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Jul 13

The Long View: The next proconsul

The Long View
The next proconsul
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:01:00 07/12/2009

There will, undoubtedly, be a lot of sniffing around for signs concerning Washington’s message to the President in the wake of CIA chief Leon Panetta’s Palace visit Sunday. Babe Romualdez, for one, is widely considered a kind of oracle concerning Washington’s intentions and he framed the issue by pooh-poohing the Palace’s statement that it was an ordinary meeting. To be sure, the Palace was forced to react to a scoop by The Daily Tribune which first broke the story of Panetta’s visit, subsequently fleshed out by the Philippine Star which prides itself on its being in-the-know as far as the US Embassy and Washington are concerned.

The Press Secretary waxed cryptic – “His visit is self-evidently related to the ongoing war on terror of which the bombings here may well be a part” – blathered Cerge Remonde, adding that it was upon the request of the Americans and what’s more, was scheduled a month ago. Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro on July 9 confessed himself out of the loop, saying he didn’t know the agenda, though reporters failed to ask why he seemed content with not knowing or preparing for such a high-level visit. But then Remonde was contradicted by the Department of Foreign Affair’s own spokesman, Ed Malaya, who did say it was purely a “courtesy call” but that “the visit is unrelated to certain developments in Mindanao.”

What developments? Romualdez firmly framed the meeting in terms of an unfelicitously phrased comment by Joseph Mussomeli – remember him? Formerly of the American Embassy in Manila and now detailed to Afghanistan, he said that Mindanao is a “Mecca” for terrorists and might just become the next Afghanistan: Romualdez emphasized that Mussomeli wouldn’t “dare say such a thing without a go-signal from the State Department.”

According to Romualdez, a month ago, when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the country, the American commitment to Mindanao remained more in terms of development, the military component being limited to “intelligence sharing, training and coordination.” In that context, a Panetta visit coming on the heels of Gates’ would’ve indicated maintaining the status quo. Which is precisely what’s piqued interest in Panetta’s Sunday stopover: the bombings in Mindanao have changed the situation on the ground.

The charitable conclusion’s that the DFA reflects the state of things a month ago while the Press Secretary’s statements reflect the Palace’s desire to portray itself as a key front. Hence the rumor mill’s obsession with the possibility of the President sounding out the Americans for carte blanche in Mindanao.

But Romualdez also framed Panetta’s visit in terms of American official concern over the drug trade being connected to terrorist training. And in this regard, he drops some broad hints about big drug syndicates with connections to very powerful people. The whole narcopolitics angle has been brought up before, as a game-changer, together with gambling lord money, in local politics.

Romualdez estimated the drug industry as a billion-peso-a-day one: that’s P365 billion a year or $7.5 billion. Enough to warrant American attention? The American DEA in 2006 estimated the value of the Columbian drug trade at $1.5 billion a year; Time Magazine in 2008 mentioned a $25 billion-a-year trafficking industry in Mexico; and an American naval officer’s proposed 2005 thesis estimated the global drug trade at $300-500 billion, although the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) estimated the world illegal drug market to range between $45 billion and $280 billion.

The thing is, an administration that perpetually brags of its near-total dominance in the lower house, and governorships and mayorships, would necessarily end up saddled, by sheer force of probabilities, with more than its fair share of gambling and drug lord-funded allies. Surely an inconvenient thing to look into going into an election year.

Nicholas Kralev, in the July 10 Washington Times (a right-leaning Moonie-owned paper), reported a State Department rumpus caused by the Obama administration supposedly being poised to exceed the 30 percent informal quota on political appointees to ambassadorships. The report says Manila and Lima will go to political appointees rather than career diplomats – Harry K. Thomas Jr., until recently director-general of the Foreign Service, and Kristie Kenney’s putative successor, seems no longer headed here.

Much will hinge, for those obsessed with Washington and Roxas Boulevard-watching, to see if the State Department ends up announcing the posting of an otherwise meaningless political appointee, possibly with an eye toward commerce, or whether the next US ambassador will possess credentials within the national security establishment or is a known protege of a national security bigwig. If the former, then Washington is less concerned about politics and more about preserving or expanding business here; if the latter, they think something’s afoot – or deserves, at least, someone capable of keeping a close eye – on Mindanao, Manila or both?

There used to be a saying in the 1960s that the three most important people in the Philippines were the US ambassador, the head of the Lopez family and the President of the Philippines – in that order. That perception endures somewhat, though since the closing of the US bases Manila, while undeniably a plum post for careerists, has long dwindled in importance in the strategic scheme of things.

As it is, the Panetta visit can’t be separated from John Negroponte’s unannounced December 2005 visit, when he nipped a planned declaration of martial law in the bud, on the eve of Virgilio Garcillano’s testifying in the House – when, quite possibly, the Palace expected all hell to break loose.

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  1. Jhay

    So once more, we thank the US for saving us from martial law? The White House’s supposed “invitation” to GMA to meet Obama seems to drive home the point.

  2. mabini

    The invitation of Obama to Arroyo is a preemptive move on the part of the U.S. government,this is not the protocol in inviting a head of state (18 days lead time), this very un-American unless it is an emergency case. The U.S.goverment is suspicious of what GMA is planning to do come July 27, in her SONA.

