Seattle Case Focuses on Agents of Marcos : Relatives of 2 Slain Unionists Contend U.S. Knew of Covert Operations

Times Staff Writer

On June 1, 1981, two gunmen burst into a union hall near the Puget Sound docks and opened fire. Gene A. Viernes, dispatcher for a cannery workers’ union, was killed immediately. Secretary-Treasurer Selmi G. Domingo was hit four times but lived long enough to whisper the killers’ names to an ambulance attendant.

Three local Filipino gang members were charged with the killings and convicted of murder. A union fight was blamed. But the deaths of the two union leaders, both 29, are now being re-examined in Washington and Manila, in the wake of the collapse of the 20-year regime of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Families of the two union men, both anti-Marcos activists, sued the Philippine government in federal court here, contending that the Marcos government ordered them shot as part of a broad conspiracy to “surveil, harass and intimidate” opponents in this country.

The relatives’ suit, which was filed in 1982 and asks for $30 million in damages, contends that the U.S. government was aware of the Marcos regime’s covert intelligence operations in this country and shared information on dissidents--including Viernes and Domingo--with Marcos agents.

U.S. Monitoring Questioned

“There’s really no serious dispute that Marcos had an intelligence operation in the United States since 1973, and that the U.S. government has known about it and cooperated,” said Michael E. Withey, lawyer for the Viernes and Domingo families.


The Seattle case has long been a cause celebre among Filipino dissidents, and charges that Marcos ran an intelligence operation here are not new. But recent developments in the suit have raised new questions in a debate over how carefully the United States monitors, or should monitor, the activities of agents of friendly governments in this country.

Michael J. Glennon, who in 1979 wrote a report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on efforts by authoritarian nations to neutralize opponents in the United States, said on April 11 that the U.S. government knew in the 1970s that Marcos agents were illegally using diplomatic credentials and had not registered as agents with the attorney general’s office or the State Department, as the law requires.

Glennon, who was chief counsel to the Senate committee and is now on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati Law School, said the U.S. government also knew that the agents were “engaged in activities directed at anti-Marcos activists” and “did not rule out the possibility that they would engage in violence against anti-Marcos activists.”

U.S. Role Described

“Nonetheless, no serious effort was made to bring these operations to a halt,” Glennon said. “In fact, at one point, the CIA sought to curtail FBI investigative efforts out of fear that Marcos would retaliate against CIA operatives in the Philippines.”

Spokesmen for the FBI and CIA declined to comment specifically on Glennon’s statement. FBI spokesman Lane Bonner said the agency investigates all allegations of harassment and intimidation by foreign agents in the United States. “We don’t ignore them.”

In Manila, Philippine officials have begun investigating Marcos’ intelligence activities in the United States. Their inquiry includes a search for any ties to the 1981 Seattle killings, the disappearance of a former Marcos aide in 1977 after he had testified at a congressional hearing and the assassination in 1983 of opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr. upon his arrival in Manila after three years of exile in the United States.

Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, chief of staff of the Philippine army, has ordered a review of intelligence files from the Presidential Security Command, the National Intelligence and Security Authority, and the Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, according to Bonifacio H. Gillego, a former Philippine military intelligence officer who met with Ramos and other top government officials earlier this month in Manila.

Gillego said that Ramos also has ordered the immediate recall of more than a dozen military and intelligence officers who worked under diplomatic cover or with false names at the Philippine Embassy in Washington and at consulates in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

“They will be recalled, they will be decommissioned and they will be systematically debriefed for information on their . . . activities,” said Gillego, who fled Manila and was granted political asylum in the United States in 1978.

One of the attaches being recalled was once cited by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, for allegedly torturing a naturalized American, Victor B. Lovely Jr., for his alleged part in a series of terrorist bombings in Manila in 1980. Lovely confessed but later recanted his confession.

Gillego, who is working for the Commission on Good Government, which was created by President Corazon Aquino to investigate corruption in the Marcos regime, said that Labor Department officials in Manila will review their files for reports on Viernes and Domingo, since the two had actively supported the fledgling Philippine labor movement.

Among the evidence cited in the suit growing out of the Seattle killings is a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency circular dated July 23, 1982, which reported the assignment of five military attaches, all with close ties to Marcos, to the Philippine Embassy in Washington.

“The attaches will undoubtedly report on, and possibly operate against, anti-Marcos Philippine activists in the U.S.,” the circular said.

