FORMER intelligence agent Vidal Doble Jr. has surfaced to claim that the recordings of phone conversations allegedly between Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano are genuine, serving only to revive interest in the so-called “Hello, Garci” tapes.
What Doble is now saying confirms what we found out at the height of the scandal in 2005 based on our interviews with both opposition and intelligence sources: that the existence of the wiretaps was first brought up by Lito Santiago, the driver of former National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) deputy director Samuel Ong. Santiago happened to be a drinking buddy of Doble, who had talked about the recordings in a drinking session with the former.
Ong eventually came out in public to claim that he had in his possession “the mother of all tapes.” The recordings documented what appeared to be efforts to manipulate the results of the 2004 elections to favor Arroyo, generating a debilitating political crisis that nearly toppled her government.
In this light, we are bringing back the post that we wrote back then that tried to figure out how it all started. For other PCIJ reports on the scandal, see also our entries in the following blog categories: Gloriagate and 2004 Electoral Fraud.
SOON after the elections in May 2004, Military Intelligence Group (MIG) 21, the signal intelligence unit of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines or ISAFP, got the order to tap a certain phone number.
The request was not unusual. MIG 21 is the ISAFP unit that specializes in communications and surveillance. It is, in a manner of speaking, wiretap central for the AFP. In fact, the unit takes pride in its accomplishments, which include tapping phone calls that led to cracking kidnapping and other crime gangs, the exposure of New People’s Army operations, and uncovering the trail of the elusive and predatory Abu Sayyaf.
In May 2004, MIG 21 was informed of reports reaching the military’s Southern Command that the votes in some places in Mindanao “were being sold to the highest bidder.” An order to tap a phone number came down from higher headquarters. MIG 21 did what it was told. Only later did the agents discover that the phone number belonged to Virgilio Garcillano, the former elections commissioner now at the center of an election fraud scandal that has shaken the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
According to military intelligence operatives contacted by the PCIJ over the last few months, this was how the “Hello, Garci” recordings came about. In his testimony at the House of Representatives last Wednesday, Garcillano admitted he was a victim of wiretapping, although he refused to admit that his was the voice in the recording that has been made public.
While he did not say who was guilty of bugging him, the Senate has pointed to ISAFP. After all, it was an ISAFP agent who sold the recording to the opposition. ISAFP is also said to be President Arroyo’s favorite military unit. The ISAFP chief sometimes reports to her directly, even bypassing the chain of command.
The question that remains unanswered is whether the order to bug Garcillano came from Malacañang itself and whether concerns about the election official’s loyalty to the president had prompted the wiretapping. The other mystery is this: if the president knew Garcillano was being tapped, why did she call him not just once, but according to the recording, 15 times? Was she as much a victim as Garcillano was? If so, why didn’t she raise hell about being bugged and investigate and punish those guilty? If, on the other hand, she knew the eavesdropping was being done, was she so confident of ISAFP’s loyalty and discretion that she couldn’t care less?
The truth is that illegal wiretapping has been part of the toolkit of military intelligence for decades. It’s just that it has almost never been talked about in the open. Anti-crime groups are privy to, and tolerate, unauthorized bugging operations as these have proved useful in running after criminal gangs. But ISAFP, for one, has never admitted it is engaged in wiretapping or even that it has the capacity to tap mobile phones.
The Senate defense committee’s threat to look into wiretapping operations of military intelligence, however, could blow the lid off a practice that military officers believe is a necessary part of keeping law and order. Sen. Rodolfo Biazon wants to reconstitute the Senate select committee on intelligence . “It is a serious breach of national security if the the commander in chief is wiretapped,” he says.
That investigation could open up a can of worms. The reality is that top brass of the military and the police tolerate illegal wiretapping because they deem it essential to fighting terrorists, kidnappers and assorted criminals. Even civilian authorities are not totally clueless: in most cases they would rather not know.
Over the last few months, intelligence officers contacted by the PCIJ confirmed that wiretapping was used in some of the most successful military and police operations in recent years. These officers spoke to PCIJ but insisted on anonymity for security reasons. They said that electronic eavesdropping was instrumental in the arrest of numerous members of kidnap gangs, ranking communists, Abu Sayyaf rebels and even the Indonesian Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.
These intelligence officers say that anti-crime and anti-insurgency operations would be more difficult to carry out without wiretapping. While it is possible to get a court order to tap a phone, many operatives believe that this would slow down operations and cause what could be fatal delays. Besides, many of them don’t trust the courts.
But as the Gloriagate scandal has revealed, the routine practice of disregarding legal norms has also led to abuses, primarily the use of wiretapping operations no longer for anti-crime or anti-terrorist campaigns, but for partisan political purposes.
