Strange Case of Philippine Spy in US Gets Stranger

By Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 04.03.2009
Joseph Estrada
A PHILIPPINE FORMER INTELLIGENCE OFFICER, who was arrested in New York for passing classified US documents to his Philippine contacts, has had his sentence reduced by a US court. Michael Ray Aquino was apprehended in 2005 and charged with collaborating with an FBI intelligence analyst who spied on the US. Aquino’s recent history is complicated. For several years, he worked for the (now defunct) Philippines National Police Intelligence Group (NPIG), where he quickly rose to the post of Deputy Director, under the Presidency of Joseph Estrada. In 2001, however, when Estrada was ousted from the Presidency amidst extensive corruption allegations, Aquino was one of several military and intelligence officials who were removed by the new government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Soon afterwards, Aquino was among several suspects charged with the politically motivated murder of Salvador “Bubby” Dacer, a well-known public relations manager who had helped oust Estrada. The ousted intelligence officer escaped justice by fleeing with his family to the US, in 2001.

ARRESTED BY US IMMIGRATION

Four years later, he was arrested by US immigration officials for illegally overstaying his immigration visa. The FBI became suspicious when one of its agents, intelligence analyst Leandro Aragoncillo, tried to intervene on behalf of Aquino. A Bureau investigation found that Aragoncillo, a former US Marine who was born in the Philippines, routinely supplied Aquino with classified US government documents on President Arroyo, with the intent of sharing them with Arroyo’s political opponents, including ousted President Estrada. Prosecutors alleged that Aragoncillo and Aquino stole the classified documents “as part of a plot to overthrow the government of President Arroyo”. 

In the ensuing trial, Aragoncillo received a 10-year sentence for “acting as an agent of a foreign official without notification of the Attorney General” (i.e. espionage). Aquino, however, was more fortunate: he pleaded guilty to receiving classified government documents, and was sentenced to 76 months in prison, avoiding the much more serious charge of espionage. 

SENTENCE REDUCED

Some insiders were surprised, however, when a US Federal appeals court ruled last February that the trial court that originally sentenced Aquino “misapplied sentencing guidelines”, and opined that the former Philippine intelligence official should be resentenced. Aquino’s resentencing was delivered on Tuesday, March 31, by US District Judge William Walls, who commended Aquino for “good behavior” while in prison, and ordered that his sentence be reduced to 46 months -which Aquino has already served. 

It appears that the court was eager to have Aquino extradited to the Philippines, where he is due to face homicide charges for the murder of Salvador Dacer. This is despite the fact that two other suspects in the murder case, also former NPIG officers, are held in US prisons. Both of them say that Aquino organized and supervised Dacer’s slaying. Aquino says he does not want to be extradited to the Philippines, where he will face “political prosecution”, and has offered to face his accusers in a US court. But the US government has submitted a court filing expressly rejecting such a possibility, and arguing that “Aquino will have every opportunity to make such defenses, but in a court of law in the Philippines, not here”. 

Observers have noted the US government’s sudden and extreme disposition to banish Aquino from its prison system and deliver him to the government of Gloria Arroyo, who has personally campaigned for Aquino’s extradition since 2001. Why this sudden change? 

AN INTERESTING PHONE CALL

Those interested in US-Philippine relations may want to note a recent telephone call placed by US President Barack Obama to his Philippine counterpart, in which he managed to convince her to extend the controversial RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement. The agreement is a bilateral accord between Washington and Manila, which allows the US to retain jurisdiction over American military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines. Washington sees this treaty as a cornerstone in maintaining its small but influential military presence in the island nation, which is engaged in a brutal war against the Muslim Moro ethnic group (including the Abu Sayyaf Group) in the south.

According to international agency reports, which were wholly ignored by US news outlets, Obama and Arroyo “reaffirmed their commitment to the long-standing US-Philippines alliance, including the Visiting Forces Agreement, which remains critical to the bilateral relationship and to the two countries’ strategic interests”. What is more, this reaffirmation was apparently achieved despite increasingly vocal and militant “calls for the abrogation of the treaty in Manila”.