Additional evidence obtained in the suit under the Freedom of Information Act indicates that the FBI investigated Marcos’ opponents in the United States. The FBI acknowledged having 1,300 documents on the Union of Democratic Filipinos, a leftist anti-Marcos organization in which both Domingo and Viernes were active.

According to routing slips, the FBI sent at least some of this material to the FBI legal attache in the U.S. Embassy in Manila, as well as to the CIA and Secret Service. The suit alleges that the information was then passed to Philippine intelligence officials.

“Information from the U.S. went very quickly to the Philippines,” said Gillego, who wrote an eight-page study last year of Marcos’ “spy network” in the United States. “The exchange of information was a quite common practice.”

FBI spokesman Bonner declined to comment on charges in the lawsuit. However, he added: “Do we coordinate and communicate with the CIA and other intelligence agencies? Absolutely. No question.”

On Monday, the Seattle lawyers took depositions for the first time from representatives of the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, U.S. Customs Service and other federal agencies. Most declined to answer questions or denied having any information on the case, Withey said.

Marcos was also subpoenaed in the case, but his lawyers have moved to quash the subpoena, arguing that he is immune from suit for actions taken as head of state. Marcos previously had denied any involvement in the case.

Anti-Marcos activists and exiles have long contended that Marcos agents harassed them and their organizations in the United States and threatened their families in the Philippines. Most of the charges have never been proved.

In a celebrated case, Raul S. Manglapus, a former foreign minister who later helped found the anti-Marcos Movement for a Free Philippines, said in August of 1983 that the Marcos government had plotted to kill him in the United States. The alleged plot was foiled, Manglapus said, when the intended assassin confessed to him.

In another case, Primitivo Mijares, a longtime Marcos confidant and press censor, testified on vote fraud and widespread corruption under Marcos before a House International Relations subcommittee in June of 1975. Mijares said that Marcos aides had offered him $100,000 not to testify, and deposited $50,000 for him in a San Francisco bank.

Not Bribe, but Subsidy

When the FBI investigated this alleged bribe of a congressional witness, Philippine officials said the money was not meant as a bribe but as a subsidy for Mijares to establish pro-Marcos newspapers in the United States. No charges were filed.

Mijares disappeared in January of 1977 after writing to friends from Honolulu that he was returning to Manila on a “daring sortie” with a Philippine consular official from Los Angeles. Several months later, Mijares’ 15-year-old son was found beaten and stabbed to death in Manila.

Gillego said the official who accompanied Mijares now works as a tax official in Batanga province. “I have requested records of cash advances given to him in Los Angeles,” Gillego said. “If he was assigned on a mission, he would be allotted more money than usual.”

In San Francisco, a prominent anti-Marcos activist, Steve Psinakis, said he was repeatedly followed and threatened in anonymous letters and phone calls in the 1970s. On Oct. 15, 1979, Psinakis said, a car moved alongside his and a man in the passenger seat pointed a gun at him.

“He literally touched my temple with the silencer,” Psinakis said. “He said: ‘This is the last warning. If you don’t quit, next time we’ll just pull the trigger.’ ”

Tires Cut, Windows Broken

Psinakis said his car insurance was canceled not long ago after tires were slashed and windows smashed on two of his cars and his son’s car in three separate incidents in December and January.

“I assume it was for my political involvement,” Psinakis said. He said no arrests have been made in connection with these incidents.

In New York, Willie Cornelio, executive director of the Movement for a Free Philippines, said that on Sept. 21, 1983, his home in Elmont, N.Y., was burglarized and his files ransacked while he was at an anti-Marcos rally outside the Philippine Consulate in New York City.

“I had been warned before about my activities, by Philippine government officials,” Cornelio, a chemical engineer, said. “This was their process of intimidation and selective terrorism.”

But it is the Seattle killings that have drawn the most interest, not the least because the tale is worthy of a mystery thriller--complete with union intrigue, remote Alaskan salmon canneries and shadowy Chinatown gangs called the Bandits, the Monkeys and Warts.

Viernes and Domingo are described by those who knew them as activists who were committed to social and political change. Both were from poor families, and both were college graduates. They met in the rough-and-tumble Alaskan canneries and cemented their friendship and their radical politics on anti-Marcos picket lines and protests in Seattle.

Charged Exploitation

Growing active in the cannery workers’ union, Seattle Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, they had sued three Alaskan fish canneries, charging discrimination against and exploitation of the immigrant Filipinos who worked long hours for low wages in the canneries.