In fact, Biazon reveals that the “master tapes” turned over to him last week by former National Bureau of Investigation deputy director Samuel Ong contained conversations of still-unidentified individuals that date back to January 2004. The intelligence sources also say that that Ong had not released to the public Garcillano’s conversations with former president Joseph Estrada, Senator Edgardo Angara, and former AFP chief Joselin Nazareno, who remains loyal to Estrada.
How the wiretaps are done
According to an intelligence official interviewed by Newsbreak, ISAFP acquired equipment sometime in 2002 that could monitor 500 cellphones at any given time. The article did not describe how this equipment works and whether this was the one used for tapping Garcillano’s phone.
Intelligence officers contacted by the PCIJ say that the technology used for Garcillano was far more primitive. Tapping mobile-phone conversations through “air interface,” even with sophisticated equipment, they say, is difficult: the wiretapper has to be near or at the cellsite through which the call is coursed so he could eavesdrop on a conversation. But even then, there is no assurance that particular cellsite is transmitting that call and it is difficult to sort which of those calls are being made by the target.
But eavesdropping can be facilitated by intelligence assets embedded in telecommunications companies. Phone companies have all denied rumors that they were cooperating with intelligence agencies. At the height of the Gloriagate scandals, these companies asserted they had nothing to do with the illegal bugging operations.They even told the National Telecommunications Commission in a hearing last July the difficulty of intercepting and recording mobile-phone calls.
But the intelligence officers, who say they had taken part in wiretapping operations, insist that ISAFP has assets in phone companies that allow them to conduct the wiretaps with relative ease. They say the bugging is done with the help of phone company employees without having to use sophisticated eavesdropping equipment. With their help, wiretapping can be done from a remote location, such as the MIG 21 headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo. They say that all MIG 21 uses to eavesdrop is a phone that is connected to an analog tape recorder. That phone picks up all the conversations on the target’s phone and all the agent has to do is pick up the handset every time a call is made and record the calls.
MIG 21, these intelligence sources say, has a log book where the agent on duty records the time, date, the name of the caller if it can be identified, the number calling and the number called. As previously reported in this blog, whenever a tape is filled, the agent then removes it from the recording device and immediately starts preparing what would later become the “master tape.”
The master tape will be purged of irrelevant conversations but will also contain the annotations made by the intelligence operative based on the logbook. These annotations give the time, date and if identifiable, the persons involved in the conversation. This procedure of dubbing the master is followed in most agencies engaged in intelligence work, our sources said, and they identified some of these agencies as the Presidential Security Group, National Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Intelligence Security Group and the Philippine National Police Intelligence Group.
T/Sgt. Vidal Doble was one of those agents recording Garcillano’s conversations and then transferring them on to the master tape. In fact, his voice, as well as those of two other MIG21 agents — a M/Sgt Billedo and a M/Sgt Callos — is heard in the recording, announcing the time and date at the start of each phone call.
It was this master tape that eventually came into the possession of Ong, the former NBI official who made copies of the “Hello, Garci” recording public. The recording was distributed to the press in CD format when Ong held a press conference in Makati in June. That recording is also posted on this blog.
The key person in the release of the recording is Vidal Doble, a long-time MIG21 operative who has been in ISAFP custody since June. Last week, Doble’s girlfriend, Marietta Santos, testified at the Senate to say that Doble had told her about the wiretapping done on Garcillano by his 14-man unit. She also said she had seen the room where the bugging was done.
She likewise revealed that Doble had sold the tapes to Ong for P2 million. Her story confirms the reporting that has been done on this issue by the PCIJ, Newsbreak and the Inquirer.
“Doble was always broke,” says an intelligence officer who knows him well. “He has two mistresses. He was always short. He couldn’t even afford merienda. Most of the time he had only P20 or P50 in his wallet.”
Apparently, Ong, who has close connections to the Estrada camp, arranged the payoff using money that presumably came from the former president. Ong himself got wind of the tapes through Lito Santiago, his driver, who was a friend of Doble’s. Some intelligence sources say that Doble spilled out information on the tapes in a drinking spree with Santiago, who then told his boss.
The payoff, as Santos later confirmed, took place in February at the Century Imperial Hotel in Quezon City. Doble, she said, later gave P200,000 to Santiago, P200,000 to his brother and P70,000 to her.
He apparently blew the rest very fast. “He went on vacation for two weeks,” says an intelligence operative. “When he returned, he had lots of money and gold jewelry. He was already wearing a bracelet and a necklace.”
Newsbreak, however, doubts whether Doble was acting on his own. So far, there is no evidence of whether other people up the chain in ISAFP are involved, and what, if any, their motives were in encouraging Doble to make the recording public.
The military was supposed to have conducted its own investigation of the wiretapping but none of its findings have been made public. In June, the entire MIG21 was placed under ISAFP custody. The unit, which was led by Army Lt. Col. Pedro Sumayo Jr. during the elections, was supposed to have been under investigation by the armed forces since June, when the tapes were leaked to the public. But up to now, no one is saying what, if any, they’ve found out.
(View the original post here.)