At the height of President Corazon Aquino's celebrated trip to the United States last September, disgruntled members of the Philippine military secretly wiretapped international telephone conversations between the president and her executive secretary in Manila.
According to transcripts of those conversations released by Aquino's political opponents in Manila on Friday, the president and her top aides discussed direct interference in the drafting of the nation's new constitution by a 48-member body that Aquino had pledged would remain independent from her and her government.
The focus of the alleged interference was a key constitutional provision banning nuclear weapons on Philippine soil, a clause that could threaten America's two large military bases in the Philippines, according to the transcript.
Talk With Arroyo
At one point during the Sept. 19 conversation, Aquino, who has been accused both by leftists and rightists of being too close to the U.S. government, was overheard telling her executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, that she was concerned that the nuclear-free provision could endanger U.S.-Philippine relations and torpedo pending U.S. Senate approval of a proposed $200-million emergency aid appropriation for the Philippines.
"That is why I am calling up Soc (constitutional commission member Francisco Rodrigo)," Arroyo is quoted as telling the president in the transcript. "I will see him, in fact, tomorrow morning early, to tell him that these are the ramifications."
Aquino's reply: "Maybe they're not aware of that."
Three months earlier, when Aquino delivered her opening address to the constitutional commission she appointed to draft a replacement for a constitution that she had thrown out, the president pledged, "Nobody, not even I, your president, can interfere with or overrule you in this great task."
Deliberate Timing Seen
The release of the transcript Friday--10 days before the nation will vote on ratification of Aquino's new constitution--apparently was deliberately timed to subvert Aquino's vigorous pro-ratification campaign.
The document was released by opposition politician Homobono Adaza, who recently joined forces with ousted Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in campaigning against the charter.
But, as long ago as last October, military intelligence operatives loyal to Enrile privately told The Times that they had tapped the phones of Aquino's aides and that they had proof that the president had, indeed, interfered with the drafting of the constitution. However, they offered no such proof, saying they would release it when the time was right.
In addition, Francisco Tatad, a one-time Aquino supporter who also is now aligned with Enrile, "exposed" the contents of the transcript in his daily column in Friday's editions of the national newspaper Business Day.
"Mrs. Aquino's government did not simply appoint 48 men and women of independent minds and left them to do what they thought best for their fellow Filipinos," Tatad wrote, adding an appeal to the president to abort the Feb. 2 constitutional referendum.
In the end, Tatad conceded, neither Aquino nor her aides had made any direct impact on the nuclear-ban provision, which remains unchanged in the final draft of the proposed charter. "Instead of recalling the anti-nuclear provision, which would have created quite a scandal," he said, "the government simply entered into a secret deal with the United States government concerning the non-implementation of the provision."
At the time of the debate, the U.S. government was deeply concerned about the provision. It is similar to a policy in New Zealand that has led to barring all U.S. naval warships from New Zealand ports, because the Pentagon, as a matter of policy, refuses to say whether any of its vessels are carrying nuclear weapons.
According to the official record of the constitutional commission on Sept. 20, the day after Aquino's conversation with Arroyo, two pro-American commissioners did preside over a series of debates that led to a more liberal interpretation of the nuclear-free clause--an interpretation that would give Aquino ultimate power in its interpretation. But Tatad offered no evidence to indicate that a "secret deal" had been made.
U.S. Role Denied
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Manila flatly denied that the American government tried to influence the constitutional process in any way, and Fulgencio Factoran, Aquino's deputy executive secretary, told reporters Friday that it was obvious from the outcome that neither Aquino nor the U.S. government had interfered with the commission.
Aquino did not comment on the transcript. Arroyo and special presidential counsel Teodoro Locsin Jr., both of whom are among the president's closest confidants, declined to comment Friday, indicating that the government has no plans to answer the charges. But Factoran, Arroyo's deputy, said he could not deny the accuracy of the transcript.
Several details in the transcript appear to confirm its authenticity. The key conversation took place about noon--midnight Manila time--on Sept. 19, the day the constitutional commission approved the nuclear-free provision. Aides who talked with Arroyo before Aquino came to the phone said the president's party had just arrived at its New York hotel and that the group was about to leave for an important lunch.
