Center wins first Pulitzer!

Black lung investigation honored

Get more award-winning investigations:

Sustaining an unpopular regime

In the Philippines, U.S. aid has helped bolster a government whose military is tied to extrajudicial killings

By

 Updated:

A huge post-9/11 increase in U.S. military aid to the Philippines has helped counterterrorism efforts, but critics say there have been major downsides for a nation that's routinely criticized for human rights abuses.

Among the accusations is that the strengthened Philippine military persecuted and killed scores of political activists. And there are long-standing allegations that the military has sold to the same insurgent groups it ostensibly fights some of the high-tech military hardware the government obtained with U.S. aid.

Military forces have allowed and encouraged scores of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines since 2001, according to a recent report produced by a government-appointed inquiry commission.More than $245 million in U.S. aid was channeled to the Philippines in the three years after 9/11. The aid has helped produce some high-profile terrorist catches, but it has also helped support an unpopular and, some say, authoritarian regime.

"If it weren't for the U.S. military aid, it wouldn't have been so easy for this impunity to prevail in the Philippines," said Herbert Docena, a researcher in Manila with Focus on the Global South, a nongovernmental group that tracks the U.S. military presence in the Philippines. "The U.S. aid is facilitating the human rights violations."

To help keep U.S. money flowing to the country in the face of criticism, the Philippine government has retained a team of well-connected Washington lobbyists. In their disclosure records with the U.S. Department of Justice, the lobbyists describe their work as ensuring that "the interests of the Republic of the Philippines, including appropriations, will be advocated clearly and persuasively to key policy makers."

Among those contacted by the lobbyists on behalf of the Philippine government is the office of Vice President Cheney, lobbying records show.

"We did succeed," said James Pitts, a former Treasury Department official who heads the Filipino lobbyist team at the law and lobby firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP. "We got some increased funding in military assistance." In a phone interview with the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), he called the Philippines one of the "most dependable allies the United States has in the world" and said his role with the new Democratic-controlled Congress is to make sure that "the assistance that has been previously given to the Philippines at least stays the same and, of course, increases if possible."

The war on terror's second front

It is widely said that September 11, 2001, changed everything, and that certainly seems to have been true in the case of U.S.-Philippine military cooperation.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the United States sent 1,650 troops, including 150 special forces, to the Philippines to engage in annual military exercises, known as Balikatan exercises, with Philippine forces. Thus opened what was widely understood as a second front in the war on terror: Operation Enduring Freedom Philippines. The targets were a handful of Muslim separatist groups that operate in the south of the country, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has been linked to al Qaeda.

The $245.6 million in military aid that the Philippines received from the United States in the three years following 9/11 was up from just $14.6 million in the three years before the terrorist attacks ― a staggering increase of more than 1,500 percent, according to ICIJ's database of military training and assistance.

The largest disbursements came in the form of Foreign Military Financing funds, which are grants to foreign countries to buy U.S.-made weapons and services. The Philippines is the second-largest recipient, after Indonesia, of the Pentagon's new Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program, which was set up after 9/11 to train foreign forces in counterterrorism techniques.

In addition, the Philippines receives used American weapons and equipment through the Excess Defense Articles program. Transfers in the past few years include a C-130 transport plane, 30,000 M-16 rifles, eight helicopters and a patrol vessel valued at $14 million. In recognition of the Philippines' support in the war on terror, in 2003 the United States designated the Southeast Asian country a Major Non-NATO ally, further enhancing its access to U.S. military aid and weapons.

U.S. arms may go to terrorists

On the ground, witnesses and experts say, Philippine forces are not the only ones benefiting from post-9/11 U.S. military largesse.

The Philippine military has a sordid history of complicity with the same insurgent groups it ostensibly fights, which includes a long-standing practice of selling weapons to the rebels, said Eliza Griswold, a journalist who has covered South Asia extensively; her stories have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic and other major publications. "The United States has supplied the Armed Forces of the Philippines with high-tech weaponry that some members of the [Philippine military] have gone on to sell to the insurgents," she said.

Last year, Griswold traveled to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and interviewed members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamic separatist group that has fought the government since 1977.

"I have never seen the level of military hardware that I saw in the MILF camp," she said. "A MILF commander showed me several M-16 assault rifles equipped with night vision scopes. So not only does the Philippine military have those, but [the MILF commander] has also bought them from the Philippine security forces."

Griswold said the MILF commander told her that the increased presence of high-tech weaponry is leading to a higher casualty rate on both sides of the fight.

Lobbyists seek more arms

In 2005, Philippine national security adviser Norberto Gonzales signed a contract with the Washington law and lobbying firm Venable LLP to secure even more American military and political support for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration. The job had a retainer of $75,000 a month, according to documents filed with the Department of Justice.

Once the deal hit the press, it triggered a political scandal in the Philippines. Gonzales was held in contempt by the Philippine Senate for refusing to disclose who had authorized and financed the lobbying agreement.

Philippine senators were dismayed at language in the contract indicating that among Venable's assignments was to generate support in the United States for an initiative backed by Macapagal-Arroyo to shift from a bicameral parliamentary system to one that is unicameral.

An ICIJ review of lobbying records shows that the Venable lobbyists' efforts were largely centered on securing additional U.S. military assistance for the Philippines. In 2005 and 2006, according to the records, the lobbyists arranged dozens of meetings and calls with high-ranking officials at the Pentagon, including Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time; the office of the vice president; the National Security Council; the State Department; and the Senate and House foreign relations committees.

