POSTSCRIPT / October 9, 2005 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why Lacson, other VIPs are having sleepless nights

TANAUAN CITY — Two things should catch the attention of Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, his protégé Michael Rey Aquino, and other Philippine officials, past or present, linked to the case of a Fil-American accused of espionage.

Item One — Leandro Aragoncillo, a US Federal Bureau of Investigation analyst accused of stealing more than 100 classified files and passing some to Filipino officials has not been indicted although Aquino, an alleged recipient of his leaks, has been.

This is queer, because Aragoncillo is the primary player and Aquino is just a secondary character in this espionage story that includes the alleged breaching by Aragoncillo of White House classified files.

Item Two — Aragoncillo has been reportedly “cooperating” with investigators. “Cooperating” is shorthand for “spilling the beans.” He must be on his way to plea bargaining, hoping to be tagged for a lesser offense in exchange for squealing on his co-conspirators.

That should be cause for worry for Ping and the rest of the non-Americans — some of them big names in Philippine politics — linked to the case.

In many cases, when US authorities break open a scam and find foreigners, especially those physically present or working in the US, involved in cahoots with a US citizen, they use the American to pin down the aliens.

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WEAK SPOTS: Aragoncillo who is of Filipino descent is especially vulnerable since he is only a naturalized, not a natural-born, citizen. If muckrakers find a good reason to do it, they could threaten to strip him of his acquired citizenship to put pressure on him.

For instance, if the scavengers from the FBI and the immigration service are able to rake up proof that he had committed fraud, that could be used to soften him up.

When investigators have a criminal suspect who is hard to crack, they sometimes use the bad-cop, good-cop approach. A “bad cop” works on the suspect with threatening tough talk. Then comes in the “good cop” who is kunwari more understanding and ready with offers to help the suspect, et cetera.

Because this hot-and-cold treatment works on many Americans, the FBI or the police in general use it often — with rewarding results.

By this time, the FBI knows everything about Aragoncillo, including details antedating his setting foot on American soil. They know all his weak spots.

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PING DEFENSE: Lacson has admitted having communicated with Aquino, his operator when the senator was still the chief of the Philippine National Police and, I suppose, even after.

Aquino, who was a deputy of then PNP chief Lacson, was co-accused with his boss in the massacre of members the Kuratong Baleleng robbery gang. After Aquino was linked to another killing, that of publicist Bubby Dacer, he fled to the US.

The senator has admitted, at least to the media, that he has received information from his man in the US. I assume that some of those transmissions, sometimes by email, included materials that Aquino may have gotten from Aragoncillo.

Lacson’s initial public defense was that although he had received emails from Aquino, these were mostly routine reports most of which had previously come out in the media.

What he is saying is that the email and/or attachments were not or should not have been classified. As such, he wants to make us believe, sharing, possessing and passing them on cannot be a crime.

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CUTE PALUSOT: The crime attributed to Aragoncillo and Aquino is not so much about the content of the reports filched, but the act itself of stealing the classified information and their subsequent handling.

As an NBI official noted days ago, the content of the stolen document could have been only the recipe of home-made apple pie, but that is not the point.

The legal point is that the matter was classified and its unauthorized accessing and distribution — regardless of the seemingly harmless content — is a crime as defined by federal law.

But what if Aquino, Lacson and whoever else may be sucked into the legal maelstrom (including former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, for instance?) insist that they were not aware that the documents received were classified?

In the Philippines, that is a cute palusot especially if you are a powerful man. The problem is that this is the US government moving and American authorities do not usually find palusot of the Pinoy variety cute.

* * *

BIG STINK: Aquino and Lacson may just find themselves in trouble if Aragoncillo talks and says he was in conspiracy with some Filipino bigwigs in stealing classified information on the Philippine situation.

Prodded by sweet talk (good-cop whispering to him) or scared stiff (bad-cop leaning on him), Aragoncillo may even add that he was paid by these co-conspirators for the materials he was supplying them.

And then — you know how one slip of the tongue could lead to another slip and so on until you have a giant platter of luscious lengua estofada — suppose Aragoncillo breaks down and shows investigators proof of such payments.

If the case reaches that advanced stage of decomposition, there would be one big stink and many Pinoy friends of Aquino and Aragoncillo may find themselves nagka-leche-lecha na.

* * *

BIG SQUEEZE: Lacson et al. will have to hold their breath as muckrakers search for a bit of fraudulent entry in the papers of Aragoncillo when he was still a Filipino applying for entry and then petitioning for immigrant and, later, citizen status.

If investigators find one or several misstatements (because many Filipinos could be careless about what they say under oath), that could be the unraveling of Aragoncillo.

This FilAm looking as physically fit as a marine sergeant impresses me as one who had worked so hard to gain US citizenship for himself, and maybe his loved ones. He would talk of Filipinos in the federal service (like himself) being valued for their integrity.

My guess is that if confronted with the possibility of losing his US citizenship, landing in federal prison and being deported after serving sentence, he would try to save himself by ratting on his co-conspirators.

* * *

BACKGROUND: For the benefit of those who did not have the chance to read on the unfolding Aragoncillo case, let me recap from memory a few details.

The US embassy in Manila, which we presume to be the nerve center of official spying on the host government, periodically sends reports to the home office on personalities, the situation and prospects.

In many reports, there were critical assessments that President Gloria Arroyo was losing control, she is weak and generally making a mess of the Philippine market. The situation, some of the reports essayed, was jelling into one calling for a possible power grab as in a coup d’etat.

The reports had it that the opposition, absent a rallying figure, was not united and was a victim of ambition driving the key players their separate ways. In the opposition, Erap Estrada was cited as the most viable leader, having continued to keep his mass following despite his detention on plunder charges.

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TRANSACTION: Some of these reports eventually reached the White House, where they were allegedly stolen by Aragoncillo using his top-level security clearance.

There were unverified reports that before Aragoncillo did this, he negotiated with some Filipinos identified with the opposition. It was also hinted that he did this not for love of country but for pay.

This transactional aspect of the case is expected to be disclosed as the hearing progresses. I am sure some VIPs in Manila and environs are having sleepless nights.

As I have reported in earlier POSTSCRIPTs, upon receipt of these purloined documents, some opposition leaders jumped to the conclusion that GMA was on the way out and that the US was all for her replacement.

Ergo, the opposition worked overtime to destabilize her administration so as to hasten her fall and their return to power.

* * *

OBSTRUCTION?: Is a Senate inquiry a legislative or a criminal procedure? Are witnesses appearing as accused or as resource persons?

Days ago, an opposition senator, a lawyer and I think former dean of a law college somewhere, said that President Arroyo’s forbidding her Cabinet members from appearing before Senate inquiries was “obstruction of justice.”

This statement betrays the state of mind of many senators. They use their endless inquiries not as an aid to legislation but as criminal investigations leading to the humiliation and possible prosecution of their targets.

Many senators have forgotten that witnesses appear before them upon their invitation as resource persons to help shed light on some important matter and share expert opinion.

No wonder, senators routinely insult, harass and humiliate witnesses that they themselves had invited to their august presence.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 9, 2005)

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