Aquino did, in fact, arrive at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Manhattan shortly before noon Sept. 19 after a celebration in her honor hosted by New York City, state and Roman Catholic Church officials. Shortly after noon, Aquino had to rush to a luncheon with executives of Manufacturers Hanover bank.
Even the room numbers cited in the transcript conform to those where Aquino's party stayed on the 14th floor of the Inter-Continental.
Although the opposition figures fighting Aquino and her constitution have focused on elements of the conversation relating to the constitution, even more significant to political analysts here are attitudes expressed by Aquino and her aides toward the United States.
Throughout the conversation, Aquino's tone was one of deep concern over any prospective loss of the American bases, which have been a key rallying point for Communist rebels in their 18-year guerrilla war against the Philippine government. Officially, Aquino has said she is keeping her options open on the bases. At one point in the transcripts, though, her aide Locsin is quoted as saying the U.S. government was using him and the presidential staff as a conduit to influence the outcome of the constitutional commission's work.
In explaining to Aquino the impact of the nuclear-free provision, Arroyo is quoted as saying: "The Americans will not care to establish those bases or maintain those bases if there are no nuclear weapons, because there are nuclear weapons, they say, in Subic (Subic Bay Naval Base north of Manila). So it's sort of useless to maintain the bases if there are no nuclear weapons."
'Not Well Educated'
Aquino, obviously upset, replied, "How come they (the commission) agreed to the nuclear thing?"
"It is possible because of either of two things," Arroyo replied. "One, they are not very well educated on this question of the bases issue. . . . Or, number two, they sincerely believe that they're agreeable that the bases stay for our protection but not for the United States to store nuclear weapons. But who is America to maintain the bases. . . ."
Aquino: "If there are no nuclear weapons?"
Arroyo: "If there are no nuclear weapons."
Aquino: "Correct, yes, yes."
Arroyo: "That is why yesterday I was frantically calling Soc (Rodrigo), but I could call him up at the Batasan (the site of the commission debates) because it is bad."
Aquino: "You are right."
The president's comment, according to Adaza and others, showed she was aware that her executive secretary was violating her ban on contact between her government and the independent commissioners, but it also, they contend, indicated a tacit approval.
'This Guy Kaplan'
Moments later, the transcript indicated, Aquino actually expressed surprise that the American government itself was not interfering with the constitutional process.
"You know what I'm surprised with this guy Kaplan (Philip Kaplan, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Manila): Why didn't they (the Americans) say to these (commissioners), you know, to the people. . . ."
Arroyo: "Yes, apparently, really, these pro-bases people, they're not really controlled by the Americans. Because, otherwise, the Americans will instruct them."
But later in the conversation, after Aquino handed the phone over to special counsel Locsin, Arroyo is quoted in the transcript as saying, "Those guys there in the Concom who are perceived . . . to be pro-American are not really part of the--or being dictated by--the Americans. Because how could they not vote--it was unanimous."
Locsin: "No, they're not. They're doing it to us, through me."
Locsin: "Any influence Americans try to exert on them is done through . . . through us."
And later, Locsin is quoted as asking Arroyo, "In practical terms, is it possible to undo this vote?"
No 'Clear Signals'
"Yes, yes," Arroyo replied, according to the transcript. "But the whole problem is that . . . they have not gotten clear signals from the president. I mean, they do not even believe that what we say is what the president says."
The statement not only appeared to clear Aquino of any previous direct interference in the writing of the constitution, but it also raised questions about the fundamental way Aquino's government functions.
Rather than contact Commissioner Rodrigo directly, Arroyo recommended in a later conversation that the president personally contact Rodrigo's son in New York and ask his son to telephone Rodrigo with the president's message.
Although Adaza, who supported Aquino during last year's elections but has since joined Enrile's opposition forces, did not disclose the source of the transcript or divulge the identities of the wiretappers, he did give reporters a cover letter addressed to him dated Jan. 14 from a previously unknown group called the Vigilantes for Democracy.
"We have kept this tape for a long time hoping to bring it out at some opportune moment through a credible national figure," the letter to Adaza stated. "We are already tired of the deceit, misrepresentation and moral decay of this Aquino administration.
"Should there be need for the original of this tape later, please let us know."