MANILA — At the height of President Corazon Aquino's celebrated trip to the United States last September, disgruntled members of the Philippine military secretly wiretapped international telephone conversations between the president and her executive secretary in Manila.
According to transcripts of those conversations released by Aquino's political opponents in Manila on Friday, the president and her top aides discussed direct interference in the drafting of the nation's new constitution by a 48-member body that Aquino had pledged would remain independent from her and her government.
The focus of the alleged interference was a key constitutional provision banning nuclear weapons on Philippine soil, a clause that could threaten America's two large military bases in the Philippines, according to the transcript.
Talk With Arroyo
At one point during the Sept. 19 conversation, Aquino, who has been accused both by leftists and rightists of being too close to the U.S. government, was overheard telling her executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, that she was concerned that the nuclear-free provision could endanger U.S.-Philippine relations and torpedo pending U.S. Senate approval of a proposed $200-million emergency aid appropriation for the Philippines.
"That is why I am calling up Soc (constitutional commission member Francisco Rodrigo)," Arroyo is quoted as telling the president in the transcript. "I will see him, in fact, tomorrow morning early, to tell him that these are the ramifications."
Aquino's reply: "Maybe they're not aware of that."
Three months earlier, when Aquino delivered her opening address to the constitutional commission she appointed to draft a replacement for a constitution that she had thrown out, the president pledged, "Nobody, not even I, your president, can interfere with or overrule you in this great task."
Deliberate Timing Seen
The release of the transcript Friday--10 days before the nation will vote on ratification of Aquino's new constitution--apparently was deliberately timed to subvert Aquino's vigorous pro-ratification campaign.
The document was released by opposition politician Homobono Adaza, who recently joined forces with ousted Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in campaigning against the charter.
But, as long ago as last October, military intelligence operatives loyal to Enrile privately told The Times that they had tapped the phones of Aquino's aides and that they had proof that the president had, indeed, interfered with the drafting of the constitution. However, they offered no such proof, saying they would release it when the time was right.
In addition, Francisco Tatad, a one-time Aquino supporter who also is now aligned with Enrile, "exposed" the contents of the transcript in his daily column in Friday's editions of the national newspaper Business Day.
"Mrs. Aquino's government did not simply appoint 48 men and women of independent minds and left them to do what they thought best for their fellow Filipinos," Tatad wrote, adding an appeal to the president to abort the Feb. 2 constitutional referendum.
In the end, Tatad conceded, neither Aquino nor her aides had made any direct impact on the nuclear-ban provision, which remains unchanged in the final draft of the proposed charter. "Instead of recalling the anti-nuclear provision, which would have created quite a scandal," he said, "the government simply entered into a secret deal with the United States government concerning the non-implementation of the provision."
At the time of the debate, the U.S. government was deeply concerned about the provision. It is similar to a policy in New Zealand that has led to barring all U.S. naval warships from New Zealand ports, because the Pentagon, as a matter of policy, refuses to say whether any of its vessels are carrying nuclear weapons.
According to the official record of the constitutional commission on Sept. 20, the day after Aquino's conversation with Arroyo, two pro-American commissioners did preside over a series of debates that led to a more liberal interpretation of the nuclear-free clause--an interpretation that would give Aquino ultimate power in its interpretation. But Tatad offered no evidence to indicate that a "secret deal" had been made.
U.S. Role Denied
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Manila flatly denied that the American government tried to influence the constitutional process in any way, and Fulgencio Factoran, Aquino's deputy executive secretary, told reporters Friday that it was obvious from the outcome that neither Aquino nor the U.S. government had interfered with the commission.
Aquino did not comment on the transcript. Arroyo and special presidential counsel Teodoro Locsin Jr., both of whom are among the president's closest confidants, declined to comment Friday, indicating that the government has no plans to answer the charges. But Factoran, Arroyo's deputy, said he could not deny the accuracy of the transcript.