Aquino tells lawmakers: I asked Purisima to loop in Espina

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Was President Benigno Aquino III trying to hide "Oplan Exodus" from Philippine National Police Officer in charge (OIC) Leonardo Espina? Or was it then-suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima who made that decision?

According to officials present in a meeting in Malacañang on Monday, February 23, the President told them he asked Purisima to inform Espina of the operation against top terrorists – only to later find out he did not inform Espina until the operation was already ongoing.

Purisima, at that time, was suspended for graft charges.

Lawmakers who were at the meeting said Aquino showed them powerpoint slides of his SMS exchanges with Purisima - the same text messages that were presented to the Senate committee Monday.

In one text message, Purisima said the police Special Action Force troopers were already "supported" by military troops and artillery when reinforcements from them were just leaving their camp in Shariff Aguak at that time the message was sent. (READ: Purisima misled Aquino)

Aquino felt he was "lied to," said Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez, one of the over 20 members of the House of Representatives present at the hearing. 

In the course of the meeting, Magdalo Partylist Representative Ashley Acedillo said one lawmaker asked: Mr President, it seems you were given enough lead information?

Aquino interjected mid-sentence, according to Acedillo, and said: "Hindi kaya I was lied to?" (Perhaps I was lied to?)

Lawmakers, however, differ on their interpretation of who lied to Aquino. 

Rodriguez said Aquino felt it was Purisima who lied to him since it was the former police chief who was in direct communication with the President.

But Magdalo Partylist Representative Ashley Acedillo said Aquino did not specify who the person who lied to him was but the President kept repeating the sequence how text messages reached him – that it was Napeñas who was texting Purisima and Purisima was the one texting the President. 

Purisima and Espina

In a statement released by the Palace, Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma said that in a meeting with Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr and other House leaders, “The President said that he had given specific instructions… for Purisima to inform PNP OIC Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina. However, he found out later that these instructions had not been followed.”

A source present in the meeting confirmed Aquino made those statements, adding that the President told them he found out early in January that Espina “was not in the loop,” and asked Purisima to specifically “include Espina.”

It was only after the operation, the President told those in the meeting, that he discovered Espina was never looped in. Aquino said he confronted Purisima and asked why, but Purisima “couldn’t answer the question.”

Two weeks after the incident, Aquino announced he accepted Purisima’s resignation. When he announced Purisima's resignation, however, the President made no mention of Purisima's apparent failure to heed his orders. (READ: Aquino, Purisima and the ties that bind)

Asked when exactly the President gave Purisima the instructions to tell Espina, Coloma told Rappler he did not hear Aquino specifically say when or where, but said his impression was "there was adequate time" for Purisima to have told Espina.

Coloma’s statement also said that the President told those in attendance in Monday's meeting that “he had given specific instructions to Napeñas on the need for coordination with the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines),” another instruction that was supposedly not followed.

The source also confirmed this, saying Aquino told them that “Napeñas failed to take charge” and that “coordination was not (supposed to be) time on target.” Napeñas has said it was Purisima who told him to only inform higher officials when the operation was already ongoing.

Still another source with knowledge of the meeting said Aquino “continually put the blame on Napeñas,” who he said should have adjusted, having been in command of the operation. Napeñas has since admitted fault, but senators have raised doubt on whether he alone is to blame.

In the wee hours of January 25, some 392 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos entered Mamasapano town, a known bailiwick of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to arrest top terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir, or Marwan and Abdul Basit Usman. The commandos killed Marwan but Usman reportedly managed to escape.

The operation resulted in a bloody clash between SAF troopers and rebel forces that claimed at least 65 lives, including 44 SAF troopers. The MILF blamed this on the SAF team's failure to coordinate with them, as provided in its ceasefire agreement with the government on operations in known MILF territories. 

After the operation was made public, Espina, who was then in charge of the PNP, said he knew nothing of the operation until it was already happening. A Senate probe to determine responsibility and what went wrong is ongoing.

No orders

The incident occurred less than a year after the MILF signed a landmark peace deal with the Philippine government, and as lawmakers deliberate on the proposed BBL which seeks to create an autonomous region initially headed by the MILF. Several lawmakers are now lukewarm to the idea of passing the law.

The meeting in Malacañang, which lasted about 2 and a half hours, was meant to “discuss the Mamasapano incident and its implications on the peace process in Mindanao, particularly on the enactment of the proposed Bangsamoro basic law,” according to Coloma.

Aquino started the meeting by explaining his role in the operation. He shared text messages he exchanged with Purisima on January 25, showed detailed maps of the terrain and the planning that went into the operation, and also answered questions from lawmakers. During the second part of the meeting, he made a push for the BBL.

Coloma said “the President listened to the representatives’ views on how the killing of the PNP SAF troopers has given rise to a clamor among their constituents that the ends of justice be pursued, as part of rebuilding public confidence on the viability of the peace process.”

“Those who spoke at the dialogue with the President also brought up the need for ‘leveling off with the MILF’ on the parameters of their partnership with the government in the peace process including the containment of the (breakaway group) BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters); and their active cooperation in bringing those responsible for the deaths of the PNP-SAF troopers before the bar of justice,” Coloma said.

He added that Aquino also acknowledged the delay in the BBL’s enactment, but “emphasized the importance of approving the measure in a timely manner, so as to pave the way for the holding of a plebiscite and if the people will approve the same, to give the members of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority sufficient time to demonstrate their capabilities.”

The source said the meeting was “very open,” as the lawmakers aired their concerns about the BBL, and said the President appeared concerned about time running out, specifically asking House leaders to approve it before the latter part of the year.

But the source also said there was no agreement or conclusion at the end of the meeting. Another source also in the meeting also told Rappler that the President “did not give specific orders.”

Coloma said those who were in the meeting included Representative Neptali Gonzales II, majority leader; Representative Ronaldo Zamora, minority leader; and Representative Rufus Rodriguez, chairman of the House ad hoc committee on the draft BBL.

Senior military and PNP officers who are now House members were also present, including representatives Samuel Pagdilao, Romeo Acop, Leopoldo Bataoil, Gary Alejano, and Acedillo. Chairpersons of the House committees that conducted hearings last week were also invited, including Representative Jeffrey Ferrer of the committee on public order and safety, and Representative Jim Hataman Salliman of the committee on peace, reconciliation and unity.

Of the Cabinet, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr., Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Budget and Management Secretary Florencio Abad, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, PMS Secretary Julia Abad and Coloma were in attendance. – with a report from Angela Casauay/Rappler.com