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Diplomats, Filipinos Debate Ex-General's Role : Singlaub Sparks Controversy in Manila

February 18, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — Working out of a second-floor office in an ultramodern building in Makati, a suburb of Manila, a mysterious American group has spent the past several months acquiring walkie-talkies, metal detectors, computers and some of the most advanced office equipment in the Philippines.

A brass sign outside the office provides few clues to what goes on within. "Restricted Area," it cautions.

But in the past few weeks, this shadowy group has become the focus of controversy. Its presence here has touched off suspicion among Western diplomats and Philippine government officials and, on Tuesday, drew the ire of Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces.

The key figure in this operation is John K. Singlaub, a retired U.S. Army major general who heads the U.S. Council for World Freedom and has been the most visible private fund-raiser for the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan guerrillas, the contras. He began setting up a private corporation in the Philippines last November, but his reasons for being here are not at all clear.

In Manila, a wide-open city where rumors are many and facts are few, the retired general has been accused of everything from interfering in the government of President Corazon Aquino to hiring Vietnam War veterans to train a contra-style force to fight Communist insurgents in the Philippines.

As Singlaub himself tells it, he and his men are here on a treasure hunt, digging in the jungle for the legendary lost booty of a Japanese general.

Yet last October, Singlaub told The Times that his next goal was to help finance, organize and arm anti-Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia, specifically in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Since then, Singlaub has spent much of his time in the Philippines. He has met with top officials of the Aquino government and forged close alliances with a handful of the president's top personal aides, among them the head of her civilian intelligence agency.

He has obtained government permits and has begun hunting for treasure that is said to have been left behind by the Japanese general who commanded the World War II occupation force.

And he has been meeting with opposition political leaders, most of them affiliated with an international anti-Communist group that Singlaub has headed in the 10 years since President Jimmy Carter removed him as chief of staff of U.S. forces in South Korea.

Among these opposition leaders are politicians and technocrats close to deposed President Ferdinand E. Marcos, and this has given rise to widespread speculation in the local press that Singlaub was somehow involved in a recent uprising by soldiers still loyal to Marcos.

Clearly, Singlaub has established links to members of the former regime. The Technology Center, the building where Singlaub set up his offices, is owned by Raymond Moreno, a business partner of Gen. Fabian C. Ver, who was Marcos' military chief of staff. Ver and Moreno have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Virginia investigating possible misuse of U.S. military aid to the Philippines.

Singlaub's public relations director is also the public information officer of Marcos' political party, the New Society Movement.

'Finished His Work'

Ady Sison, one of the Philippines' most prominent political public relations figures, said Singlaub has left the Philippines and will not return. "He has finished his work here, and he won't be coming back."

Asked what Singlaub's "work" here was, Sison quickly added, "Treasure hunting."

However, there is little evidence to support recent reports that Singlaub has been working with the Philippine military, officially or unofficially, to recruit mercenaries and train a counterinsurgency force. The military went out of its way Tuesday to deny the charge, and it stopped just short of calling for an investigation into Singlaub's activities.

"A lot of baloney," Gen. Ramos said, responding to charges in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Singlaub is behind a covert operation to provide counterinsurgency training to the Philippine military.

The military, Ramos told reporters at an army camp south of Manila, "has nothing to do with Gen. Singlaub."

He added: "He had nothing to do with us before. He has nothing to do with us now, and he will have nothing to do with us in the future. We are not his sponsor. We do not know why he is here. We don't want him, and we don't need him.

"We are capable enough of training our own people in regard to counterinsurgency. I do not think that any Westerner can teach us about the Philippine jungle, the Philippine environment and the Philippine guerrillas that we are fighting."

Pressed to explain why Singlaub is allowed to remain in the Philippines, Ramos referred the questioner to civilian officials and to the U.S. Embassy.

U.S. Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth and U.S. intelligence sources deny that either Singlaub or his activities are in any way connected with the U.S. government or its policies in the Philippines.

'Private American Citizens'

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