MANILA, Philippines – It was a surprising response from the President, a tell-all of sorts when he was asked about what went wrong in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, on January 25.
On Monday, March 9, at a prayer gathering with Christian allies in Malacañang, President Benigno Aquino III took 30 minutes to answer the question, wherein he blamed sacked Special Action Force (SAF) commander Getulio Napeñas for "Oplan Exodus," the deadly operation targeting top terrorists, that killed at least 65 people including 44 SAF troopers due to resulting clashes with Moro rebels.
But in his response, Aquino also admitted to doing various things that raise questions on what could have been done better. Some of the confessions he made Monday also contradict his earlier statements.
1. Purisima was Aquino’s link to the operation
For the first time, the President admitted that he was getting updates from former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Alan Purisima regarding the operation – this, despite his suspension for graft charges at the time. Aquino's admission is also a direct contradiction to what he earlier said when he delivered his first national address on the incident.
Asked on January 28 about Purisima's role in the operation, Aquino said Purisima was no longer involved after his suspension, and was just there to explain details to him.
“If at all, baka 'yung jargon tinutulungan ako ni General Purisima to understand it. But he was involved 'yung up to the point in time, directly, that he was ordered suspended by the Ombudsman. Tapos after that, if at all, 'yung siya ang very knowledgeable about the whole thing; ipinapaliwanag sa akin 'yung intricacies of what the plan being presented to me was,” he said.
(If at all, maybe just jargon – General Purisima was helping me to understand it. But he was involved up to the point in time, directly, that he was ordered suspended by the Ombudsman. Then after that, if at all, he was very knowledgeable about the whole thing; he was explaining the intricacies of what the plan being presented to me was.)
But on Monday, Aquino said: “It was through him (Purisima) that I had been communicating since the beginning, the messages of the SAF director. I was not talking to the SAF director directly, since the beginning.”
He added that text messages sent to him by Purisima on the morning of the operation said, “Marwan was reached, neturalized, there was a firefight when they were already withdrawing. At the end of our exchange, I asked, because the text said 15-20 people were attacking our force, so my question to him was: we sent 160 people, there’s support from the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and the PNP (Philippine National Police), why would the 160 retreat if they’re fighting only 15-20?"
While text messages of their exchange had earlier been released, it was not until Monday that the President finally admitted that Purisima was his point-person throughout the operation, even asking him questions about details of the incident – way beyond the jargon he initially said he consulted Purisima about.
2. Aquino was not awake when the first reports came in
The President said he was told that the operation would take place at some point between January 23 and 26.
Yet despite the significance of Oplan Exodus – one of the most important missions of the SAF during his presidency since it targeted most wanted terrorists, Malaysian bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir and Abdul Basit Usman – Aquino admitted he was not awake when the first text messages came in.
“When I first received the text, it’s still here on my cellphone, it was sent at 5:45 (am) – I will admit, my phone was off. I got up at 7 more or less and opened it, I responded at about 7:30 or so,” he said.
“Now what did I know about it? There were several operations that were aborted for one reason or another, then I was told this (would happen) from January 23 to 26. Then suddenly, on the morning of January 25, I got this text.”
The text from Purisima said “SAF elements implemented Oplan against high value targets” and that “the troopers are now in withdrawal phase and progress report to follow.”
It took nearly 2 hours for the President to respond, precious time that could have been used to clarify details or act accordingly.
Aquino replied at 7:36 am, according to records. He turned off his phone before sleeping that night despite, by his own admission, knowing the deployment was originally planned to take place at about 2:30 am.
3. Aquino didn’t ask for details on the operation
Speaking about the planning stages, the President admitted that when the plans were presented to him, he did not ask Napeñas about some details.
“When the plan was presented to me, of course, I did not ask for all the details like ‘What is the actual route they will take? How many will take that route?’,” he said.
“There’s something in government called presumption of regularity.’ When speaking to an expert, I should not teach him. For instance, someone already on college level, I won’t ask to recite the ABCs, right? So in that presentation it seemed that everything was well thought of.”
He added that the only thing he was not happy with was the original plan to deploy only 160 when there would potentially be 3,000 to 4,000 Moro rebels in the area. His input led to Napeñas deploying more than 300 commandos.
4. Aquino approved the operation
Aquino said that had he known from the beginning what Napeñas would do, he would not have approved the operation.
However, this is the first time that he acknowledged giving approval for "Oplan Exodus."
Asked on January 28 several times to give a categorical yes or no on whether he approved the attack, Aquino evaded the question.
"'Sir, can we proceed with the mission?' I don't think I was ever asked that question," the President said on January 28. "Isn't that a rhetorical question?"
On Monday, he said, “The bottom line is, if I knew this is what he would do from the start, I would’ve said no this mission. What could’ve been a successful mission, with the plan he made, it became mission impossible,” he said.
Aquino was referring to the several times that he said Napeñas could have aborted the mission, when conditions and events were not going according to plan.
He also said Napeñas was not completely honest with him, adding that he did not know the battlefield completely, because in the picture shown to him, “it looked like there were thick trees” or “cultivated land,” which would offer protection or a hiding spot.
On the day of the incident, however, it was clear Aquino knew the terrain was flat. Text messages showed Aquino telling Purisima: “The terrain is flat and clear as opposed to upland forested or jungle terrain. Why could they not contain and or overwhelm 15 to 20 members of opposing force?”
5. Aquino thought the operation was over in the morning
The President admitted that after the first text messages came in from Purisima, and PNP Officer-in-Charge Leonardo Espina who was receiving updates from Napeñas, he thought the operation was done – a judgment that affected his actions and the pace of response.
“If you put together the two texts, and they responded ‘yes sir’ to me, me, as Commander-in-Chief, if I am told by my subordinate that he would follow my order – and there was an incident in 2013 that the coordination was right and nothing went wrong with our troops – I thought the incident was done,” he said.
“When I got to Zamboanga City, that’s where it became clear that barely anyone knew. It became clear there was no coordination. Where exactly are those we are helping?”
But on February 24, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas testified in a Senate hearing, that the President already knew that fighting was ongoing even before going to Zamboanga.
“There was heavy firefight and some troops suffered casualties. Extraction ongoing and support from the AFP was requested,” Roxas quoted Napeñas’s text message.
Roxas said, “Shortly after, I forwarded the same message to the President at 8:09 am. I added on top of it, ‘Sir (meaning to the President), just received this and getting more details.’”
Aquino did not arrive in Zamboanga until 10:30am. Published text messages show Aquino no longer texted Purisima after his final text at 10:16 am, wherein the President told him that “Basit should not get away.” – Rappler.com