NSA chief: Aquino knew Espina out of the loop
MANILA, Philippines – Before President Benigno Aquino III was briefed by police officials on a secret operation to neutralize two top terrorists, he was told by his national security adviser that the acting chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) seemed out of the loop in the plan.
During a House of Representatives hearing on “Oplan Exodus” on Wednesday, April 8, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, Jr. said he told the President that PNP officer-in-charge Police Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina was not told of a planned attempt to neutralize Malaysian terrorist and Jemaah Islamiyah member Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan."
Garcia said: "Sometime on January 8, we had another of our meetings in Malacañang in preparation for the papal visit and that was the time that I learned that another attempt was going to be made against Marwan and I learned as well from various sources that OIC General Espina… it was my assesment that he was not in the loop as well. I sought an audience with the President and I told him: Mr President, I think OIC General Espina is not in the loop in the hunt against Marwan. And the President expressed surprise and asked me why. I could not answer the President because I did not know the answer."
“Immediately after, the President said: Okay, I will remind them,” Garcia added.
“Oplan Exodus” is a January 25 PNP Special Action Force (SAF)-led operation that resulted in the death of 67, including 44 of the SAF’s own men.
Espina, government officials, and top military officers were kept in the dark in the operation.
Bahay Pangarap meeting
Aquino was briefed on “Oplan Exodus” on January 9 at Bahay Pangarap, his official residence. Police officials in the meeting included now-resigned PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, sacked SAF chief Police Director Getulio Napeñas, and PNP Intelligence Group head Chief Superintendent Fernando Mendez.
Espina was not in the briefing.
Purisima then was serving a suspension order over a graft case and should not have been involved in any PNP operation.
At the end of the briefing, Aquino said he reminded the police officials to inform Espina and to coordinate with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Aquino and Purisima, a close friend of his, met privately in the President’s music room. After Aquino and Purisima’s huddle, the suspended police general supposedly told Napeñas not to tell Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II and Espina.
Purisima also told Napeñas he would take care of informing AFP chief of staff General Gregorio Catapang, Jr. (READ: Why Roxas, Espina out of loop? ‘Operational safety’ – Purisima)
In the end, the SAF decided to coordinate with the military “time on target,” or only after the SAF troopers had neutralized Marwan and were already in trouble. As they were attempting to exit the area, they encountered fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and private armed groups.
Espina only found out about the operation at the same time.
Threats against the Pope
Garcia said he heard about what would eventually be dubbed “Oplan Exodus” on January 8, during a meeting to prepare for the Pope’s security.
Prior to that, the Philippines’ intelligence community pinpointed the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Marwan and Filipino bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman as threats to the Pope.
They were worried that terrorist organizations such as ISIS would tap the 4 as a means to threaten the Pope.
“We recommended aggressive operations against [the 4],” said Garcia, who noted several ongoing operations against the 4 were being held simultaneously.
Between two SAF-led operations against Marwan – “Terminator 1” and “Terminator 2” – Purisima was suspended by the Ombudsman.
“That was the time when the leadership of the PNP was transitioning to the OIC,” said Garcia.
Purisima’s suspension and the appointment of Espina as OIC led to “confusion” in the police force, several police officials earlier told Rappler. Although Purisima was suspended, he still had sway over the police force, even holding meetings with his inner circle. (READ: Crisis before Mamasapano: A tale of 2 PNP chiefs)
Up until Purisima’s resignation in the aftermath of “Oplan Exodus,” factions prevailed in the PNP – those who sided with Purisima, those who heeded to Espina’s authority, and those who chose not to pick sides.
Aquino has been criticized for his involvement in the operation.
The PNP’s Board of Inquiry, formed to probe the bungled operation, said the President “allowed” the participation of Purisima despite his suspension, breaking the PNP chain of command along the way.
He has also been accused of not going enough for the beleaguered SAF troopers, supposedly giving more importance to the peace process with the MILF.
The President, however, insists he was not given the right information the morning of January 25, and that the police officials involved in the operation did not follow his explicit orders. – Rappler.com