Sparing himself a possible life sentence and sparing the U.S. government a messy trial that could highlight weaknesses on how it guards its secrets, a former Philippines National Police officer pleaded guilty Monday to unauthorized possession of U.S. defense documents.
Michael Ray Aquino, 40, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to possessing secret documents containing information on the United States' confidential intelligence sources and methods, as well as information on terrorist threats to U.S. military personnel in the leaders in the Philippines.
But his lawyer denied that Aquino passed along the information to anyone else.
A co-defendant who pleaded guilty earlier this year said the actions were meant to help politicians who wanted to overthrow Philippines President Gloria Arroyo.
"New Jersey is not the traditional locale one thinks of as a haven for spies," said Les Wiser Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark bureau. "This case showcases the stark reality that those who conduct foreign espionage activity will endeavor to exploit every available opportunity to ply their craft, regardless of their location or position of responsibility."
Aquino avoids espionage charge
The plea deal enables Aquino to avoid an espionage charge, which could have sent him to prison for life. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
It also spares the government from a trial that would have shown how Leandro Aragoncillo, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was able to steal hundreds of classified documents while working in the White House for four years.
Aragoncillo was a U.S. Marine who worked as an aide to military advisers for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney, and later as an FBI intelligence analyst at Fort Monmouth. In pleading guilty in May to conspiracy, he said he gave the information to Aquino and opposition politicians in his homeland who wanted to oust Arroyo.
"Aquino is now an admitted spy, who cultivated and used Aragoncillo, a willing accomplice, to transfer U.S. intelligence secrets abroad," said U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie. "He did this at the behest of a high-level government official in the Philippine legislature. We view that as a grave intrusion on the integrity of our national security, and we will seek the longest prison sentence possible for Aquino."
Through his lawyer, Aquino has never denied possessing the documents, but maintained he did not know they were secret.
"There was no way to know they were classified," defense lawyer Mark Berman said after the hearing. "He didn't know they contained information related to military preparedness. He didn't know it was classified."
During his plea, Aquino acknowledged that the documents he received contained such information.
"That's not what I was interested in, but I saw them," Aquino told U.S. Judge William Walls.
Berman said Aquino "had a continuing interest in events in the Philippines. He is someone who is not a supporter of the current government in the Philippines.
"Aragoncillo offered information to him," Berman said. "He shouldn't have accepted it, but he did."
His lawyer has said Aragoncillo was acting out of a sense of patriotism because he believed developments in his homeland were going badly. He is to be sentenced next month.
Recipients include former president
The recipients included former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted five years ago; Sen. Panfilo Lacson, the leader of the Arroyo opposition party; and former House Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella.
Estrada and Lacson have acknowledged receiving information from Aquino or Aragoncillo, but deny any wrongdoing.
Berman said all Aquino was asked to do was introduce Aragoncillo to Lacson, which he did via e-mail. Afterward, Aragoncillo started sending him documents he had pilfered from government files, the attorney said.
Aquino was once a senior officer under Lacson in the Philippines National Police. He fled to the United States to escape murder charges in 2001 and lived with his wife and son in Queens, New York.
After serving his prison term, he is likely to be deported.
Prosecutors will seek a sentence of between 70 and 87 months when Aquino is sentenced Oct. 30. But Berman will argue that lower federal sentencing guidelines, of between 37 to 46 months, should apply. The final decision is up to the judge.