DICT's P800-M confidential funds: 2nd biggest in 2020 budget


MANILA, Philippines – A 4-year-old department mandated to craft and coordinate government's policy on information and communications technology as well as cybersecurity, received the second biggest confidential funds budget for 2020, next only to the Office of the President.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), headed by ex-senator, retired colonel, and former coup plotter Gregorio Honasan, was allotted in 2020 a staggering P800-million budget in confidential funds, which, as defined by government, are used for "surveillance activities in civilian government agencies that are intended to support the mandate or operations of the said agency."

This amount is double DICT's confidential funds allotment of P400 million in 2019, P300 million of which was disbursed by Honasan via cash advances that the Commission on Audit (COA) deemed questionable.

DICT's confidential fund allocation in the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA) is even bigger than the confidential funds of the government's anti-drug operating arm, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency or PDEA, which was allocated P500 million, and second only to the Office of the President (OP), which received P2.25 billion.

For perspective, DICT's confidential funds this year is nearly as big as the intelligence funds given to the Philippine National Police (PNP) for the same period: P867.93 million.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, who supervises the police and local communities, only has P80 million in confidential funds compared to Honasan's P800 million.

The DICT's confidential funds were attached specifically to the Office of the Secretary, which, based on the Department of Budget and Management's staffing summary, was given a plantilla of 2,463 permanent positions. As of this year, only 838 of those positions have been filled. 

Ironically, when the 2020 National Expenditure Program (NEP) was first drafted and sent to Congress, DICT had zero confidential funds allocation.

Why it matters. The DICT has been under fire over allegations by resigned undersecretary Eliseo Rio Jr that Honasan excluded him from the decision to disburse the agency's 2019 confidential funds in an apparent rushed job – 3 tranches of P100 million each in the last quarter of last year.

Rio described as "deceiving and unbelievable" Honasan's justification for the use of the funds for supposed surveillance due to cybersecurity threats. He argued that it was "not within DICT's mandate" to conduct intelligence or surveillance activities. (READ: Are Duterte's multi-million-peso intel funds achieving their purpose?)

Yet on Friday, February 7, Rio and Honasan issued a joint statement that said all is well between them. 

Transition issues. The two men both served in the military. In 2017, then-DICT undersecretary Rio was touted to replace Rodolfo Salalima, who offered to quit as DICT secretary in September that year. 

But Rio remained as mere acting secretary, as President Rodrigo Duterte eyed Honasan, then senator, to head the department. Honasan was appointed secretary of the department in November 2018; the DICT got its first taste of confidential funds in its budget the year after.

According to its website, the DICT's mandate is to be "the primary policy, planning, coordinating, implementing, and administrative entity of the Executive Branch of the government that will plan, develop, and promote the national ICT development agenda."

Part of its powers and functions is "cybersecurity policy and program coordination," which involves, among others:

Other agencies with confidential funds

Including the DICT, a total of 27 agencies got a share of the P4.57 billion confidential funds in the approved 2020 budget.

Government rules specify that confidential funds can be used only for confidential projects and operations "relevant to the national security and peace and order" and activities to uncover or prevent illegal activities "that pose a clear and present danger to agency personnel or property" done in coordination with law enforcement agencies."

For 2020, at least 8 of 23 Cabinet departments and agencies, including DICT, have confidential funds attached to the Office of the Secretary (OSec). 

Others that got over P100 million in confidential funds are two offices under the Department of Justice: the Office of the Justice Secretary (P193 million) and the National Bureau of Investigation (P175.4 million).

Newcomers

Some agencies were allotted confidential funds in the GAA for the first time at least since 2000, based on readily available budget data:

(Editor's note: In the 2005 GAA, the funds were lumped together in the "Confidential, Intelligence, Extraordinary and Misc" item, but without a breakdown for each expenditure. This applies to all agencies in that GAA.)

Besides DICT and the 3 agencies that received confidential funds for the first time in 2020, another agency without allocation for these funds in the proposed budget but later received one in the approved GAA was the National Security Council (NSC), with P100 million. In 2019, it got P46 million.

Intelligence funds 

Meanwhile, several departments and agencies were allotted intelligence funds. These are for "intelligence information-gathering activities of uniformed and military personnel and [of] intelligence practitioners that have direct impact [on] national security."

The money can be used by uniformed and military personnel and intelligence practitioners only for intelligence and counter-intelligence activities "that have a direct impact on national security." It can likewise be used for special operations and peace and order programs involving intelligence activities to combat lawlessness and lawless elements. (EXPLAINER: Office of the President's confidential, intel funds

A combined P5.05 billion in intelligence funds were allotted to 9 agencies in the 2020 budget.

The Office of the President got nearly half of the total: P2.25 billion. 

It is followed by the General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP-GHQ) with P1.19 billion, and the Philippine National Police with P868 million.

Many branches of the AFP also got intelligence funds: the Philippine Army with P444 million, the Philippine Navy with P39.749 million, and the Philippine Air Force with P17 million.

Finally, the Philippine Coast Guard under the Department of Transportation got the same P10 million intel funds as in previous years. 

Among the agencies, the AFP-GHQ and the PNP were the only ones with less intelligence funds in 2020 versus 2019, while the OP and the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) got increases. 

Due to the nature of these allotments and their impact on national security, confidential and intelligence funds are difficult to audit. The specific uses of these funds are also not disclosed to the public. – Rappler.com

Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.

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