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Philippine Spy Scandal Comes Amid Turmoil

An FBI analyst charged with stealing papers may have been motivated by crisis in his native land.

October 17, 2005|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — His resume was impressive: decorated U.S. Marine sergeant; aide to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney; FBI intelligence analyst. He bragged that he had attended meetings of the National Security Agency for Cheney, then briefed the vice president on what was said.

Leandro Aragoncillo, one of the highest-ranking Filipino Americans in the U.S. government, liked to say that what set Philippine employees apart was "our integrity and loyalty." In his case, the question being asked is: loyalty to whom?

Aragoncillo, who had a top-secret security clearance, was arrested last month for allegedly taking classified documents from computers in Cheney's office and the FBI and sending them to opposition leaders in the Philippines. The documents, primarily analyses of the Philippines' political situation by U.S. Embassy officials here, do not appear to contain any important U.S. secrets. But the U.S. analyses have been embarrassing to some, especially President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

"Arroyo has always exhibited paranoia and the need to control every aspect of the Philippine economy and politics," says one document dated July 16 and apparently written by the embassy's then-No. 2, Joseph Mussomeli. "As time ticked out for her administration, it was clear the biggest problem was Arroyo herself."

U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment on the documents or excerpts that have been published in the Philippine media.

Some Philippine officials who acknowledge receiving the documents wonder why Aragoncillo would have risked his career to steal material of this nature. The answer may lie in the crisis atmosphere in the Philippines, where the economy is deteriorating, the military is fighting Islamic and communist insurgencies, and the government has difficulty providing basic services.

Arroyo, who took power in 2001 with the backing of the military and "People Power" demonstrations, is under intense pressure to step down after the disclosure of evidence that she ordered an official in charge of last year's presidential election to rig the vote count in her favor.

The president has suffered the defection of key supporters, including 10 members of her Cabinet and former President Corazon Aquino. However, Arroyo's backers in Congress defeated an impeachment move last month and she refuses to resign. One excerpt from the allegedly stolen U.S. documents speaks of Arroyo's "lingering illegitimate constitutional ascendancy to the presidency in 2001," and says rumors of an impending military coup hang in the air.

Arroyo has alleged that Aragoncillo was spying as part of a plot to remove her from office.

Aragoncillo, who was born in the Philippines, is one of five siblings who migrated to the United States, relatives said. He obtained U.S. citizenship in 1991.

He retired from the Marine Corps last year after 21 years and took a job as an intelligence analyst with the FBI. He has been charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government or official and faces up to 25 years in prison. The inquiry is continuing.

When Arroyo visited the White House in 2003, Manila TV network ABS-CBN interviewed Aragoncillo and other high-ranking Filipino Americans.

Aragoncillo, then the head of Cheney's security detail, talked about attending National Security Agency meetings and handling security clearances.

When he was asked what advice he would offer Filipinos aspiring to reach his position, he gave a hint of how his loyalties were changing and his concern for his homeland's future. "I used to say, keep it clean," he said. "Now I say, think of the kids."

Among those who have said they received copies of documents from Aragoncillo is former President Joseph Estrada. He was forced from office in 2001 and has been in detention since, awaiting trial on corruption charges for allegedly receiving millions of dollars in illegal gambling proceeds.

In a telephone interview, Estrada said he first met Aragoncillo in 2000 on a visit to the White House. President Clinton introduced him to Filipinos working there, including Aragoncillo, who was then a Marine gunnery sergeant, he said.

Soon after his ouster, Estrada said, Aragoncillo visited him in custody. Estrada said that none of the documents he subsequently received from Aragoncillo was marked as classified.

"I know Leandro Aragoncillo," Estrada said. "He is just very concerned about what is happening in the Philippines. He has done this in good faith."

Another politician who has said he received some of the papers is Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who lost to Arroyo in last year's election. Earlier, when Lacson served as national police chief, one of his top aides was Michael Ray Aquino, who also was arrested in the United States in the spying scandal.

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