SENATORS scored military and police officials Thursday for claiming that they did not inform their commander-in-chief of the Mamasapano operation on Jan. 25, even though most of them were in the company of President Benigno Aquino III when they learned of the massacre.
At the resumption of the Senate hearings on the Mamasapano incident, Senator Nancy Binay asked each security official where he learned about the clash in which 44 police commandos were killed by Moro rebels.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said they were in Zamboanga City with the President on the morning of the operation to inspect the site of a car bomb blast that killed two people and injured 48.
Roxas said he was informed of the battle at about 8 a.m. but did not make much of it since it was ordinary for him to get reports about skirmishes in Maguindanao with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He added that he did not think much of it until after they landed in Zamboanga with Aquino at 10:30 a.m.
“I did not know that there was a Special Action Force operation. When we got to Zamboanga I asked General (Edgardo) Ingking, the director for integrated police operations, what happened. He said it was an SAF operation,” he said.
Like Roxas, Gazmin also said he did not inform the President of the heavy casualties from the battle.
“I didn’t inform the President,” Gazmin admitted. “First, to me there was no sense of urgency because I get similar reports every day and it was not until the casualties mounted that I mentioned the matter to the President because this is a PNP operation,” Gazmin said. Incredulous, Binay asked: “You already comprised the majority of the security Cabinet cluster and not one of you mentioned even to the President the Mamasapano?”
“Ma’am, we didn’t know this was a big problem. We didn’t know there was an operation ongoing,” Roxas replied.
But when Binay asked who broke the news to the President, not one among the resource persons could answer.
“I did not inform the President. We were very focused on the Zamboanga bombing the whole day,” said Catapang.
Resigned PNP chief Alan Purisima, who admitted “advising” the President about the operation, was also asked if he informed the President about the loss of life, but he asked for time to seek clearance from Aquino before answering the question. Despite the questions from the senators about Aquino’s role in the botched operation, the Palace said Thursday that everything that needs to be said about the Mamasapano clash had already been disclosed. Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma deflected questions as to what time the President learned of the Mamasapano carnage while he was in Zamboanga City on Jan. 25 as well as what were his immediate directives.
“Everything that the President needs to disclose on the Mamasapano incident, he has already stated in his three speeches: his national address on Jan. 28 where he took some questions from the media; his speech on Jan. 30 during the necrological rites; and his second national address on Feb. 6,” Coloma said.
“All that the President knows, and all that the President thinks should be known by the public, he has already bared in his speeches,” Coloma added.
The Palace official insisted that there is no effort to hide any vital information from the public.
“We are guided by the principles of transparency and accountability,” he said. When Coloma was asked on the timeline of Aquino’s actions in Zamboanga City on the same day that the Mamasapano clash happened, he said that the public should not engage in speculations as these do not help in efforts to unearth the truth.
“It is not good to do premature and unwarranted conclusions while we have not yet gotten the complete result of the probe,” he said. Coloma was also asked about the perception that Roxas and Gazmin were covering up for the President.
“We should be careful on the words that we use. I heard from you the words ‘impression’ and ‘cover up.’ Are these not conclusions? Is it not better for us to wait the result of the probe?” he said. Coloma was then asked why resigned PNP chief Purisima had to seek clearance from the President before divulging whether he informed Aquino or not of the Mamasapano massacre.
“He was the one who was asked, so he is also the one who has authority on his statement. How did it become my job to interpret every word or sentence?” Coloma said.
But lawmakers and militant groups demanded Thursday that Aquino and Purisima explain to Congress what was discussed at several meetings they held on the covert Mamasapano operation. They lambasted Purisima for dodging the questions by invoking executive privilege and his request to get clearance from the President.
“What exactly was the President doing with Purisima on Jan. 9, 2015 at Bahay Pangarap? Why did Purisima bring SAF Director Getulio Napenas to the President?” asked Bagong Alyansang Makabayan secretary general Renato Reyes, Jr.
“Did Aquino tell Purisima to tell Napenas not to coordinate with PNP OIC Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas?” he asked. “The meeting at Bahay Pangarap was not some harmless afternoon tea with police officials. The President has a lot of questions to answer. Invoking executive privilege only strengthens our fear of a cover up,” Reyes said.
For two straight days, Purisima refused to answer questions from congressmen and senators as to why he was involved in a highly sensitive operation when he was under preventive suspension over corruption charges.
On Thursday, Purisima said he wanted to seek clearance from the President before replying.
In the House panel hearing on Wednesday, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon and ACT Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio took turns in grilling Purisima to “tell all” as to his and the President’s roles in the Mamasapano operation. Colmenares even moved that the President be “respectfully invited” by the panel. His motion was defeated when put to a vote by the LP-dominated panel.
