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Ex-Marine Is Under Scrutiny in Espionage Case

U.S. officials allege an FBI analyst who worked in the White House trafficked in classified documents with a Philippine operative.

October 06, 2005|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities confirmed Wednesday night that they had launched a full-scale espionage investigation into whether a former Marine was acting as a spy for Philippine government officials while working in the White House and, more recently, for the FBI.

Leandro Aragoncillo, an FBI intelligence analyst who had worked in Vice President Dick Cheney's office before retiring from the Marine Corps last year, was arrested last month and charged in a criminal complaint in New Jersey with knowingly acting as an agent of a foreign government.

Aragoncillo, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines, and Michael Ray Aquino, a former senior official with the Philippine National Police, were also accused of transmitting classified information from a computer in New Jersey to a public official in the Philippines, according to the complaint and interviews with several federal law enforcement officials familiar with the case.

Those officials said on condition of anonymity that authorities were scrambling to trace Aragoncillo's movements in the last few years to determine what kind of information and material he may have downloaded from government computers and transmitted overseas.

Aragoncillo, 47, is believed to have given information to opposition party politicians in the Philippines -- including politically damaging and embarrassing "dirt" on at least one former president -- with Aquino's help, according to the complaint and federal authorities.

Joseph Estrada, the former Philippine president, has acknowledged in a television interview in the Philippines that Aragoncillo gave him documents at a personal meeting. Estrada also told a Philippine newspaper that he was not aware of any illegal activity by the suspect.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a failed presidential candidate in the last election, also has acknowledged meeting with Aragoncillo and receiving computer messages from him. Lacson has said that he did not consider the information to be of a sensitive nature.

The U.S. officials cautioned that the investigation had not yet turned up any "mind-blowing, Robert Hanssen-like breaches of national security," in the words of one federal law enforcement official, referring to the former FBI agent convicted of being a double agent for the Soviet Union and Russia.

Nevertheless, the FBI is aggressively investigating the case, and senior officials there and at the White House are said to be startled at the allegations that a naturalized U.S. citizen with a top-secret security clearance could have downloaded classified information from the White House and the FBI over a prolonged period of time.

ABC News reported Wednesday evening that Aragoncillo is cooperating with the investigation and has acknowledged taking some documents while working in Cheney's office. He was assigned to the White House in 1999 and worked for Vice President Al Gore.

"It is extremely serious. The guy had access to extremely sensitive and classified documents in his role as an analyst," said a federal law enforcement official.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan confirmed the broad outlines of the probe. "It is an ongoing investigation, and as such all questions should be directed to the FBI," he said. "We are cooperating fully."

Although the story was little known in the United States until Wednesday, it has caused wide controversy in the Philippines since mid-September, when the complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J. Supporters of opposition political parties say it proves that Washington and Philippine President Gloria Macagapal Arroyo's political party are working together to stifle critics.

Aragoncillo retired from the Marine Corps as a gunnery sergeant last year after 21 years of service. He joined the FBI's Ft. Monmouth Technology Information Center in July 2004, the complaint said. Authorities said that before his arrest last month, Aragoncillo had downloaded more than 100 classified documents from FBI computers.

According to the complaint, Aquino, who came to the United States in 2001, was arrested in New York in March 2005 for overstaying his tourist visa. The next day, Aragoncillo approached immigration authorities and identified himself as an FBI employee and a friend of Aquino.

Immigration officials notified the FBI that one of its employees had an interest in Aquino's case, the complaint said. The FBI then began looking into Aragoncillo's computer usage.

On or about Jan. 2, 2005, the complaint alleges, Aquino sent a message to a public official in the Philippines about Aragoncillo and provided sensitive information furnished by him.

Seven weeks later, the complaint alleges, Aragoncillo sent classified information from a computer in New Jersey to a public official in the Philippines, and Aquino sent classified information to Aragoncillo, the complaint says. It also alleges that the two men acted as foreign agents "subject to the direction and control of a foreign official."

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