith II, two members of the Bi-Partisan Base Closure and Realignment Commission who voted May 31 to study MacDill for closure.

"MacDill is a very major, major player in intelligence," said Young, an Indian Rocks Beach Republican who serves on the House Intelligence and Defense Appropriations committees. "It is unique. It has something that does not exist anywhere in the world at any other U.S. air base.

"(Courter and Smith) were not aware of this mission or of the tremendous difficulty involved in moving the intelligence mission."

The mission belongs to the U.S. Special Operations Command, where Monday's briefing was held.

Based on the briefing, Young figures that moving Special Operations Command, with 573 staffers, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. By contrast, the Department of Defense has estimated the bill to close all operations at MacDill, a base with 8,912 employees, at $220-million.

Established at MacDill in 1987, Special Operations Command directs by orders from the president or secretary of defense 37,000 special forces troops worldwide, including Green Berets, Navy Seals and Army Rangers. It played a major role in clandestine operations in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. The command also is responsible for "psychological operations and civil affairs" missions, according to the Air Force.

Now, it may prove to be the ace in the hole for those trying to keep MacDill off the base closure list.

The seven-man closure commission is assigned to give President Bush a list of proposed closings and realignments of military installations by July 1, under a goal of reducing Pentagon spending by 25 percent by 1994. Bush and the Congress must accept or reject the commission's list as a whole.

Last week, classified information presented to the commission in a closed-door session persuaded members to strike Homestead Air Force Base in Dade County from the closure list. Homestead has battle-ready F-16 fighters and is home to a large U.S. Customs drug interdiction force.

Was the classified data commissioners got on Homestead last week more compelling than the secrets Courter and Smith heard about MacDill on Monday?

U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, who also accompanied the commissioners to the briefing, doesn't think so. He figures the classified information on Homestead dealt with drug interdiction, not as some observers suspected, with Cuba.

"Homestead's intelligence mission is limited," said Gibbons, a Democrat from Tampa. "The one here is worldwide."

"Homestead's intelligence mission doesn't begin to compare with MacDill's," added Young.

Courter, who is chairman of the commission, once represented New Jersey in the U.S. House and served with Young on the Republican Executive Committee.

On Monday, as Courter arrived for a tour of MacDill, Young met him in a foyer and suggested that Courter get a special intelligence briefing. Courter took him up on the suggestion at the end of the tour.

After the unscheduled half-hour session with a general and three colonels, Courter turned to his former colleague and said, "Young, this is the smartest thing you've done in a year," Young recalled Tuesday.

Neither Courter nor Smith had been receptive earlier in their visit to arguments advanced to keep MacDill from being shut down.

Courter said the claim that environmental cleanup at MacDill would make closure unprofitable was being made by all communities with threatened installations. And Smith, an engineer who served as a staffer for the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said there was nothing unique about the assertion that local military retirees would be hurt by MacDill's closure.

But U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said the two commissioners perked up when they got to the Special Operations Command.

"What was worrying me was we weren't coming up with any new arguments," Bilirakis said Tuesday. "It wasn't until we went into that secret meeting that they could see for the first time there was something unique about MacDill.

"I can't tell you how much optimism I have as a result of their reaction."

Gibbons said he believed Courter and Smith "were seriously impressed by the briefing."

Because of the "highly classified information," Gibbons said he has been "mystified from the beginning" about how MacDill could be considered for closure.

Both Gibbons and Young agree the Special Operations Command and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's U.S. Central Command could remain at MacDill even if the base's F-16 training wing is deactivated as originally suggested by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

But the two commands rely on clandestine airlift capability, so Cheney's proposal to tear up runways, close tower operations and transfer crash crews would have to be scrapped.

To accommodate that change, Young said, the Department of Defense could transfer a battle-ready jet fighter unit to MacDill or even draw up plans to make it home of the Advanced Tactical Fighter, an aircraft that will begin coming off Lockheed assembly lines later in the decade.