FBI agents examined computers in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and talked to former and current White House aides Thursday as they investigated an FBI intelligence analyst accused of passing classified information to Filipino officials.
Meantime, former Philippine President Joseph Estrada acknowledged receiving an internal U.S. government report on the Philippines from the analyst, Leandro Aragoncillo, but played down the importance of the information, comparing it to material aired in his country’s media.
The FBI is looking at whether Aragoncillo, a former Marine, took classified information about the Philippines from the White House when he worked for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Cheney from 1999 to 2002.
The type of information has not been disclosed. Though Aragoncillo had top-secret clearance, that status would not have made him privy to highly sensitive intelligence.
Aragoncillo, a U.S. citizen originally from the Philippines, was charged last month with providing classified information from his FBI posting at Fort Monmouth, N.J., to former and current Philippine officials who oppose President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Philippine Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales said the criminal complaint against Aragoncillo suggests the information could have been intended to destabilize the Philippine government.
Michael Ray Aquino, a former top Philippine police official who acted as Aragoncillo’s alleged go-between, was indicted by a Newark, N.J., federal grand jury Thursday on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent. Aragoncillo, 46, of Woodbury, N.J., and Aquino, 39, living in Queens, N.Y., have been jailed since their arrests last month.
Federal prosecutors in Newark did not seek an indictment against Aragoncillo because he is negotiating a plea, court records show.
Plea deal rejected
Aquino lawyer Mark A. Berman said his client rejected a plea deal. “There’s a fundamental difference between Aragoncillo and Aquino,” Berman said. “Aquino is not an FBI agent and had no reason to know that the information the government laid out in the indictment was classified.”
While the criminal complaint is limited to Aragoncillo’s time at Fort Monmouth the investigation has widened to include his stint, while a Marine, in the vice president’s office. Agents examined computers and interviewed current and former vice presidential aides Thursday, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
FBI spokesman Rich Kolko would not confirm details of the investigation, but he said, “In the course of a logical investigation, the FBI will research the subject’s entire career for whenever he had access to classified or sensitive information to see whether any illegal or improper activity took place.”
Former president downplays matter
Meantime, Estrada said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in the Philippines that he received documents from Aragoncillo but that he did not think they contai ned classified information.
“He was just describing how America sees the Philippines,” Estrada said. “I don’t think that is classified. It pertains to graft and corruption, the first gentleman (Arroyo’s husband).”
Estrada said he met Aragoncillo during his state visit to Washington in 2000 and received about six reports from him.
He compared what Aragoncillo did with reports diplomats send back home. “I don’t think that’s espionage,” he said.
“He’s a kind person,” the former president said of Aragoncillo. “He’s a good family man. He has two children.”
Estrada said Aragoncillo communicated with him by mail and also spoke with him on his birthday, but he didn’t say when. Estrada was toppled in massive street protests in 2001 on charges of corruption and is under house arrests while on trial.
A Philippine opposition senator has acknowledged receiving information from Aquino. Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief under whom Aquino served, said he and “many others” received information passed by Aquino, but he played down the value of the reports, describing them as “shallow information.”
White House and Justice Department officials declined to comment on the investigation.
‘Wealth of evidence’
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a former federal prosecutor who handled an FBI spy case, said the Aragoncillo case raises questions about easy access to classified materials and how long the naturalized U.S. citizen was able to pass on sensitive information before he was stopped.
“If the complaint is accurate, there is a wealth of evidence which makes it all the more surprising he went undiscovered as long as he did, because it was not a very sophisticated operation,” Schiff said.
Aragoncillo was hired to work at Fort Monmouth in July 2004 and began sending classified information and documents in January, often via e-mail, according to an FBI complaint made public last month. The documents’ contents have not been made public.
From May to Aug. 15 of this year, he printed or downloaded 101 classified documents relating to the Philippines, of which 37 were classified “secret,” according to the criminal complaint.
He sent some of the material to Aquino, the complaint said.
Aragoncillo’s public defender, Chester M. Keller, declined to say if his client was cooperating with investigators. “It’s just too sensitive right now,” Keller said.