POSTSCRIPT / May 9, 2006 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Aragoncillo case to test political agility of GMA

WHAT’S GOING ON?: Pardon me, but Malacanang statements on the ongoing state visit of President Gloria Arroyo to Saudi Arabia are confusing.

One objective of the President in journeying to Riyadh, according to the Palace, is to ensure a steady and reasonably priced supply of crude oil for the Philippines.

Why is this? The Philippine government has no oil refinery and is not in the business of producing and selling petroleum products.

For which private entity is President Arroyo acting as middleman? For the Philippine National Oil Co. (PNOC), which imports and refines its own oil products and markets them through Petron?

Energy officials themselves have been saying that the problem is not with the supply of oil but the price. Oil is available to any earnest buyer willing to pay the price.

Do you think Saudi Arabia will sell fine-grade oil to the Philippines in quantity at a price lower than it is selling to the rest of the market?

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SUPERFLUOUS BID: Actually PNOC can very well take care of itself without President Arroyo playing the role of oil procurement agent.

When then President Fidel V. Ramos sold a whopping 40 percent of PNOC to Saudi Aramco, he saw to it that the new strategic partner (which is Saudi government-controlled) committed in writing to ensure adequate and reasonably priced crude oil for PNOC.

It seems to me that Mr. Ramos already did more than a dozen years ago what Ms Arroyo is trying to do now.

In case Ms Arroyo is able to sign a new supply contract with the Saudis, will such a contract be government-to-government? Will she get a commission?

Now if Ms Arroyo is negotiating only for PNOC, what about Shell Philippines, the other oil firm here with its own refinery? Will Shell be left to its own sources, or will the new oil supply fetched by Ms Arroyo be shared by it? (Caltex has closed its refinery in Batangas, so that is one user less.)

It might be well for Malacañang to clear the air on this supposed oil procurement mission of the President. Let us not unduly over-dramatize it if it is just a reiteration of old commitments.

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POLITICAL TEST: Inclusion of former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada in the espionage charges against a Fil-Am intelligence analyst who stole US security files and shared them with Filipino politicians will put President Arroyo to a severe test.

The moment the US government asks for Erap’s extradition, President Arroyo will be under pressure to deliver him as she did in the case of then Manila congressman Mark Jimenez who was accused of comparatively less serious charges over his contributions to Bill Clinton’s campaign chest.

The followers of Erap will never forgive Ms Arroyo if she lets federal marshals handcuff their idol and drag him to New Jersey to face charges.

Feeding Erap to the lions would doom efforts at reconciliation with opposition forces still looking up to the former president. It could incense the opposition enough to destabilize the Arroyo administration.

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GMA DILEMMA: On the other hand, if President Arroyo dribbles around Erap’s extradition while looking for a way out, she runs the risk of earning the displeasure of the US government.

President Arroyo could find herself in a dilemma: either failing in the Bush administration’s “somos o no somos” test of fealty or setting back her campaign to woo opposition forces and forge national unity.

She has already lost American points when, in 2005, she pulled out the Philippines’ small military-police contingent from Iraq against the wishes of President Bush to spring a Filipino truck driver captured by Iraqi terrorists.

With her legitimacy challenged on the home front, Ms Arroyo keeps casting her eyes across the sea to Washington, DC, wishing for friendlier relations and a clear endorsement by the country’s No. 1 patron.

Will she jeopardize her courtship of the White House by not delivering Erap if his extradition is sought?

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NECESSARY ACTORS: This is, of course, assuming that Erap, Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson and the rest of the alleged conspirators will be indicted by US authorities.

My impression is that they would have to be indicted to give sense and meaning to the espionage charge against former US Marine Leandro Aragoncillo, who has admitted having filched secret files and given them to some opposition politicians plotting to overthrow the Arroyo administration.

It could not be that Aragoncillo stole the documents for his personal bedtime reading. Those he named as his co-conspirators in Manila will have to be included to complete the picture and explain his motivations.

Besides, American prosecutors are known to do a thorough job and not give a hoot whether the respondent is or was a former head of government. In fact, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

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THEIR DEFENSE: Erap has denied having participated in some espionage thriller — meaning there was no espionage nor was there thrill in it as far as he was concerned.

Senator Lacson has conceded having received materials from Aragoncillo — and from his man Michael Ray Aquino who has already been indicted — but he stressed that the files were not top secret or otherwise restricted.

This defense line of Lacson and that of Erap are amplified in media, especially by radio commentators and listeners (who usually take the cue from their favorite commentators and echo their prejudices to gain radio time).

Their argument is that the supposedly secret documents contained only data and information that everybody in the Philippines already knew. So what secrets are US prosecutors talking about as having been stolen?

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U.S. ANGLE: The thing to remember here is that Aragoncillo — and possibly Erap, Lacson and a few others later — are being (or to be) prosecuted under US laws by US state attorneys.

Philippine laws and Filipino wisecracks in media are irrelevant.

When grim federal marshals come over, there is only one guiding order stamped on their foreheads — to get their man and deliver him, struggling or otherwise, to face the court. The case of Mark Jimenez, mentioned earlier, is instructive.

We kibitzers in Manila cannot intervene and demand to know what is so secret in the documents that Aragoncillo had stolen and passed on to Lacson et al.

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EXECUTIVE ORDER: The documents we are talking about are classified by US authorities under Executive Order 12958 on Classified National Security Information issued on April 17, 1995, by the US president.

This EO 12958 classifies sensitive information into Top Secret, Secret and Confidential, in that descending order, depending on the sensitivity of the document as it relates to national security.

(When that EO speaks of national security, it refers to US national security, not the security or well-being of the Philippine islands and its natives. They do not care about us.)

Important question: Who decides what classification to give certain information?

Executive Order 12958 says that the authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by the US president, agency heads and officials designated by the president in the Federal Register, or US government officials delegated this authority under the EO.

Obviously, what Erap, Lacson and their apologists think is entirely irrelevant.

* * *

IT’S THE ACT: I raise the question of who determines the level of security to be given a classified document because Lacson’s initial public defense was that although he had received emails from Aquino, these were mostly routine reports most of which had come out in the media.

What he is saying is that the email and/or attachments were not or should not have been classified. He wants us to believe that sharing, possessing and passing restricted US documents cannot be a crime if the recipient thinks they are no longer secret.

The crime attributed to Aragoncillo and Aquino — and possibly the rest of the co-conspirators — is not about the content of the reports filched, but the act itself of stealing the classified information and their subsequent handling.

An official of our own National Bureau of Investigation had commented that the content of the stolen document could have been only the recipe of home-made apple pie, but that that is not the legal point.

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

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 9, 2006)

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