A Philippine-born FBI intelligence analyst charged with passing classified information to Filipino officials may have done so out of deep love for his homeland and should be treated leniently, former President Joseph Estrada said Wednesday.
Washington is investigating FBI analyst Leandro Aragoncillo and has invoked its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Manila to get dossiers on a number of Filipinos who might have received information from him, according to a Philippine investigator.
“His only fault was for being overly concerned about his relatives and fellow Filipinos,” said Estrada, who acknowledged receiving information from Aragoncillo by e-mail last year.
“Even if he was already at the FBI and a naturalized American, he still has a Filipino heart,” Estrada told The Associated Press by telephone.
Estrada, toppled in massive street protests in 2001 and held under house arrest on charges of plunder, said he did not think that Aragoncillo passed on classified information for money. When they met in Manila while he was still in power, Aragoncillo never asked for anything, Estrada said.
Payment was ‘two dinners’
“The only thing I gave him were two dinners, one in Malacanang (the presidential palace) and another in a hospital, where I was confined. Nothing else,” he said.
Aragoncillo, 47, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991. He served 21 years in the Marines and worked at the White House on the security detail for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney between 1999 and 2002 before joining the FBI as a civilian intelligence analyst at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
He is not charged with espionage, which carries a maximum penalty of capital punishment, as plea discussions continue. Instead, he’s charged in court papers with conspiring to reveal government secrets, acting as a foreign agent and improperly using FBI computers. Those charges carry a maximum of 25 years.
While the scandal has shocked the FBI and the White House, Estrada said he did not regard it as espionage because the materials sent were political developments widely reported in local newspapers, such as popularity surveys and unflattering accusations against top politicians.
“I don’t believe the guy sent those materials in bad faith,” Estrada said. “What’s spying there when there was nothing new in the downloaded materials? Everybody knew the contents. ... I read them in newspapers.”
Aragoncillo at one point urged him not to divulge to others information that he was passing on, Estrada said, but added that it appeared to have been out of his penchant for privacy and not to conceal anything criminal.
Asked if U.S. authorities should treat Aragoncillo with leniency, Estrada replied: “I believe so. If I can only tell U.S. authorities, the guy has nothing.”
Info focused on rival
At the height of the scandal last year, a Philippine newspaper ran a series of reports based on what it said were copies of some of the alleged confidential files Aragoncillo purportedly obtained illegally and shared with others — mostly critical assessments of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has faced vote-rigging and corruption allegations, Vice President Noli de Castro and Estrada himself.
Arroyo’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, at the time said the incident showed that the president’s detractors would stop at nothing to bring her down, suggesting opposition groups may have had something to do with the U.S. reports on Arroyo. “Self-serving politicians can ruin our diplomatic integrity by spying on our allies,” he said.
Bunye assured the incident would not affect strong bilateral relations.
Given the intense national focus on Arroyo’s crisis, news on the alleged spying quickly faded from local headlines without any sign of damage or fallout to any of the rival political camps. It’s not clear how it will affect local politics once the current investigation starts to turn up some Filipino names.
U.S. authorities have sought background information and documents from the Philippine government on a list of Filipinos who may be implicated in the spy case, said lawyer Ric Diaz of the National Bureau of Investigation, Manila’s counterpart to the FBI.
Diaz declined to name the Filipinos or give other details, but said Philippine authorities were in the process of complying with the U.S. request, which was made a few months ago.