Spy Probe Widens to Years Suspect Was at White House
Thursday, October 6, 2005
The Justice Department is investigating whether a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines stole classified documents while he worked in the office of Vice President Cheney and provided the information to opposition politicians in Manila, Bush administration officials said yesterday.
The possibility that Leandro Aragoncillo was passing the material while stationed as a U.S. Marine security official at the White House marks a dramatic expansion of the case against him and a former Philippine police official, Michael Ray Aquino. Both were arrested and charged in federal court in Newark last month with sending classified information obtained this year to the Philippines -- more than two years after Aragoncillo left the White House and went to work as an FBI intelligence analyst.
Officials from the White House, Justice Department and FBI declined to comment late yesterday, other than to confirm that Aragoncillo first went to work at the White House in 1999, when Al Gore was vice president. ABC News reported last night that Aragoncillo had admitted taking classified documents while he worked in Cheney's office. Officials with the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Newark declined to comment on the report.
Joseph Estrada, the former Philippine president who was forced from office four years ago by mass demonstrations, has acknowledged receiving documents from Aragoncillo while the suspect was still in the Marines. Estrada told a Philippine newspaper last month that Aragoncillo had passed material while visiting him at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Manila, where the former president was receiving treatment while being held on corruption charges from 2001 through 2003. Part of that stay would coincide with Aragoncillo's time in Cheney's office.
Estrada, who remains under house arrest, said in a statement published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the information was "non-classified" and that he was unaware of any illegal activity by Aragoncillo.
"Why would they include me in that mess? I know nothing about issues involving him," Estrada told the newspaper.
The prosecutions of Aragoncillo and Aquino have ignited a political firestorm in the Philippines, and officials from the two countries say the United States is now caught in a feud between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and rivals attempting to force her from office.
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey charged last month that Aragoncillo conspired with Aquino to steal more than 100 documents this year from the FBI, CIA and State Department. The men are accused of feeding classified material about the Philippines to politicians seeking to topple the government.
Aragoncillo retired in 2004 after 21 years in the Marines and began working for the FBI as an intelligence analyst. Reports apparently based on the classified material allegedly downloaded by Aragoncillo are being published in the Philippines. The reports reveal not only sources of sensitive U.S. information but include frank and unflattering assessments of Philippine leaders.
In one such report published in a Manila newspaper, comments attributed to diplomats at the U.S. Embassy described Arroyo as weak and overbearing with little popular credibility. Her vice president was called inept and unfit to take her place. Clandestine discussions among dissident soldiers are detailed, and the president's chances of surviving a coup are weighed.
Aragoncillo, 46, and Aquino, 39, were arrested in New Jersey on Sept. 10 and are being held without bail. Aquino, a former deputy director of the Philippine National Police and a Philippine national, is slated to be formally indicted in Newark today, according to one law enforcement official.
A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey charges that Aragoncillo shared the classified documents with Aquino as well as with two high-level Philippine public officials and a third former high-level official. Speculation is raging in Manila about their identities, but U.S. prosecutors have yet to reveal the names.