What ‘confidential expenses’?
Whatever the reason for Eliseo Rio Jr. to quit his post as undersecretary of operations at the Department of Information and Communications Technology, whether it is his now-strained relations with ICT Secretary Gregorio Honasan or his being shut out of decision-making processes there, the matter of the use of hundreds of millions of pesos in DICT funds for surveillance should be investigated thoroughly—and the public duly informed of the findings. From there, the stringent requirements of accountability should be swiftly met, or this nation is truly the basket case it is now alleged to be.
The DICT has since issued a statement to defend itself, but as of this writing its chief has yet to personally respond to Rio’s contention that confidential funds were disbursed for surveillance activities that are beyond the department’s mandate. Nor was any mention of the matter made at the Cabinet meeting last Wednesday even when Honasan was present, as though nothing significant had occurred at the department among whose functions are to improve public access, promote consumer protection and industry development, and formulate the Philippines’ cybersecurity policy.
Any official inquiry does not have to depend wholly on the say-so of Rio, a retired brigadier general who served as acting DICT chief until President Duterte named then Senator Honasan to the post in November 2018 (it was only in July 2019 that Honasan was sworn in, after completing his second term as a lawmaker). There is an observation memorandum dated Jan. 20 and issued by the Commission on Audit—that the DICT advanced P100 million each time for confidential expenses on Nov. 22, Dec. 2 and Dec. 17 last year, or P300 million in all—to back Rio’s claim. The same document states that Honasan requested the funds that were advanced in his name, “for confidential expenses in connection with cybersecurity activities,” and that a “defect” in the processing of the transaction showed up in a review of the disbursement voucher dated Dec. 2, 2019.
But it’s important to note that Rio, 75, is not in the mold of retired military brass put to pasture in high civilian posts. He is an electronics and communication engineer and was No. 4 in the licensure exams. He was, among other posts, commander of MIG (Military Intelligence Group) 21, Communication and Electronics Technical Intelligence Group of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces from April 1988 to March 1992. He served at the National Telecommunications Commission. Etc. He is, in short, no slouch in his field. He fills the bill of qualifications specified by Republic Act No. 10844 or the DICT Act of 2015 enacted in May 2016 (it’s uncertain if the other high officials around him do). He can’t be just bellyaching about lost turf.
And Rio’s message was clear in an interview with the Inquirer’s Miguel Camus early this week, where he cited a confidential fund that, he said, did not require auditing and that Honasan had sought even while still serving as senator. Curious.
“My original position has always been [that] the DICT cannot use a confidential fund because it’s not in our mandate to do intelligence and surveillance work,” Rio said.
In its defense, the DICT said the confidential expenses of P300 million were for the “lawful monitoring and surveillance of systems and networks” given the cyberthreats faced by the Philippines. To the COA finding of irregularity in the confidential disbursements, the DICT said the commission’s recommendations were merely “procedural.” The DICT did not address the COA finding that the department underspent for other projects because the money allotted was used for the confidential expenses. “All these noted deficiencies adversely affected and are counter-beneficial to the [DICT’s] mandate of cybersecurity policy and program coordination,” the COA said in its memorandum.
The Senate is preparing to look into the matter, although Honasan’s former colleagues seemed to suggest how things would pan out by attesting—unnecessarily—to his integrity and declaring that the planned inquiry would cover the disbursement of intelligence funds of not only the DICT but also of other government agencies. The public would do well then to pay close attention in view of the risk of a diluted focus on the DICT’s surveillance activity and the murky circumstances in which it is being carried out.
Rio described the DICT statement as “deceptive,” but has stopped short of making direct accusations. It is up to investigators to quickly get to the meat of the matter, but that’s a distant prospect in this unhappy archipelago. That the public is being inextricably drawn into “the internet of things,” with personal data swiftly being lodged into secret troves, cannot be mere suspicion. At any rate, Rio formulates the bottom line: “In the surveillance practice, what they look for is results. We have to take care of the government’s money.” That’s taxpayer money, too.
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