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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Feb. 28, 2000 – Marshall Islands Journal)---Marshall Islanders seeking a vast increase in U.S. payments for using a missile test range that is central to American efforts to develop a national missile defense system have hired a high-profile U.S. law firm to get them a "better deal."

Senator Ataji Balos, who represents Kwajalein Atoll, which hosts a major U.S. test range, announced today that Kwajalein landowners have hired the law firm of Mississippi-based Richard F. Scruggs, an American attorney credited with engineering the first victory against the American tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, which resulted in a $4 billion settlement for the state of Mississippi.

Balos said in an interview that this high-powered legal firm has been hired to "get the landowners a better deal" in upcoming negotiations on a Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and Marshall Islands governments. U.S. State Department officials, however, have said repeatedly in response to Balos and other landowners that the issue of Kwajalein rental payments is not on the table in the negotiations that will address future economic aid to the Marshall Islands.

"I can see how much the United States needs Kwajalein," said Sato Maie, one of three Kwajalein senators in the Marshalls national parliament. "It’s worth more than what they are paying. That’s why I say that Kwajalein isn’t a done deal. They haven’t been fair."

The underlying threat — so far unspoken by landowners — is the knowledge that in the 1970s and early 1980s, disgruntled Kwajalein landowners repeatedly led "sail-in" protests to their off-limits islands, disrupting U.S. missile testing schedules. The earlier protests helped to jack up U.S. rental payments from a few hundred thousand dollars annually to the Compact’s current nearly $13 million annual payment.

The Marshalls, a former United Nations Trust Territory, was used by the U.S. for 67 nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak, and the Kwajalein missile range has been the test range for every long-range missile in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pentagon officials, who have referred to Kwajalein as the "jewel in the crown," estimate that more than $4 billion has been invested in sophisticated missile tracking equipment and state-of-the-art computers that are currently supporting big-budget, high profile anti-missile tests.

Data gained from tests at Kwajalein — described by U.S. officials as the only test range where all components of missile defense can be integrated and tested as a package — will weigh heavily in a decision by President Bill Clinton expected this summer about moving forward with developing a deployable missile defense system for the U.S. In October, a missile launched from Kwajalein successfully intercepted and destroyed an incoming mock nuclear warhead from a rocket that had been fired from California, 4,000 miles away. A second intercept test failed last month, and a third test is scheduled for April at Kwajalein.

To use Kwajalein, the U.S. currently pays landowners nearly $13 million annually. In addition, U.S. Ambassador Joan Plaisted said that the base generates another $17 million in salaries to Marshall Islanders and taxes on American wages.

But the landowners, who live on Ebeye, in an over-crowded slum island three miles from the base, aren’t satisfied, particularly when they hear that the U.S. is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on each test.

"Kwajalein landowners feel they’ve been dealt with unfairly by the U.S. and they’ve hired us to do something about it," Scott Taylor, a senior attorney in Scruggs’ firm, said in a telephone interview. "We’re doing a lot of research to determine exactly what Kwajalein is worth and what the U.S. should be paying."

Balos and other landowners think that Scruggs’ reputation will move their demands forward. They say that until he got involved in tobacco litigation, the American tobacco industry had sustained no significant losses in 50 years.

The U.S. last year exercised its option in the Compact of Free Association to extend use of Kwajalein for an additional 15 years — through 2016 — at the same, annually inflation-adjusted rental payments.

U.S. State Department negotiator Allen Stayman has been put on notice by Taylor that his firm is now representing the landowners and they want direct talks with the U.S. But the landowners’ move to hire Scruggs has also prompted concern from Marshall Islands leaders.

Marshalls Foreign Minister Alvin Jacklick, himself a prominent Kwajalein landowner and the former mayor of Ebeye Island, indicated that in light of the fact that there is a lease in place giving the U.S. use of Kwajalein until 2016, the Marshalls must be creative in approaching the U.S. government to increase assistance to Kwajalein. The slum-like conditions for the majority of the population on Ebeye give landowners an angle, but Jacklick says the real issue boils down to getting a more fair distribution of U.S. rental payments. Currently, most of the rental payment goes to a handful of senior landowners, while the majority of Kwajalein landowners get little, Jacklick contends.

"If we ask for an increase in money for social and health programs, it will be considered more (positively)," Jacklick said. "But if the proposal is just to give the landowners $100 million a year, no way will the U.S. consider it."

But big money is what Balos and Maie are after. "I hear people, Americans, say that Kwajalein is a done deal, but I live there," Maie said. "I’ve been victimized by the Americans. I don’t hate the U.S., but we don’t have a good deal."

Landowners’ attorney Taylor said his firm isn’t taking an adversarial stance toward the Marshalls government. "We’re not at odds with the Marshalls and don’t intend to interfere in the Compact negotiations," he said. It’s just that Kwajalein landowners felt it was in their best interests to have a law firm represent them whose only agenda is Kwajalein.

The fact that it has been U.S. policy since the early 1980s to deal only with the Marshall Islands government and not to talk with individual landowners doesn’t bother Taylor or the landowners.

"Kwajalein doesn’t belong to the Marshall Islands government," he said. "It belongs to the landowners."

"I’ve asked the U.S. to contact me when they’re ready to talk," Taylor said. "At some point they’ll have to talk to us. Either they’ll respond or I’ll have to press the issue."

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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