A “HUMANITARIAN MISSION”

Less than a fortnight after the two leaders’ telephone conversation, another 100 US troops arrived in the Philippines from Okinawa, as part of “a humanitarian mission”, which includes “participat[ing] in [...] exercises”. Lt. Commander Anne Roberts, of the US Joint Civil Military Operation Task Force, went out of her way to assure the skeptical local press that “the American soldiers are not involved in counterinsurgency operations” and that “their mission [t]here is not about counterinsurgency”. 

Meanwhile, Michael Ray Aquino is hastily being readied for extradition to Manila. And those who believe that he is being released from the US prison system because of “good behavior”, probably also believe that the increasing US military presence in the Philippines, whose members have been engaged in combat operations since at least 2002, is part of a “humanitarian mission” that is “not about counterinsurgency”.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.

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5 Responses to Strange Case of Philippine Spy in US Gets Stranger

  1. KMansfield says:

    I read elsewhere that Arroyo has been chasing Obama since his inaguration for a press event, which she feels might give credibility to her obviously corrupt government. The IMF has cut off loan money because her her husband has been involved in funneling money off of those funds. Also, their constitutions is being twisted to bits.
    According to some fillipino bloggers, Arroyo’s level of corruption is equalling that of Ferdinand Marcos, and the unwashed masses want her outo of power. I would be that man could not get a fair trial there.
    He is probably being used as a bargaining chip, sucks to be elephant toejam – or him. On Hillary’s trip to the east she stressed to China that financial cooperation was primary to the relationship, and those silly human rights issues wouldn’t be brought up. There is also the issue of the four rape cases by American soldiers there.
    Strategically, considering the rise of China, the phillipines is increasingly an important location than ever to the US to have a military base.
    There is also another situation going on there where the military has occupied an island, and some extremists have take hostages and are threatening to be-head them unless the military backs off the island. Apparently the swiss head of the red cross became involved to get the military to back off, and shortly afterward the head of the military was sent off on vacation- of course they say that it’s not related and the vation was schelduled (wink, wink), Yet he went to that SouthAmerican bastion of freedom (not), Columbia to give a paid speech. So far the effort is working and one of the hostages has been released.
    It would be nice if Obama could take the high road on this and make his appeal to the fillipino people, rather than stand behind an apparent dictator.

  2. KMansfield says:

    I can spell, really… sorry about that last post.
    Quoted from your link…

    “Although there is some evidence that the ASG had had connections to the al Qaeda in its earlier years, there is no evidence that the ASG has had regular contacts with al Qaeda since the mid-1990s. The ASG is really a 21st century version of the criminal gangs that have long resisted colonial and Philippine government rule in this region. Most of its victims have been Filipinos, not foreigners. The ASG earns resources primarily from kidnapping and other criminal enterprises. Its success is in part due to the fact that it has used its income from ransom and robberies to buy high-powered weapons and that it provides at least some (albeit paltry) economic benefits to a desperately poor part of the Philippines, where the state is effectively absent.”

    The story about these hostages in almsost all instances, in the first or second sentence it says that this group is linked with Al-Queada.
    Shameful.

  3. intelNews says:

    Thanks for your excellent comments, especially the points you raised in relation to the four rape cases by American soldiers in the Philippines, but also about the hostages, as well as the broader geostrategic angle of China’s proximity. I left these out of the main analysis in an effort to keep it moderately short and readable, but I’m glad you appended them here. [JF]

  4. M says:

    About Michael Ray Aquino…. it is in the interest of the present Arroyo regime to have him extradited in time for the coming election in order to discredit ousted president Joseph Estrada and hopeful presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson.

    I am no fan of either Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Joseph Estrada or Panfilo Lacson. Just trying to explain what the motivations are.

  5. Anonymous says:

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