When asked about the purpose of the contacts with the vice president's office, Pitts, the lobbyist, said they "concerned the anti-terrorism efforts."

The original contract between Gonzales and Venable stated that among the lobbyists' goals was to help the Philippines get a loan of up to $800 million from the U.S. government to acquire military equipment. In addition, Venable agreed to lobby for training and equipment for the Philippine National Police, which the Philippine Commission on Human Rights has described as the worst abuser of human rights in the country.

Second lobbying agreement

The Macapagal-Arroyo administration terminated the original Venable contract soon after the scandal broke in September 2005, but the lobbyists negotiated a second agreement.

The new deal expressly left out any advocacy related to possible changes to the Philippine legislature but retained the goal of securing additional U.S. military and economic aid. Recently, the three lobbyists involved in representing the Philippines at Venable moved to a different Washington lobbying firm, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP.

Pitts said they will continue working for the Philippines from their new office. "Obviously, there's always interest in getting additional assistance for the [Philippine] military," he said. To achieve this, Pitts also relies on another well-connected lobbyist in the team, James George Jatras, who was a senior policy adviser to the Senate Republican leadership for almost two decades.

According to Pitts, advocating for a country that is high on the U.S. government's foreign aid priority list makes his job easier. "But at the same time you have to advocate because there are a lot of other countries that can make a case that they, too, should get special treatment," he said. "So you have to be able to advocate that you deserve special treatment as well."

Macapagal-Arroyo's own 'war on terror'

Meanwhile, Macapagal-Arroyo, a former vice president who ascended to the presidency in 2001 after her predecessor was ousted over corruption charges and was elected to a fresh term in 2004, faces increasing criticism at home for trying to suppress political opposition.

In February 2006, Macapagal-Arroyo claimed to have uncovered a coup plot by members of the military, communist rebels and the political opposition. She declared a weeklong state of emergency while scores of "leftists" and soldiers were arrested or threatened with arrest, including five members of Congress, Human Rights Watch reported.

Scores of left-wing activists have been shot dead in the Philippines since 2001. A government-appointed commission that investigated the deaths concluded in a report released in February 2007 that Philippine soldiers were "responsible for an undetermined number of killings by allowing, tolerating and even encouraging the killings."

That same month, Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, concluded after a fact-finding mission to the Philippines that although there was no state-sanctioned policy to target activists, the Macapagal-Arroyo administration had not done enough to stop the killings.

Many of the victims were farmers and peasant activists that the military believes worked for or supported the New People's Army, communist insurgents that the government has battled since 1969. Until now, the Macapagal-Arroyo administration had ignored the allegations that the military was involved in the killings and had suggested that they were the result of internal purges carried out by the communist rebels.

When journalists, lawyers and judges are included in the tally of those killed since 2001, the number of slayings adds up to 800, according to Karapatan, a Philippine human rights group.

"The government is targeting people that have nothing to do with underground communist forces in the Philippines," said Tina Foster, executive director of the New York-based International Justice Network, who last year traveled to the Philippines with other human rights lawyers to investigate the killings and other human rights violations. "What they have done is say 'all of these people are part of the war on terror'… and U.S. officials seem to be buying that."

The U.S. government considers the Philippines "a strategic ally and partner in the global war on terrorism" and has applauded a number of high-profile terrorist arrests and killings that Philippine forces have carried out in the south. Those include the January 2007 killing of Abu Solaiman, one of the top leaders of the Abu Sayyaf Group, who was involved in the kidnapping of American and Philippine tourists in Palawan Island in 2001.

For fiscal 2007, the White House requested that Congress appropriate $17 million in Foreign Military Financing for the Philippines. It also requested that Congress appropriate funds for a program that, among other things, would train the senior ranks of the Philippine National Police.

A July 2005 Government Accounting Office report found that 1,175 Philippine police forces trained through a U.S. Department of Justice program had not been vetted for human rights violations, a requirement of U.S. law.

U.S. military involvement

According to Docena, the researcher in Manila, pursuing a strictly military solution in the south allows the Philippine government to evade "the real issues" there, such as cultural marginalization.

"They claim to have killed the head of Abu Sayyaf, but as long as the motivation, as long as the injustice, is still there, [the insurgents] will replace him with other people," said Docena, who argued in a recent report that U.S. special forces advisers are likely engaged in combat activities in the Philippines. "The fear is that what's happening now is radicalizing more and more people."

The United States has also engaged in a "winning hearts and minds" approach to address the root causes of frustration in the south.

U.S. forces have built roads and provided medical and veterinary services to impoverished rural communities. The U.S. government hopes that this civic-oriented approach will deter locals from joining radical groups.

In Mindanao, the second-largest island in the country and the staging ground for several Islamic separatist groups, the U.S. government says it has provided education and job skills to 28,000 former combatants of the Moro National Liberation Front, another Muslim insurgent group that signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996.

Some are skeptical about the U.S. hearts and minds approach. U.S. officials "see in these humanitarian projects a form of combat as well," said Docena. "They have been categorical in saying that what they want out of it is exact information, actionable information. So people will go to them and tell them, 'My neighbor is with Abu Sayyaf.' This is the end point of all these humanitarian projects."

Assistant Database Editor Ben Welsh contributed this report.