President answers solons’ questions
President Benigno Aquino III was misled into believing early on Jan. 25 that the Special Action Force (SAF) commandos were already being extricated from Mamasapano and that the military was providing mechanized and artillery support, a source told the Inquirer on Monday.
The source, who had knowledge of the SAF operation, said Mr. Aquino told congressmen in a meeting at Malacañang on Monday what information he received and when, and what he did after receiving the information.
According to the source, Mr. Aquino also said that early in the morning of Jan. 25, he received a text from the then suspended chief of the Philippine National Police, Director General Alan Purisima, saying that the artillery and mechanized support was already under way.
The source told the Inquirer that the information was followed by a text from Director Getulio Napeñas, the SAF commander, which was forwarded by Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, saying the commandos were already being extricated from Mamasapano.
The two messages deluded Mr. Aquino into thinking that the operation was already “winding down,” the source said.
Coordination with military
President Aquino, the source said, also issued very clear instructions to Napeñas to coordinate “Oplan Exodus” with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Oplan Exodus was the SAF operation to get Jemaah Islamiyah bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” and his Filipino lieutenant, Basit Usman.
The source said Mr. Aquino also instructed Purisima to inform Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, the PNP officer in charge, about the operation.
The instructions were to coordinate way ahead of the mission, according to the source.
It wasn’t clear at press time why both Napeñas and Purisima didn’t follow Mr. Aquino’s orders.
On Jan. 9, Napeñas briefed the President on Oplan Exodus at Bahay Pangarap in Malacañang in the presence of Purisima and the PNP Intelligence Group director, Senior Supt. Fernando Mendez, the source said.
The SAF commander told the President that around 160 commandos or the “elite of the elite” would be tapped for the operation, the source said.
According to the source, Mr. Aquino told Napeñas that 160 commandos may not be enough in the event of a “pintakasi,” where the Moro rebels would join forces to fight the enemy, following the principle that the enemy of one is the enemy of all. “Your men might be left to hang dry,” Mr. Aquino told Napeñas, according to the source.
The SAF deployed 392 commandos for the operation in view of intelligence information that an estimated 1,000 guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and private armed groups were in the area.
“In the Jan. 9 meeting, [the President] instructed Napeñas to coordinate with the AFP and Napeñas said yes,” the source said.
The instruction was to coordinate at the highest level for the necessary mobilization of military support, the source said.
Napeñas, the source added, assured Mr. Aquino that his team would also reconnoiter the target area for an entry and at least two exit points.
At a hearing in the Senate last week, Napeñas told the senators that during the Jan. 9 briefing, he and Mendez left the room, while Purisima had a private conversation with Mr. Aquino.
When asked what he discussed with Mr. Aquino, Purisima, instead of answering the question, asked to seek clearance first from the President, giving rise to speculation about what Mr. Aquino knew about the operation.
In truth, the source said, in the brief one-on-one between Mr. Aquino and Purisima, the President reiterated his instruction to coordinate with Espina.
“Be sure not to exclude Dindo (Espina) here because if the operation fails, he will be blamed,” the source quoted the President as telling Purisima.
Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., chief of staff of the AFP, has said that the military was informed only after the operation had been launched.
Napeñas has said that coordination with the military was “time on target,” or when the assault force was already in place, his reason being that coordinated operations with the military in the past had been compromised.
But since the mission to capture Marwan and Usman was conceptualized years ago, the standing order from Mr. Aquino had always been for coordination between the military and the police, the source said.
The source said the President was so confident that the operation had been coordinated with the military that before boarding the plane for Zamboanga City that Sunday morning, Mr. Aquino, presuming that the rest of the military was already in the loop, reminded the Air Force official seeing him off to provide air support.
Although baffled, the Air Force official replied, “Yes, Sir,” but later had to call his superiors to verify the mission, the source said.
The President was in Zamboanga City that day to visit victims of a car bomb explosion on Jan. 23 and to inspect the blast site.
When he was informed later that the “stealthy” operation would be launched anytime between Jan. 23 and 26, the President wanted to know if there would be a full moon on those dates, lest the commandos’ cover of darkness be blown, the source said.
“He asked: ‘Isn’t this too early?’ He questioned the timing,” the source said.
In the postoperation investigation, it turned out that the scenarios presented by Napeñas during the Jan. 9 briefing were entirely different from the situation on the ground.
Napeñas called the shots
For instance, the troops were supposed to take down Marwan around 2:30 a.m., but managed to do it around 4:15 a.m. due to what Napeñas called “intervening factors,” the source said.
Napeñas was “calling the shots” throughout the operation, the source said.
Purisima has testified that he approved the operation, but delegated “command, control and supervision” after he was suspended on graft charges in December last year. Since then, he said, it was Napeñas’ call to “perform the operation.”
Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, told the Senate that he informed the Commander in Chief what he knew of the fighting at a briefing in Zamboanga City at
5 p.m. on Jan. 25.
Artillery support rejected
At the Senate’s Feb. 9 hearing, Napeñas blamed the military for not providing artillery support, which he said could have saved many of the 44 SAF commandos who were killed in the clash with BIFF and MILF guerrillas.
But top military officials justified their decision, asserting that an attack against the MILF would have escalated into a war to the detriment of the peace process.
On the morning of the clash, Chief Supt. Noli Taliño, the SAF deputy commander, went to the 1st Mechanized Brigade in Shariff Aguak, also in Maguindanao, to request reinforcements.
Taliño suggested artillery support to the brigade commander, Col. Gener del Rosario, but Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan, 6th Infantry Division commander, rejected the use of artillery in view of the peace process.
Del Rosario, however, organized six armored vehicles to link up with troops from the Advance Command Post, Taliño said.
Why then didn’t the President mention these things in his two addresses to the nation on the Mamasapano debacle, and in his two meetings with the families of the slain SAF troopers?
“He was still putting the pieces together in his own postoperation investigation. He spent time interviewing those involved,” the source said.
Mr. Aquino also didn’t want to aggravate the pain of the families by delving into the flaws of the operation, even if the mission had succeeded, the source added.
“How do you tell that to the families in grief? He said he could take being unpopular now than hurt their feelings,” the source said.
As to why he skipped the arrival honors for the slain commandos at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City on Jan. 29 in favor of the launch of a car manufacturing plant, the President wanted to give the families a “private moment” with the slain commandos, the source said.
“He knew the emotions were very raw,” the source said. “When his dad was assassinated, he practically never had a private moment with his remains. He didn’t have time to cry alone… So when attending wakes, he’d allow grieving people their time. He knew how it was.”
Former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated at Manila International Airport as he arrived from exile in the United States on Aug. 21, 1983.