Ulterior Motives in Panetta-Arroyo Meeting
By Ian Allen* | intelNews | 07.14.2009
FEW HEADS OUTSIDE SOUTHEAST ASIA were turned last Sunday by CIA director Leon Panetta’s brief visit to the Philippines. Panetta arrived in Manila early Sunday morning and left at 10 p.m. on the same day. But he managed to squeeze in meetings with Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, as well as her most senior cabinet executives, such as Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. Panetta’s meeting with the President was brief, reportedly lasting around 30 minutes, but its significance was enormous for Washington’s continuing military and intelligence presence in the region.
President Arroyo’s press office said she talked with the CIA director about “issues of common concern on international terrorism”, but close observers understand that the brief meeting focused mostly on Leon Panetta “re-affirm[ing] Washington’s commitment to its Southeast Asian anti-terror partner”. To understand the level of that commitment, one must consider the rare telephone call that US President Barack Obama recently placed to his Philippine counterpart. In that call, as intelNews reported back in April, Obama “managed to convince her to extend the controversial RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement”. The agreement allows Washington to retain jurisdiction over US military personnel stationed in the Philippines. It is seen by Washington as “a cornerstone in maintaining its small but influential military presence in the island nation”. As intelNews explained last April, President Arroyo gave in to the pressure by her US counterpart despite “increasingly vocal and militant calls” in Manila in favor of the abrogation of the treaty, following several incidents of lewd behavior by US military personnel stationed in the country.
The presence of US troops in the Philippines has steadily increased since early 2003. US personnel provide logistical, intelligence and combat assistance to Philippines armed forces troops engaged in a brutal conflict with the Muslim Moro ethnic group (including the Abu Sayyaf Group) in the south. The US is desperate to maintain its logistical and military oversight of the operation, not only in the context of Washington’s focus on Southeast Asia, but also because of the logistical ties between the Philippines and Iraq, as well as Iran (several thousand Philippinos live and work in the Middle East).
Washington’s courting culminated in March of 2009 with the sudden extradition to Manila of Michael Ray Aquino, who in 2005 had been sentenced in a US court to 76 months in jail, for “acting as an agent of a foreign official without notification of the [US] Attorney General”. In the late 1990s, Aquino served as deputy director of the (now defunct) Philippines National Police Intelligence Group (NPIG). The group was then Philippine President Joseph Estrada’s personal Praetorian Guard. But when the corrupt Estrada was ousted and replaced with Gloria Arroyo, Aquino was one of several intelligence officers who escaped to the US to avoid prosecution for past political crimes. Shortly afterwards, the FBI discovered that Aquino was secretly collaborating with Philippine-born FBI intelligence analyst Leandro Aragoncillo to supply classified US documents to President Arroyo’s political opponents, in an effort to help topple her government.
The sudden decision last month to cut Aquino’s US sentence short and extradite him to the Philippines, complied with the wishes of President Arroyo’s government. It was part of Washington’s diplomatic offensive to protect the fragile RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement. Leon Panetta’s recent visit to the Philippines showed Washington’s appreciation to Gloria Arroyo for deciding to prolong that agreement.
Meanwhile, the Philippine President has reportedly accepted an invitation by Leon Panetta to visit the White House and meet with Barack Obama on July 30, 2009. On that date, she will become the first Southeast Asian leader to be granted an audience with the new US President.
* Ian Allen has spent nearly twenty-five years working in intelligence-related fields, and is now active in intelligence consulting. He has worked in North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently living and working in South Korea. He is co-founder and Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.