His resume was impressive: decorated U.S. Marine sergeant; aide to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney; FBI intelligence analyst. He bragged that he had attended meetings of the National Security Agency for Cheney, then briefed the vice president on what was said.
Leandro Aragoncillo, one of the highest-ranking Filipino Americans in the U.S. government, liked to say that what set Philippine employees apart was “our integrity and loyalty.” In his case, the question being asked is: loyalty to whom?
Aragoncillo, who had a top-secret security clearance, was arrested last month for allegedly taking classified documents from computers in Cheney’s office and the FBI and sending them to opposition leaders in the Philippines. The documents, primarily analyses of the Philippines’ political situation by U.S. Embassy officials here, do not appear to contain any important U.S. secrets. But the U.S. analyses have been embarrassing to some, especially President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
“Arroyo has always exhibited paranoia and the need to control every aspect of the Philippine economy and politics,” says one document dated July 16 and apparently written by the embassy’s then-No. 2, Joseph Mussomeli. “As time ticked out for her administration, it was clear the biggest problem was Arroyo herself.”
U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment on the documents or excerpts that have been published in the Philippine media.
Some Philippine officials who acknowledge receiving the documents wonder why Aragoncillo would have risked his career to steal material of this nature. The answer may lie in the crisis atmosphere in the Philippines, where the economy is deteriorating, the military is fighting Islamic and communist insurgencies, and the government has difficulty providing basic services.
Arroyo, who took power in 2001 with the backing of the military and “People Power” demonstrations, is under intense pressure to step down after the disclosure of evidence that she ordered an official in charge of last year’s presidential election to rig the vote count in her favor.
The president has suffered the defection of key supporters, including 10 members of her Cabinet and former President Corazon Aquino. However, Arroyo’s backers in Congress defeated an impeachment move last month and she refuses to resign. One excerpt from the allegedly stolen U.S. documents speaks of Arroyo’s “lingering illegitimate constitutional ascendancy to the presidency in 2001,” and says rumors of an impending military coup hang in the air.
Arroyo has alleged that Aragoncillo was spying as part of a plot to remove her from office.
Aragoncillo, who was born in the Philippines, is one of five siblings who migrated to the United States, relatives said. He obtained U.S. citizenship in 1991.
He retired from the Marine Corps last year after 21 years and took a job as an intelligence analyst with the FBI. He has been charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government or official and faces up to 25 years in prison. The inquiry is continuing.
When Arroyo visited the White House in 2003, Manila TV network ABS-CBN interviewed Aragoncillo and other high-ranking Filipino Americans.
Aragoncillo, then the head of Cheney’s security detail, talked about attending National Security Agency meetings and handling security clearances.
When he was asked what advice he would offer Filipinos aspiring to reach his position, he gave a hint of how his loyalties were changing and his concern for his homeland’s future. “I used to say, keep it clean,” he said. “Now I say, think of the kids.”
Among those who have said they received copies of documents from Aragoncillo is former President Joseph Estrada. He was forced from office in 2001 and has been in detention since, awaiting trial on corruption charges for allegedly receiving millions of dollars in illegal gambling proceeds.
In a telephone interview, Estrada said he first met Aragoncillo in 2000 on a visit to the White House. President Clinton introduced him to Filipinos working there, including Aragoncillo, who was then a Marine gunnery sergeant, he said.
Soon after his ouster, Estrada said, Aragoncillo visited him in custody. Estrada said that none of the documents he subsequently received from Aragoncillo was marked as classified.
“I know Leandro Aragoncillo,” Estrada said. “He is just very concerned about what is happening in the Philippines. He has done this in good faith.”
Another politician who has said he received some of the papers is Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who lost to Arroyo in last year’s election. Earlier, when Lacson served as national police chief, one of his top aides was Michael Ray Aquino, who also was arrested in the United States in the spying scandal.
Lacson said he had received some documents from Aquino by e-mail and that others were posted on a website forum where hundreds of people had access to them. The senator rejected suggestions that recipients of the documents could face criminal charges and said he had no knowledge of Aragoncillo being paid to spy on the U.S.
“If I was e-mailed information by Aragoncillo or anybody else, how could I be charged with conspiracy?” the senator asked.
Lacson finished a distant third behind Arroyo and Fernando Poe Jr., a close friend of Estrada’s. Poe died of a stroke soon afterward.
In June, more than a year after the election, Arroyo’s staff released a tape recording in which she apparently telephones election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano and directs him to make sure she wins by 1 million votes. The tape begins, “Hello Garci,” a phrase that became the most popular cellphone ring.
After weeks of ducking the issue, Arroyo apologized for “a lapse of judgment” in talking with an election commissioner but explained that she merely wanted to protect her votes.
A recent poll found that her approval rating had dropped to 19% and that 68% of the public favored her being impeached. Her office did not respond to a request for an interview.
“She is on day-to-day survival,” Estrada said. “I don’t believe she can last.”
With Poe’s death, the opposition lost its most visible leader and remains divided.
Estrada was no doubt buoyed by the assessment in the U.S. documents that he was a “viable opposition figure” and could be an alternative to Arroyo.
He contends that he should be reinstated as president, even though his original term expired last year. He says he would clean up the country, oversee drafting of a new constitution, hold new elections and then step down.
“We will have to have a transitional period of cleansing to put everything in order,” he said. “I will put everything in order in a year and a half.”
The turmoil in the Philippines has reached such a state that some military officers say they are willing to throw away their careers, like Aragoncillo, in the hope of bringing about change.
Several officers who support a coup slipped away from their bases one recent night to meet with a reporter and discuss their desire to overthrow Arroyo.
Under Arroyo’s administration, they charged, corruption has flourished at the highest levels of government while the people have become impoverished. They said they were prepared to use force to remove the president. In her place, they said, they would install a committee of respected officers and civilians who would rule until a new constitution could be drafted and democracy restored.
“We were hoping that Congress would do its job,” said one officer. “We were hoping that Arroyo would realize her mistake and step down, but now we have no option. She will not finish her term.”