“Executive privilege cannot be used to cover up illegal acts such as the violation of the Ombudsman suspension order on Purisima,” Reyes said.
During the inquiry at the House, Napenas admitted that he followed Purisima’s order not to inform Espina and Roxas because of the closeness between the suspended PNP chief and the President. He said that this put the SAF in a “volatile situation.” “It seems that Napenas was convinced that Purisima was the President’s point person in the operation. As far as Napenas was concerned, Purisima was acting on behalf of the President,” Reyes said. “The fact that Purisima was able to call several meetings in Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo, despite his suspension, shows that he enjoyed the full backing of the President,” Reyes said. This relationship has brought the President a lot of trouble, he said. “And there lies the problem. Barkadahan overrides the chain of command and the hierarchy of authority. It blatantly violates even the Ombudsman suspension order. That particular offense falls squarely on the President,” he added.
He said the President and Purisima appear to be the “two main actors” in the Mamasapano operation.
“They are the only ones who seem to know everything. Espina and Roxas were out of the loop. Catapang was informed belatedly. Napenas was merely following instructions from Purisima. The destructive duo of Aquino and Purisima is responsible for the serious errors in the operations,” Reyes said.
Reyes urged Napenas to tell the whole truth about Purisima and his dealings with the President.
“General Napenas should stop holding back. He should call a spade a spade. Purisima was running the operations because he was authorized by the President. That is the only relevant statement he should make in relation to the chain of command and issues of coordination. He dishonors his men if he does not tell the whole truth. He dishonors his men if he covers up for Aquino,” the Bayan leader said. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, meanwhile, said Napenas was the scapegoat and sacrificial lamb for Aquino and Purisima, who should be blamed for the ill-fated operation.
Responding to a query if there was a consensus among the higher-ups for Napenas to take the blame, Santiago replied: “Oh yes.” “He’s a scapegoat. He’s a sacrificial lamb at the cost of telling the truth to the entire Filipino people,” said Santiago in a media briefing after her interpellation during the third Senate hearing on the Mamasapano bloody encounter between the SAF troopers and Moro fighters.
When asked if she believed Aquino had a direct hand in Operation Exodus and that he allowed Purisima to participate despite his suspension, Santiago said her reply was a categorical yes. Based on the President’s own admission, Santiago said, he had a direct hand from the very beginning, and she does not buy the President’s version that he had dropped out of the line of command because the people already understood his position on the operation against those terrorists.
Santiago said there was no choice except to let Napenas take the blame. “If they will choose Purisima to take responsibility, it would amount to admission that they violated the terms of his preventive suspension. That’s why it had to be Napenas,” said Santiago. She said the President was not forthcoming about his role in the operation. But she said the President was immune from suit, and his Liberal Party had enough votes to defeat an impeachment complaint. In the hearing, Santiago grilled Purisima on who was involved in the preparations for Operation Exodus and who was the person in charge above the level of the SAF commander.
She said there must have been someone on top of Napeñas. “He is not the commander-in-chief of the Philippines under the Constitution. There’s somebody there. We have the SAF commander here. He should have a PNP chief, but you are preventively suspended and then, the substitute in the PNP was purportedly kept out of the loop . So to whom was he (Napenas) reporting? Who was the person above the SAF commander? Was that you? It would seem you or President Aquino? Only the two of you,” said Santiago.
She then rebuked Purisima when he said it was Napeñas’ call. When she demanded to know if he and the President were behind the ill-fated mission, Purisima replied: “I am accountable for that operation, that’s why I resigned.”
Santiago merely shrugged and expressed her disbelief. She also berated Purisima for getting involved in the operation when he was already suspended.
“If you didn’t meddle, they could still be alive,” she said of the 44 police commandos.
“Why did you keep talking and talking? Why didn’t you just stay quiet in your estate in Nueva Ecija? You were under preventive suspension, why did you interfere? Imagine, 44 were killed and you were very much a part of it,” she told the resigned PNP chief. Since the first day of the Senate hearings, Purisima has denied running the operation and said he merely offered “advice” to Napeñas. In his testimony, Purisima said that when he approved the law enforcement operations of the PNP-SAF before his suspension, he had already delegated the “command and control.” “When I delegated the responsibility, I did not delegate the accountability,” he added.
But Santiago shot back: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, saying I delegated the responsibility but not the accountability? You should hear yourself talk. I would not take that… That does not play with me.”
Also on Thursday, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said President Aquino must take full responsibility for the disastrous operation to capture or kill Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Jan. 25, which resulted in the death of 44 SAF commandos.
“I do not want to offend the President but somebody has to tell him that he has to stop this blame game by taking full responsibility for what happened in Mamasapano,” Duterte said.