Historically, Local 37 had provided work and a political focus for thousands of West Coast Filipinos. It had a history of violence and corruption. In December, 1980, Viernes and Domingo were elected to union office on a reform slate aimed at stopping union gambling, kickbacks and bribery.

“All the people in the reform movement were also active in the anti-Marcos movement,” Cindy Domingo, sister of the slain union officer, said.

In March, 1981, Viernes flew to Manila. According to Withey, the lawyer, he visited family members “to find his roots.” Traveling under an assumed name, he also met with members of a dissident labor group called the May First Movement and secretly visited leaders of the New People’s Army, the Communist guerrilla force then gaining strength in rural areas.

According to the lawsuit, U.S. intelligence agents reported to Marcos agents that Viernes was carrying $290,000 for the Communists. Withey declined to reveal the source of this report, but he said it was false.

“We don’t have any evidence that the U.S. knew Gene and Selmi were going to be killed,” Withey said. “All we know is that by giving the information that Gene was carrying $290,000, they signed his death warrant.”

After leaving the Philippines, Viernes met Domingo at an ILWU national convention in Honolulu. After a bitter floor fight, the two managed to win adoption of a mildly worded resolution to send a union team to investigate repressive labor conditions in the Philippines. Two months later Viernes and Domingo were killed.

The men Domingo named as he was dying were quickly arrested. Prosecutors argued that Viernes and Domingo were killed because they had disrupted lucrative gambling operations in the Alaskan canneries.

In two separate trials, three members of Seattle’s Tulisan or Bandits gang, one of several Chinatown street gangs known for their colorful tattoos, were convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

King County deputy prosecutor Joanne Maida told jurors that the Local 37 president, Constantine (Tony) Baruso, had “instructed” the killers and that they had used Baruso’s pistol. The state’s key witness testified that one of the killers told him Baruso had offered to pay $5,000 for the murders.

Taking the stand to swear his innocence, Tulisan gang leader Tony Dictado tearfully insisted that he could not disclose the identity of the real killers or their motive, “because my children would be killed in the Philippines.”

Baruso had been arrested a month after the shootings but was freed after the prosecution said it did not have enough evidence to charge him. In court, Baruso said the gun had been stolen from him, but he said little else. He pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination 140 times.

Questions about Marcos’ purported involvement did not come to light until after the trials. Baruso again was a key figure.

A beefy Filipino-American who headed Local 37 for six years, Baruso was a longtime Marcos supporter and Filipino community leader. On his office wall he proudly displayed a photo that showed him shaking hands with Marcos. Five months after the shootings, he flew to Manila to accept a citizenship award from Marcos, his second.

The Seattle suit alleges that Marcos used Baruso to stop the union activists’ pro-labor agitation in the Philippines.

According to an affidavit filed by Terri Mast, Domingo’s widow and Baruso’s successor as president of Local 37, Baruso met a Philippine military attache in San Francisco two weeks before the shootings. She said Baruso also telephoned the U.S. State Department three times in the 24 hours after the shootings and that “a discussion of these murders took place.”

In an interview, Mast said the calls were to the State Department’s Philippine Desk, but she declined to identify her sources. In his deposition, Baruso said he did not recall making the calls.

The diplomat who was then director of the Philippine Desk denied in a telephone interview that he knew Baruso or had spoken to him over the telephone.

“If he did call, it wasn’t ever recorded in our records,” said a State Department official who asked not to be identified by name.

The State Department official, as well as two other members of the Philippine desk, said that Viernes and Domingo were unlikely targets for political assassination. “Allegations about labor conditions were never considered a particularly incendiary topic,” said one. “These people would represent nothing in terms of political opposition.”

According to George Fisher, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI office in Seattle, an FBI investigation found no evidence that Viernes and Domingo were killed for anti-Marcos activities, “You have to go on the evidence, and nothing that we saw at the time would support it,” he said in a telephone interview.

Withey insists that new evidence will prove Marcos’ involvement. In a motion filed earlier this month, he asked a federal judge to order Dr. Leonilo Malabed, a wealthy San Francisco physician and longtime Marcos friend, to produce documents of a Bay Area corporation that may have been a conduit for Marcos government intelligence funds and activities. Malabed has denied allegations to this effect.

Withey has charged in a motion that alleged disbursements of $63,000 in Philippine government money by Malabed’s Mabuhay Corp. for “special security projects” coincided with Baruso’s 1981 visits to San Francisco. The disbursements were disclosed in documents Marcos took with him to Hawaii when he fled Manila on Feb. 25.

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial on April 7, 1987.