Strange Case of Philippine Spy in US Gets Stranger
By Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 04.03.2009
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.
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.