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MANILA, Philippines – Are the country’s top security officials and generals incompetent or are they covering up for President Benigno Aquino III?
Senators vow to pursue the answer to this question, expressing disbelief that the Cabinet security cluster could not say who and when Aquino was informed about the deadly Mamasapano clash on January 25.
Senate public order committee chair Grace Poe was skeptical of the silence of Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang Jr, and Philippine National Police (PNP) Officer in Charge Leonardo Espina when the question was asked during the Senate hearing on Thursday, February 12. Watch the video here:
Roxas, Gazmin, and Catapang were with the President in Zamboanga on the day of the encounter for a security briefing on a bomb explosion two days ago. (READ: 3 questions on Aquino’s Jan25 Zamboanga trip)
“For such an important incident, they cannot remember when they told the President,” said Poe. “It’s not a good sign that the security cluster that was with the President acted that way. Granting they cannot recall when they told him or they told him but only late in the day, isn’t that a sign of incompetence?”
The supposedly ill-prepared mission to arrest or kill Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan in Mamasapano, Maguindanao killed 44 elite cops, 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and 3 civilians.
The clash is the biggest security controversy to hit Aquino, and threatens to spoil the peace process with the MILF after 17 years of negotiations.
Aquino admitted to knowing of the operation beforehand but even after 4 congressional hearings on the issue this week, details of the commander-in-chief’s involvement remain scarce.
The President told Special Action Force (SAF) troopers that he knew as early as the morning of January 25 that their fellow commandos killed Marwan, but Western Mindanao Command chief Lt General Rustico Guerrero said the President ordered the AFP to send help only at around 5 pm.
Poe said the silence of the security officials was damning.
“That even their very contribution to their respective positions and responsibilities isn’t exactly valuable at this point. If that is the case, how could they even do their jobs? Definitely, one of them – in fact all of them – should have informed the President,” Poe said on Friday, February 13.
Senator Nancy Binay shares her view, saying the behavior of the security cluster “borders on neglect of duty at the least.”
For Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the officials’ silence smacked of a cover-up.
Marcos said by answering the question, the Cabinet secretary and generals will also have to respond to the “obvious follow-up question” on Aquino’s actions upon learning of the developments.
“We have to find out what the instructions of the President were because there were reports that the instruction was for the AFP to exert best efforts only (in helping the SAF men). That’s a pity if it was only best efforts,” Marcos said.
Marcos reiterated his stance that the military should have used air and artillery assets to reinforce the SAF troopers.
Catapang repeatedly said this was not an option because it would have compromised the peace process, and the military lacked information on the specific location of the policemen. The police blamed the military‘s delayed response for its heavy death toll.
The senator suspects it was Aquino’s close friend and shooting buddy, then suspended police chief Alan Purisima who informed Aquino. Marcos said Purisima’s invoking executive privilege was telling.
In the Thursday hearing, Purisima said that he has to ask for clearance to answer Poe’s question.
“If he will only say he was not the one who reported to the President, then why ask for clearance? I think it was him. It might be him. That’s why as early as morning, the President had the news. Now, we need to know what instructions the President gave. If he only said, ‘best efforts,’ then what a pity for our policemen,” Marcos said.
Purisima is a central figure in the investigation as he admitted that he provided intelligence on Marwan’s whereabouts, talked to the President, and attended meetings to plan the operation even while he was suspended over corruption charges.
Further implicating him is his instruction to now relieved SAF commander Getulio Napeñas not to inform Roxas, Espina and Catapang of the operation before the operation began. Purisima downplayed this as an “advice,” not an order.
Did Purisima promise reinforcements?
Poe said there is only one executive session remaining, but her committee can hold another private meeting or even a public hearing, depending on Purisima’s response.
The senator said Purisima has more questions to answer, particularly what he meant by telling Napeñas, “Huwag mo munang sabihan ‘yung dalawa (Espina and Roxas), saka na ‘pag nandoon na. Ako na bahala kay General Catapang.” (Don’t inform the two yet, just tell them when the troops are in the area. I’ll tell General Catapang myself.)
Poe said what “bothers” her is Napeñas could have interpreted the statement as an assurance that Purisima will coordinate with Catapang to send reinforcements for the SAF troopers.
“If he gave his entire trust to General Purisima thinking that there was really a back-up, then that spells a difference also on the responsibility that Napeñas should admit to. He should not accept the blame for everything if he was made to understand that there would be reinforcements,” she said.
Poe said the committee will decide on what information to divulge from the executive session with the SAF survivors. She added that except for their identities, the details should be publicly known.
As for Purisima, Poe said senators will assess any request to keep his testimony on Aquino confidential as there are criteria that must be met.
“I know that [executive privilege] is usually with the President and his Cabinet members. This is another gray area that we need to discuss. To what extent does the privilege of the executive actually extend? Does it extend if the President is talking to individuals?” – Rappler.com