Monday, September 21, 2009

Spies like us

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:01:00 09/21/2009

Martial law took effect on Sept. 23, 1972, but the number-fetishist in Ferdinand Marcos backdated the declaration to Sept. 21, a scant 37 years ago today. The declaration both changed the course of our history—and proved to be the culmination of deep historical trends that continue to haunt the national experience.

The news last week, that an apparently obtuse student enrolled in the Armed Forces’ Naval Enlisted Personnel Intelligence Course had conducted an unsuccessful attempt to spy on National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, reminded us yet again that the Arroyo administration, in its last days in office, has calmly and deliberately given new substance to one such historical trend: the tendency of an incumbent president to consider the military as his or her own private army.

Either that, or Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo, the Navy spokesperson, would like to define a much lower threshold for military intelligence.

Arevalo has admitted that the “target” of the “information verification” procedure of a “scenario activity” was Professor Lumbera, but not on purpose or by choice. “It was not intended for Professor Lumbera. It was just a part of a training that we have to very realistically [apply], so [the students] have to be dispatched to actual ground,” Arevalo told reporters, somewhat hopefully.

This accidental targeting of Lumbera is difficult to believe, in part because he lives inside a residential development with security guards and that therefore his house could not have been chosen at random, and in part because his house serves as headquarters for the party-list group of the leftist Alliance of Concerned Teachers which he used to head. Indeed, as the Navy spokesman helpfully explained, the “scenario” to be verified by the trainee spy involved monitoring a house that was supposed to be frequented by communist leaders.

If taken at face value, Arevalo’s denial would mean that, while the trainee spy may have been inept, his spymasters were lucky—to have pinpointed such a house, of such a prominent nationalist, merely at random.

“The student surely flunked that module. He not only failed the requirement of his scenario, he was even caught,” Arevalo added.

Again, if taken at face value, Arevalo’s non-explanatory explanation would mean that the burden of moral responsibility falls on the trainee—rather than on the training itself. But this innocent-sounding “module” is in actuality and by design a civilian-targeting program, to be carried out not by professional spies but by apprentices. How can that practice be defended, in a fully functioning democracy? (Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro has ordered an investigation, but did not say what kind of offense would merit a court-martial. Only if the investigation includes not only the trainees and the trainors, but the training program itself, will an anxious public begin to find reassurance. )

But the Arroyo administration’s democratic credentials have worn thin—beginning with the apparent massive fraud it committed to ensure a victory in the May 2004 elections, and stretched to breaking point with its unmistakable support for or use of military “special operations” that have resulted in continuing harassment of leftist political organizations and led to a crisis in politically motivated killings and enforced disappearances.

The bungled spying on Lumbera, in other words, forms part of a chilling pattern. Thus, despite the sincerity of official spokesmen, the public cannot look upon the incident as a simple “inconvenience,” or (as Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita treated it) a mere laughing matter; it is of the utmost seriousness—because as we have learned from sad experience, military intelligence agents take their cue directly from MalacaƱang: as spies from a private army.

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