IN the past two days, former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano has appeared on television and newspapers wearing different headgear — first a checkered scarf normally worn by Moros and Mindanao indigenous peoples, and later, a batik cap. The subliminal message of these fashion statements is this: after months of hiding among "trusted Muslim friends" in Mindanao, Garci has gone native. He has stayed in the hinterlands for so long that he has even taken to lounging in the local attire.
The headgear is only one of many signs that indicate a savvy PR hand is behind the sudden reappearance in the public scene of the elections official who dropped out of sight six months ago, eluding a congressional arrest warrant and an international manhunt launched by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The reality is that even as newspapers and TV news programs have been trumpeting their "scoops" and "exclusives" based on interviews with Garcillano, they were actually being led by the nose. All these were carefully orchestrated media appearances designed to give the former elections commissioner maximum public exposure — complete with the mystique of a headgeared fugitive (one commentator in this blog thought he looked like Yasser Arafat sans facial hair) accessible only to journalists who had to be blindfolded while being taken on a long, rough ride to a remote and scenic locale.
For sure, Garcillano could not have orchestrated all these by himself. The logistics of contacting journalists, setting up interviews in a faraway place and arranging guides, transport and other things for them are too much to expect of a lone fugitive evading arrest, especially if he is holed up in the hinterlands of Mindanao. All these require some sort of staff backup and a certain media savvy which the provincial Garci had previously not demonstrated.
Since Saturday, interviews were given in quick succession to ABS-CBN, the Inquirer and later, GMA-7. Separate interviews are more difficult to arrange; a one-off press appearance would have been more convenient. But the multiple interviews were obviously designed for maximum exposure in the country’s biggest print and broadcast media outlets. By giving each of these news organizations "exclusives," Garcillano ensured that his interviews were hyped as "scoops," thereby getting more column inches of newspapers space and more minutes on the TV newscast than would otherwise have been the case.
Even the prepared statement read by the elections official on Philippine TV appears to have been written by someone else — the polished style is vastly different from the letter he wrote to President Arroyo in November 2003, when he was practically begging to be appointed Comelec commissioner.
But the media statements that Garcillano has made since the weekend also offer a glimpse of the script or storyline, of an alternative narrative that the controversial Comelec official is offering to the public. It is a narrative that he and his allies have obviously pondered. But it is not a seamless tale. It has holes in various places and it could be punctured even more by tough questioning from Congress.
The problematic nature of Garci’s story gives credence to what some journalists like Ricky Carandang believe, that Garcillano’s public appearance was arranged "in defiance of his handlers’ wishes."
According to the ABS-CBN journalist, the official’s "handlers did not want him to come out yet but apparently the Garcillanos have grown very weary of life on the run and have decided to force the issue of facing the music and getting it over with."
So far the elements of Garci’s Story as told by Garci are:
1. He did not leave the country and was in hiding in Mindanao since June. This is the most problematic and possibly the easiest of all Garcillano’s statements to disprove, given that there is a paper trail — including letters from the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our very own Department of Foreign Affairs — saying that the former Comelec official landed in Singapore on July 14. It could well be, of course, as Justice Secretary half-jokingly (one never knows with the secretary) suggested in today’s Philippine Star, someone masquerading as Virgilio Garcillano landed in Singapore on that day. More plausibly, as Gonzales said at the Senate today, Garcillano left the country possibly in the guise of a member of the flight crew of the plane that flew to Singapore.
The question is why, despite contrary evidence, would Garci stick to his story? One possibility is that admitting to being outside the country could open up a whole new can of worms. Where was he all along? Who arranged for his departure? Who financed his trips? Who gave him protection? How did he manage to slip out? It could be that the answers to these questions are so incriminating that it is better for Garci to claim that he has been in the country since disappearing in June.
2. He was illegally wiretapped and his privacy was violated. This statement gives Garci the legal clout to demand that the reports of congressional investigations delete any reference to the so-called "Hello, Garci" recordings in their committee reports. He can also argue that since the wiretaps were illegal and inadmissible in court, these cannot be used in any proceeding, including potential lawsuits. But such admission is a double-edged sword as it also concedes that some parts of the recording were in fact authentic. Garcillano says that the "Hello, Garci’ recording, various versions of which can be downloaded from this site, is "spurious" and that these were "most likely spliced, edited and tailored to fit a sinister purpose."
This statement can be proved or disproved. A competent technical analysis of the recording could show whether in fact it had been altered. The problem is that it would then become a battle of technical experts. As early as June, both Sen. Paniflo Lacson and former senator Francisco Tatad presented independent verification of the authenticiy of the recording made by an Australian and U.S. firm, respectively. (See PCIJ’s account here.) In August, Environment Secretary Michael Defensor presented his own panel of experts to cast doubt on the authenticity of the tapes. Defensor showed the findings of U.S. sound expert Barry Dickey who said there were “anomalies” in the recording, but also that these anomalies could be the result of “several transfers, which involved the audio being recorded/encoded/decoded by different devices.”
