Working out of a second-floor office in an ultramodern building in Makati, a suburb of Manila, a mysterious American group has spent the past several months acquiring walkie-talkies, metal detectors, computers and some of the most advanced office equipment in the Philippines.
A brass sign outside the office provides few clues to what goes on within. "Restricted Area," it cautions.
But in the past few weeks, this shadowy group has become the focus of controversy. Its presence here has touched off suspicion among Western diplomats and Philippine government officials and, on Tuesday, drew the ire of Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces.
The key figure in this operation is John K. Singlaub, a retired U.S. Army major general who heads the U.S. Council for World Freedom and has been the most visible private fund-raiser for the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan guerrillas, the contras. He began setting up a private corporation in the Philippines last November, but his reasons for being here are not at all clear.
In Manila, a wide-open city where rumors are many and facts are few, the retired general has been accused of everything from interfering in the government of President Corazon Aquino to hiring Vietnam War veterans to train a contra-style force to fight Communist insurgents in the Philippines.
As Singlaub himself tells it, he and his men are here on a treasure hunt, digging in the jungle for the legendary lost booty of a Japanese general.
Yet last October, Singlaub told The Times that his next goal was to help finance, organize and arm anti-Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia, specifically in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Since then, Singlaub has spent much of his time in the Philippines. He has met with top officials of the Aquino government and forged close alliances with a handful of the president's top personal aides, among them the head of her civilian intelligence agency.
He has obtained government permits and has begun hunting for treasure that is said to have been left behind by the Japanese general who commanded the World War II occupation force.
And he has been meeting with opposition political leaders, most of them affiliated with an international anti-Communist group that Singlaub has headed in the 10 years since President Jimmy Carter removed him as chief of staff of U.S. forces in South Korea.
Among these opposition leaders are politicians and technocrats close to deposed President Ferdinand E. Marcos, and this has given rise to widespread speculation in the local press that Singlaub was somehow involved in a recent uprising by soldiers still loyal to Marcos.
Clearly, Singlaub has established links to members of the former regime. The Technology Center, the building where Singlaub set up his offices, is owned by Raymond Moreno, a business partner of Gen. Fabian C. Ver, who was Marcos' military chief of staff. Ver and Moreno have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Virginia investigating possible misuse of U.S. military aid to the Philippines.
Singlaub's public relations director is also the public information officer of Marcos' political party, the New Society Movement.
'Finished His Work'
Ady Sison, one of the Philippines' most prominent political public relations figures, said Singlaub has left the Philippines and will not return. "He has finished his work here, and he won't be coming back."
Asked what Singlaub's "work" here was, Sison quickly added, "Treasure hunting."
However, there is little evidence to support recent reports that Singlaub has been working with the Philippine military, officially or unofficially, to recruit mercenaries and train a counterinsurgency force. The military went out of its way Tuesday to deny the charge, and it stopped just short of calling for an investigation into Singlaub's activities.
"A lot of baloney," Gen. Ramos said, responding to charges in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Singlaub is behind a covert operation to provide counterinsurgency training to the Philippine military.
The military, Ramos told reporters at an army camp south of Manila, "has nothing to do with Gen. Singlaub."
He added: "He had nothing to do with us before. He has nothing to do with us now, and he will have nothing to do with us in the future. We are not his sponsor. We do not know why he is here. We don't want him, and we don't need him.
"We are capable enough of training our own people in regard to counterinsurgency. I do not think that any Westerner can teach us about the Philippine jungle, the Philippine environment and the Philippine guerrillas that we are fighting."
Pressed to explain why Singlaub is allowed to remain in the Philippines, Ramos referred the questioner to civilian officials and to the U.S. Embassy.
U.S. Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth and U.S. intelligence sources deny that either Singlaub or his activities are in any way connected with the U.S. government or its policies in the Philippines.
'Private American Citizens'
Bosworth, asked last December about the activities of Singlaub and his group, said: "They are private American citizens. . . . They are free to travel wherever they wish and talk to anyone they wish, but they are not representing the American government in any way."
In the last few days, senior U.S. diplomats have gone even further in the effort to distance the U.S. government from Singlaub.
"There is no way," one said, "that the U.S. government would have anything to do with that guy. He's way too hot."
This official referred to Singlaub's public boast that he helped funnel millions of dollars in private funds to the Nicaraguan contras with the personal blessing of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who at the time was on the staff of the National Security Council.
"Right now," a Western military source said, "everyone I know wishes that Gen. Singlaub would just quietly get the hell out of here."
Singlaub, who goes about Manila accompanied by bodyguards and reportedly wears a bulletproof vest, has made an extraordinary effort to avoid publicity. He could not be reached for comment, and his aides said he was in Hong Kong.
In a brief interview with The Times in December, Singlaub said his activities in the Philippines focused on "exploration, mining." Asked whether that included the treasure of Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese general, Singlaub nodded and said, "We are trying to build up the resources of this poor country so it can effectively combat the Communist threat and keep democracy alive."
Singlaub has evidently won sympathy for his cause in high places in the Philippine government. Although top Philippine officials deny reports that Singlaub has been involved in counterinsurgency training or logistics, several confirm that they have met with him on several occasions and said they support his treasure hunt.