  3. Carl

    Undeniably, the CIA’s chief’s visit means something. The head spook doesn’t just come for light social banter. However, Panetta isn’t your run-of-the-mill spy. He’s also a politician, having served as a Congressman and White House chief of staff. So he sees a bigger picture than the ordinary sleuth. He enjoys Obama’s complete trust and his job description probably isn’t only limited to cloak and dagger operations.

    Are the Americans worried our local drug trade is financing terrorist groups? While local officials and military and police officers are surely involved, it’s doubtful that there is a large enough participation by terrorist groups in this business.

  4. Bert

    Our local drug traders financing terrorist groups? What for? Are they that dumb?

    They’ll get more benefits financing political groups and government high officials. And that’s more worrying.

  5. FreeSince09

    @Bert: Don’t they already do that?

    Hmm. interesting question, so was EDSA 1 really a CIA plot to phase people away from the Reds?

  6. ramrod

    Our local drug traders financing terrorist groups? What for? Are they that dumb?

    They’ll get more benefits financing political groups and government high officials. And that’s more worrying.
    ————————————————-

    What if its the other way around, the terrorists use the drug trade as a source of funds and while doing so, have a hold on political groups and government high officials whether directly or indirectly?

  7. ramrod

    it’s doubtful that there is a large enough participation by terrorist groups in this business.
    —————————————————

    Where do these terrorist groups get their money? Like any interesting plot, follow the money trail…

  8. ramrod

    Then again, these terrorists are fighting for a noble cause and will not stoop down to taking money from drugs even if their lives depended on it.?

  9. taxj

    Speculations galore, fodder for paranoia or vigilance. This is a free country, with a government that’s in a state of denial more often than not. Well… journalists die freely, as do activists. My bit? What US wants, US gets… fom us.

  10. taxj

    POLLS. Right side, stupid! Where does Congress, each house voting separately fit in? Or, isn’t it an option?

  11. Carl

    Terrorists will use drugs to raise funds if they control the territory. Like they do in places like Afghanistan, where they control the opium trade.

    In the Philippines it’s local warlords and military officers who are in control of their areas. They may be a bunch of greedy, unscrupulous and ruthless bastards who don’t care who gets hurt, as long as they make a buck. But terrorism? Why bother? The closest to terrorists making money from drugs in the Philippines is the NPA’s involvement in marijuana production.

    What may be more serious is Chinese involvement in the metamphetamine drug trade.

  12. FreeSince09

    @CArl: do the NPA really involve themselves in marijuana producation?

  13. Liam

    What’s wrong with terrorists using drug money for financing operations?

    Even the US have long tapped underground economies as a source for liquid finances , through black-market financial instruments, to run ground operations. Money laundering alone affords them untracable liquidity that the US Congress can’t give as well as precious underground intelligence.

    It’s only logical, informal economies give generous returns. Returns which they can use for their operations.

  14. Carl

    The issue isn’t whether terrorists use drug money for financing their operation. They would, in places that they could. Just as terrorists use ransom money to finance their operations.

    The issue is whether it’s being done extensively enough in the Philippines, so that it warrants a visit from the U.S. CIA director. I say it’s B.S. There could be instances, but it isn’t extensive enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if the MILF, for example, engaged in marijuana production in areas they control. But it wouldn’t be in alarmingly large volumes. I also know that the NPA encourages farmers to cultivate marijuana in some far-flung areas.

  15. J_ag

    “Even the US have long tapped underground economies as a source for liquid finances , through black-market financial instruments, to run ground operations. Money laundering alone affords them untracable liquidity that the US Congress can’t give as well as precious underground intelligence.”

    “It’s only logical, informal economies give generous returns. Returns which they can use for their operations.”

    The above is one weird statement.

    The U.S. treasury announced recently that the U.S. budget deficit hit $1 trillion as of end June. Their fiscal year ends in September. That would mean that they sold debt papers to their authorized dealers in debt paper an amount that would equal the entire annual output of ASEAN economies and they have not yet finished their fiscal year.

    Please note that even the Iran Contra deal was done with budget items.

    Being that the U.S. dollar is the unit of account for all commodities that would mean the U.S. is privileged in the world in getting things for free. That is the benefit of empire.

  16. Liam

    @Carl

    I agree with you Carl. Drug money is not used extensively to directly fund terrorist activities, it is because individual terroristic undertakings, like bombings, require a relatively small amount of input to effect. However, drug money appears to somehow pay for logistics and overhead maintenance for operations and serve as a commodity to barter for smuggled goods(ever wonder how our enterprising Muslim brothers have access to hot goods despite very low capital present, but this is of course not limited or exclusive to them).

    I do not hear the MILF or Abu Sayaff have the tradition nor the habit of widespread extortion.

    Whether this warrants the CIA boss’ attention, I don’t know. I believe what is more concerning to the CIA is the Philippines serving as a good transit point for terrorists to enter mainland US.

    @J_ag

    I’m sorry if my statement sounds as if the US is getting a chunk of their finances for external operations from dirty money. But i think the advantages and benefits in tapping these underground finances are really plenty both as an intelligence tool and as a ready, available & liquid source of currency for a small portion of their operations.

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