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Hey, Sailor! 

The untold story of the selling of the USS Missouri

Wednesday, May 3 1995
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It's time to amend the old adage that you should never trust a sailor in port: Newly released Pentagon documents prove that you shouldn't trust the U.S. Navy -- or its advocates -- when it shops for a place to "homeport" its ships.

San Francisco was one of eight port cities that the Reagan administration courted in the '80s, asking it to provide a subsidized berth for a ship from its burgeoning fleet. In 1987, the campaign was in full spin, as San Francisco and the U.S. Navy promised the city 2,000 new jobs, "placement guarantees for Bayview-Hunters Point residents" and union work if the Board of Supervisors would agree to spend $2 million to help the Navy anchor the USS Missouri at Hunters Point shipyard.

Unique to San Francisco among the cities negotiating "homeporting" agreements was the proviso that the Navy would not discriminate based on sexual orientation in civilian hiring.

But while Navy officials made public assurances, they acknowledged in internal memos and letters that they had no intent to honor these promises, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The documents also reveal the Pentagon's deep-cover participation in San Francisco partisan politics.

The Pentagon plan to redistribute American warships -- and the costs of homeporting -- goes back to 1982, although official records relating to San Francisco date only to 1987.

The issue of gay rights threatened to scuttle the USS Missouri deal from the beginning. In May 1987, the Pentagon instituted new security-clearance guidelines for civilians employed by the military. Under the new rules, all self-identified gay and lesbian job applicants were required to undergo a second security clearance and reveal the names of all past sex partners, where they had first met (in a bar? in a public park?) and whether the person's family, friends and employer knew the applicant's sexual orientation. The Pentagon said the goal was to spot those employees whose sexual orientation would make them vulnerable to blackmail -- never mind that there are no documented cases in which blackmail based on "sexual orientation" divulged a national secret.

Mayor Dianne Feinstein expended a great deal of political capital on home-porting the Missouri, rumbling publicly with members of the Human Rights Commission. She declared a victory of sorts when the Navy agreed to the following seemingly nondiscriminatory language: "The Navy and the City declare that they will not discriminate against any civilian employee, applicant for civilian employment, or contractor because of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation or handicap."

But this "commitment" was a noncommitment, because the Navy still maintained a two-tier security-clearance program: one for straights and one for gays.

As Mayor Feinstein urged the Board of Supervisors to pass the homeport plan, a Pentagon official informed Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger of the sort of energy it would take to win a board majority. Released by the FOIA request, the official's letter, dated September 27, 1987, reveals the sort of "respect" the Pentagon accorded advocates of equal rights:

"All of this push by nearly 40 responsible companies who cooperated was required to overcome the homosexual's [sic] organized effort to prevent homeporting here. I'll gear up and help [Rear Admiral] Bob Toney every time I can be of help, and I'm confident we can lick 'em, but I wanted your office to know how organized and determined these wretched people are."

(The Pentagon blacked out the author's name to protect his identity.)
The supervisors eventually approved the deal, but when Art Agnos -- a Missouri opponent -- was sworn in as mayor in 1988, he promptly indicated that his budget might not cover the city's contribution for the homeporting plan. (Full disclosure: Larry Bush worked in Agnos' campaign and in his administration.)

Agnos told Navy officials he would negotiate homeporting if the brass guaranteed the weak promises it had made to Feinstein, from equal treatment of gays to jobs for Hunters Point residents.

Privately, Pentagon officials admitted their public promises were worthless, as FOIA documents now show.

In a memo to Secretary Weinberger, Undersecretary H. Lawrence Garrett III wrote, "As a matter of law -- not to mention sound policy -- we cannot accede to Mayor Agnos on the matter of gay rights beyond the language in the MOA [Memorandum of Agreement]. Nor can we guarantee employment for the Bayview/Hunters Point community. Therefore, negotiations on these matters is out of the question."

Just five weeks after Agnos took office, the Navy tracked San Francisco politics with the enthusiasm of intelligence agents and plotted to shift the debate from human rights to economic benefits. This argument already was being pushed by the Chronicle and the Chamber of Commerce, both of which denounced Agnos' decision as putting "special interests" ahead of the city's economic future.

Garrett wrote in a February 18, 1988, memo: "[R]ecent editorials in the major newspapers in San Francisco, as well as upcoming meetings between the Mayor and Missouri supporters in the business community, indicate rapid development of substantial local pressure upon the Mayor to change course." The memo continued: "... [W]e should keep responsibility for the future of home-porting in San Francisco squarely fixed upon the Mayor, both because that is where it properly lies, and because doing so will assist whatever local pressure is brought to bear on him."

"To achieve those objectives," Garrett wrote, "I believe we should force the City to make a formal decision contrary to its declared intentions in the MOA before we take any action that can reasonably be interpreted as an abandonment of San Francisco."

By May, Secretary of the Navy William L. Ball III wrote Weinberger with his latest political intelligence from San Francisco, informing him of the likelihood of a November 1988 citywide referendum on the homeporting issue.

"The pressure on Mr. Agnos is mounting, and our information is that the 'new' homeporting plan is not selling well in the Bay Area. There is general understanding that without the Missouri we will not proceed with the development of Hunters Point and this proposal has energized a broad coalition of business and labor interests in opposition to Mr.Agnos. We further understand that a referendum on the homeporting plan may very well be included in the November election."

A month later, the Pentagon was orchestrating visits of San Francisco politicians to Washington to boost the chances of a referendum.

"A delegation of supporters of homeporting headed by Supervisor John Molinari has requested a meeting with the Secretary on or about 9 June," a memo states. "The delegation intends to express its support for homeporting of the Missouri, and believes that it is very important to meet with Secretary Ball personally, both in light of his meeting with Mayor Agnos and to enhance the visibility of the delegation's trip and efforts. RADM Toney asked that I ensure this 'nuance' is considered in deciding whether or not this group should be scheduled."

The months preceding the November referendum were marked by claims and counterclaims about the economic benefits of homeporting. But Jim Green, leader of the carpenters union, was not convinced, expressing his doubts to the Navy in a letter questioning if any jobs would be union jobs or if they would go to Bayview/Hunters Point residents. Labor leaders had been "wined and dined into supporting the homeporting of the USS Missouri," Green wrote, but he cited case after case of nonunion employers winning Bay Area Navy construction contracts and anti-labor tactics by the Navy that forced concessions from unions.

A low-level Pentagon official finally got around to answering Green's letter a week after the election, in which the referendum passed by a bare margin of 51-49 percent.

"No provision of the Federal Acquisition Regulations allows the Navy to award ship repair contracts only to unionized shipyards," the deputy chief of Naval Operations wrote Green. "No requirement exists for construction contractors to be signatory to union labor."

A month later, the Navy broke the homeporting promise that the USS Missouri would be berthed here when the president's budget eliminated funding for the USS Missouri as an active warship. A year later, the ship was mothballed; the following year the Navy decided to abandon Hunters Point shipyard entirely.

Although the USS Missouri never homeported in San Francisco, its wake churned the city's politics and taught a resounding lesson: Enticing businesses or other enterprises with tax breaks, subsidies and rent concessions ain't much more than a floating crap game.

About The Author

Larry Bush

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