Teodoro Locsin Jr., special counsel to President Aquino, has been described by other members of her Cabinet as "Singlaub's main man" in the presidential palace.
They confirm that Locsin helped Singlaub obtain government clearance and permits to dig for treasure in remote areas north of Manila.
Singlaub has also built on a longstanding personal friendship with Aquino's chief of civilian intelligence, retired Gen. Luis Villareal, who has headed the Philippine chapter of the right-wing World Anti-Communist League, which Singlaub headed in 1985 and 1986. Villareal, still active in the international anti-Communist movement, is now the director of the National Intelligence Coordinating Authority, roughly equivalent to the CIA.
Villareal confirms his relationship with Singlaub and says he has met with him several times since Singlaub's arrival here. But Villareal insists that Singlaub's activities have been confined to treasure hunting.
Nevertheless, at his press conference Tuesday, Gen. Ramos said it is Villareal who is chiefly responsible for monitoring Singlaub's activities here. If Singlaub violates Philippine law, he said, it will be up to Villareal to recommend criminal charges or deportation.
"Any foreigners who come here to fight our wars are subject to our penal code because they may be doing something illegal," Ramos said. "In the first place, would you allow any foreigners to come here and say they are here to fight in place of the armed forces of the Philippines, to take care of our internal problems?
'A Sad Mistake'
"I don't think we should allow that. That would be a sad mistake on their part. Such things as bringing in firearms, for instance, for training--that would be illegal."
Sources in Manila with ties to the international intelligence community and to black-market arms merchants have hinted broadly that Singlaub's operation includes importing firearms for the Philippine counterinsurgency effort.
Singlaub and his aides have denied the charge, but Singlaub has said in recent interviews that among other contributions to the Nicaraguan contras, he helped assemble a small air force to combat the Sandinista government and helped procure, on the international market, aircraft and a large weapons arsenal that included surface-to-air missiles.
In the Philippines, such activity would require the approval of the Philippine Constabulary, a branch of the armed forces headed by one of Ramos' top aides, Gen. Renato De Villa.
"Candidly and very frankly, I can tell you nothing has come across my desk," De Villa told The Times on Tuesday. "But I do not know what goes on over my head."
According to military intelligence agents loyal to Gen. Ramos, Singlaub has had at least one meeting with President Aquino's powerful younger brother, Jose (Peping) Cojuangco.
According to these agents--and Western diplomatic sources--Singlaub requested and was granted armed security and protection for his treasure-hunting operations by Cojuangco in exchange for pledging at least 70% of whatever is found to the Philippine government.
Cojuangco has said privately that he favors an expanded counterinsurgency program that would include the arming and training of civilian counterinsurgency groups. Several such groups have appeared in recent weeks.
Singlaub, who was deputy chief of the CIA's mission in Seoul during the Korean War, is considered an expert on counterinsurgency and special operations. He commanded the Special Operations Group in Vietnam and has continued to argue that the key to counterinsurgency is creating small militia groups that can defeat Communist guerrillas by acting like guerrillas themselves.
Cojuangco denied Tuesday that he had met with Singlaub. He told reporters that he does not even know Singlaub and added that he had only heard rumors that the retired general was here to hunt for Yamashita's treasure.
Other government officials, who asked not to be identified by name, were more forthcoming. An aide to the president said that the right-wing faction in Aquino's coalition government welcomed Singlaub because "he's a rabid anti-Communist, and that's a good thing to be."
This official added that he believes that Yamashita's treasure exists and that the search for it is Singlaub's sole reason for being here. As for reports about mercenaries and gunrunning, he said: "It's all rumors. It's part of a rumor mill in the armed forces to show that (Marcos) loyalism and Enrile-ism is not dead."
This was a reference to Juan Ponce Enrile, the former defense minister who has become the leader of the right-wing political opposition since Aquino dismissed him last November amid rumors that soldiers loyal to him were plotting a coup.
Enrile has confirmed that he met twice with Singlaub--a courtesy call and a meeting to discuss security for Singlaub's treasure-hunting sites. Enrile owns a large private security company with personnel nationwide.
As for the rumors about illegal activities, Enrile said, laughing: "That would be pure speculation on my part. I have no idea why Gen. Singlaub is really here. I'm not sure anyone does."
To many Filipinos, the Yamashita treasure story seems plausible. Singlaub is only one of many people the Aquino government has authorized in the past year to search for what some experts think could be hundreds of billions of dollars worth of gold, jade, ivory and gems in sunken ships and ceremonial burial sites throughout the country.
But many Philippine military commanders who know Singlaub have broken into smiles and laughter when asked about the treasure hunt.
"It's just got to be a cover for something else," one said.
In contrast to the seriousness with which Gen. Ramos and other officials appear to be taking the Singlaub affair, newspaper columnists and satirists have been treating the episode lightheartedly. On the most popular evening soap opera, a character who plays a fervently nationalist but senile grandfather reacts violently every time the CIA is mentioned.
"Ach!" he sputters. "CIA . . . Singlaub! CIA . . . Singlaub!"
Mostly, though, Filipinos are puzzled. Political commentator Hilarion Henares wrote a recent column headlined "What's General Singlaub Doing?" And at the end of a long diatribe against the presence of the retired general, he asked, "What is going on here, anyway?"