A plausible explanation for these anomalies is that the three-hour "Hello, Garci" CDs released to the media by former National Bureau of Investigation official Samuel Ong in June was made from what intelligence officers call the "master tape," which was in turn put together from a series of recordings. As explained in this blog in August, the normal procedure followed by MIG-21, the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) unit that supposedly tapped Garcillano, is to record wiretapped phone conversations on audio casettes. The time, date and other information on each conversation are noted down by the intelligence operative on duty.
Once the conversations fill one tape, the agent then removes it from the recording device and immediately starts preparing what would later become the "master tape," the master having been purged of irrelevant conversations but also containing the annotations made by the intelligence operative giving the time, date, and if possible, the persons involved in the conversation. Ong says he has possession of the master tapes; all other versions released to the public were CD versions of all or portions of the masters.
Last week, in his testimony before the Citizen’s Congress for Truth and Accountability, sound expert Jim Sarthou said that the recording — and the versions of it released by Ong, Lacson and lawyer Allan Paguia — could not have been manufactured.
In short, the authenticity of the recordings remains an unsettled issue up to now, and Garcillano’s appearance will not suffice to prove or disprove whether these are genuine. It will only serve to establish that Garci was wiretapped and that various portions of the recording are possibly authentic, while casting doubt on the integrity of the entire thing. Which means, on the question of authenticity, we are back where we started in June, when the tapes were first made public.
3. He only discussed "procedural matters" with President Arroyo and there was nothing illegal or improper about their conversations. This statement somewhat contradicts the president’s June 27 "I am sorry" speech when she apologized to the nation for having an "improper" conversation with an election official. Although Arroyo did not name the official or say what they talked about, Garcillano’s statement appears to confirm that he was the official alluded to in that speech (unless the president had spoken to someone else at the Comelec).
It’s hard to say what Garcillano means by "procedural matters." In his interview aired by ABS-CBN on Monday, Garcillano admitted to a May 24, 2004 conversation with Mrs. Arroyo. "The President was asking why her advantage over [Fernando Poe Jr.] had been reduced to 892, 000."
He added: "We are talking of the votes already counted so how can you rig the election? Besides, the results of the elections in almost all the provinces throughout the Philippines had already been submitted to Congress beyond the reach of anybody."
As pointed out in an earlier post, it is not true that the election results were all in when that phone call was made. There were special elections in, among other places, Lanao del Sur, and the results of these were still being awaited. Moreover, what should be stressed is that what is apparent from the conversations, if they are genuine, was Mrs. Arroyo’s concern, not so much about whether she won but whether she would get the one-million vote margin. (Tune in to the PCIJ podcast on the "Hello,Garci" conversations for more details.) In fact, the late-arriving Lanao del Sur votes were crucial not to her overall victory but to her getting the one million votes.
In an interview with ANC earlier today, presidential adviser on political affairs Gabriel Claudio said that even if, in the worst-case scenario, Garcillano authenticated the tape, it would still not change the fact that the conversations took place after the votes had been canvassed and Mrs. Arroyo already won. This echoes Garci’s line, but like the Comelec official’s statement, it is not that accurate (a few election results were still coming in early June) and also evades the issue that it was the one-million vote margin that the president was calling about.
4. He talked to other candidates, including those from the opposition, and these conversations are normal for Comelec officials who are always being called by candidates. Garcillano is probably right. He probably did talk to the opposition as well. The problem is that these were not caught on tape; or if they were, they were probably deleted from the recording by the people who released it. One other possible explanation is given by Liwayway Vinzons-Chato, a senatorial candidate in 2004 who has lawyered for various witnesses who testified to election anomalies in Congress. She says that Garcillano, as his nephew Michaelangelo Zuce testified in August, was given a special cellphone by Lilia Pineda, the Lubao, Pampanga mayor who is a close friend of the president and wife of the country’s most notorious jueteng lord. Chato is also lawyer for Zuce, who Garci says is a liar and ‘wheeler-dealer" who rigged the elections in Mindanao for his own clients.
According to page seven of Zuce’s affidavit, on Feb. 13, 2004, Garcillano asked his nephew to fetch the cellphone that Mrs. Pineda was assigning to the elections commissioner. "When I delivered the cellphone to Comm. Garcillano," Zuce’s affidavit read, "he told me the phone would be where PGMA [the president's initials], Mr. and Mrs. Pineda,and other prominent persons would be calling him; the Commissioner referred to the cellphone as their Hotline."
If this was the case, then it was apparently this phone that had been tapped by ISAFP. The other conversations the commmissioner said he had with the opposition were possibly made on another phone or on other dates, before or after he was tapped (the recorded conversations supposedly took place from May 17 to June 18). Whatever the case, Garcillano’s admission of conversations with candidates raises ethical issues. While he says it is normal practice for Comelec officials to talk to candidates, such practice indicates that elections personnel are, at the very least, treading on an ethical minefield. Should officials be conferring with the very candidates they are supposed to be policing? Should they be having conversations with politicians on procedural or other matters?
But in the end, this is a minor issue. The major one is: did cheating take place in 2004? Garcillano insists the vote was not rigged. Will his statements hold?