PENTAGON FIGHTS BILL ON PANAMA CANAL CONTROL

PENTAGON FIGHTS BILL ON PANAMA CANAL CONTROL

The Department of Defense is fighting legislation supported by the maritime industry to replace military control of the Panama Canal Commission with civilian leadership.

"I think some people (at the defense department) just don't want to give up their power and ability to give up all their votes" on the canal

commission, said Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, the author of the legislation.The canal legislation will transform the commission, now controlled by the Department of Defense, into a civilian agency modeled on the Saint Lawrence Seaway Corp., which manages U.S. seaway interests.

Currently, the commission's chairman is appointed by the secretary of defense, who also controls the votes of the five U.S. members of the board.

A wide segment of the U.S. maritime industry favors the bill because it was crafted to ensure civilian control when Panama takes over the waterway on Dec. 31, 1999.

In its zeal to block the bill, the Pentagon has exceeded Bush administration and State Department policy, alienating some of its staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill.

The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee last week voted unanimously to send the bill to the House.

But one day before that vote, Terrence O'Donnell, the general counsel to the defense department, wrote the committee that the Bush administration ''opposes legislative action at this time to change the management structure" of the commission.

"We presently have no clear picture as to the best approach to ensure efficient and effective management of the waterway after the turnover of the canal," Mr. O'Donnell's letter said.

Until the governments of Panama and the United States complete studies of the canal's future, "Changes to the supervisory board are premature, at best," he concluded.

A U.S. government official, who asked not to be identified, said the letter did not represent official policy on the legislation and had not been cleared with the State Department.

"We were surprised to see that go over" to the committee, the official said.

The Bush administration had formed an interagency committee to formulate its Panama policy, the official said.

Until last week, "the only agreed-upon expression" of administration policy was a statement by the current chairman of the commission, Army Secretary Michael P.W. Stone, the U.S. official said.

In that testimony last September, Mr. Stone said the legislation would be premature until the Panamanian government had studied the issue.

Since that time, a government commission in Panama has issued an interim report that endorses the creation of a "completely autonomous administrative agency, independent of partisan policies" to run the canal.

Rep. Fields is a conservative Republican who calls himself one of the ''most defense-minded" people in Congress. In an interview from Houston, he said he has "gone as far as he can in compromising with the Defense Department. I don't think they want to compromise," he said.

His bill was modified to reflect Pentagon concerns. It now provides a permanent seat on the commission to the Department of Defense and requests a study, to be conducted jointly by State and Defense, on alternative structures to the present commission.

An administration official downplayed the differences between State and Defense. "Its more a question of style . . . and our approach to Congress," he said.