Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada says he first met Leandro Aragoncillo during a state visit to Washington in August 2000, when President Bill Clinton invited Aragoncillo and about 20 other Filipinos who worked at the White House to greet Estrada.
Some time later, Aragoncillo met Estrada again -- but this time, he handed the deposed president a three-page internal U.S. analysis of political developments in the Philippines. Estrada said the document had originated at the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
The former president's account provides further evidence that Aragoncillo may have stolen U.S. documents while he worked as a military security official in the vice president's office. Officials say the case could represent the first allegation of espionage inside the White House in modern times.
Aragoncillo was charged last month with downloading more than 100 documents while working as an FBI intelligence analyst earlier this year. Officials revealed this week that the probe has expanded to include his earlier years at the White House.
The Justice Department and FBI are investigating whether Aragoncillo stole classified material while assigned to Vice President Cheney's security detail, and provided it to Estrada and other opposition politicians in the Philippines. ABC News has reported that Aragoncillo admitted to stealing records while on Cheney's staff. Authorities are also investigating whether documents were stolen during Vice President Al Gore's tenure.
FBI counterespionage agents are investigating whether Estrada or other opposition politicians recruited Aragoncillo and whether a second defendant -- a former Philippines national police official -- was part of a planned intelligence operation. One official familiar with the probe said Aragoncillo was paid to steal the information.
Court documents filed in New Jersey this week show that Aragoncillo, 46, of Woodbury, N.J., is cooperating with prosecutors and is in the midst of plea negotiations. The second man, Michael Ray Aquino, 39, is not cooperating and was indicted in Newark Thursday on charges of conspiracy to obtain classified information and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.
Interviewed by telephone at his secluded vacation estate, where he remains detained on corruption charges, Estrada said he could not remember the date that Aragoncillo gave him the U.S. document. But he said it occurred when Aragoncillo came to see him sometime in the two years after Estrada was ousted as president, in January 2001.
"This document was about the graft and corruption happening in the country. It's nothing new," Estrada said, comparing it to accounts in Philippine opposition newspapers.
Aragoncillo, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, was first detailed to the White House as administration chief of the vice presidential security detail in July 1999 and served through February 2002, the Pentagon said.
Bush administration officials have refused to provide further details on the case or to reveal how Aragoncillo gained a top-secret security clearance at both the White House and the FBI. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said during an unrelated news conference Thursday in Washington that aides assigned to the White House complex are generally vetted by the agency they work for, but said he did not have details of the Aragoncillo case.
"We take all investigations, of course, very, very seriously, particularly investigations that might involve jeopardizing very sensitive information relating to the actions of our government," Gonzales said. Michael Feldman, a spokesman for Gore, declined to comment, referring questions to the FBI.
U.S. investigators have said the documents were sent to a former high-level Philippine official and two current high-level Philippine officials but have not identified them. All are opposition politicians seeking to topple President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who replaced Estrada after he was forced from office over accusations that he enriched himself off gambling kickbacks.
Estrada, once a popular movie star, is one of several Philippine politicians who have acknowledged receiving documents from the two suspects. Another, Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson, who unsuccessfully challenged Arroyo in presidential elections a year ago, said in an interview last week that he had obtained e-mails from Aquino but that they were neither sensitive nor unusual.
Estrada said in the interview that he had a close relationship with Aquino, even accompanying him to the altar at Aquino's wedding seven years ago. Estrada said they have not been in contact in recent years.
Aquino left the Philippines for the United States in July 2001. At the time, he was under indictment in the Philippines for involvement in the kidnapping and murder of a public relations executive who had quarreled with Estrada, and the man's driver.
Estrada also spoke warmly of Aragoncillo, calling him a friend and recounting their first meeting during the 2000 White House visit. Estrada told reporters at the time that Clinton "introduced me to each of the 21 Filipino staff at the White House like they were part of his family, which, in turn, made me very proud."
Soon afterward, Aragoncillo came to Manila and visited the presidential palace with his wife to meet Estrada, Estrada recalled.
In 2001, Estrada was unseated by mass demonstrations that erupted when an effort to impeach him broke down in the Philippine Congress. Estrada was detained and later that year incarcerated in the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Manila, where he remained until 2003. He said Aragoncillo visited him in the hospital and joined him for lunch. The former president said a personal bond had been established.
"He still has that Filipino heart," Estrada said, noting that Aragoncillo came from a relatively poor family. "He knows I am a president who was pro-poor, and he is pro-poor. That's why he was so worried about what's happening in our country today."
Since the final meeting, Estrada said he has spoken with Aragoncillo once or twice by telephone, most recently last year.
"It was to say hello, talk about what was happening in the Philippines and what was happening in Iraq," Estrada recounted. "He told me what was happening in Iraq."
When he learned last month that Aragoncillo had been charged with illegally providing classified information to Philippine officials, Estrada said he was shocked. He said he did not believe the former Marine had done anything illegal or worked to help opposition politicians in the Philippines.
Aragoncillo was honorably discharged from the Marines with the rank of gunnery sergeant and went to work a year ago as an FBI analyst at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Federal investigators allege he used his top-secret clearance to download classified documents from the FBI, CIA and State Department relating to his birthplace and conspired with Aquino to forward the material by e-mail, telephone and text message.
Eggen reported from Washington. Correspondent Ellen Nakashima in Jakarta and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.