In muddled command chain, Aquino unscathed
It took former President Fidel V. Ramos to shed light on the convoluted chain of command, which is now being blamed for the Jan. 25 massacre of 44 commandos of the elite Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) by Moro guerrillas in Maguindanao province.
When Ramos spoke on Saturday to say that Director Getulio Napeñas, the sacked SAF commander, was “being made a scapegoat” for the debacle in Mamasapano, he provided valuable insight into the responsibilities and accountability of top political leaders and military and police officials who could not get their act together in dealing with the crisis.
He informed the debate over the encounter in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, between SAF commandos and guerrillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and their cohorts in the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters with his expertise as defense secretary in the Cory Aquino administration and as former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and commander of the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police.
From this platform, Ramos called on Napeñas to stop blaming himself for the debacle and instead throw the “real blame” at higher officials who were washing their hands of responsibility for the bungled SAF operation.
He praised Napeñas for “being brave as a patriot and as SAF commander to accept the blame,” but said maybe Napeñas “should stop blaming himself and put the real blame on higher officials.”
Ramos, however, did not name the higher officials.
Napeñas has admitted that he did not inform the officer in charge of the PNP, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, and Interior Secretary Mar
Roxas about the SAF operation to arrest international terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” and his Filipino deputy, Abdul Basit Usman, who were given sanctuary by the MILF in a zone where a ceasefire was being enforced as part of the peace agreement it had signed with the government.
Ramos stopped short of criticizing the agreement but was scathing in his criticism of the Aquino administration’s handling of the crisis that followed the disastrous SAF operation.
He criticized the administration for “hemming and hawing” in the aftermath of the clash, in which 44 police commandos were killed.
“You must balance your actions with hot pursuit. This is law enforcement with peacekeeping,” he said, recalling the military action against rebel groups that burned down Ipil town in Zamboanga Sibugay province in April 1995 ahead of the signing of a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front during his administration.
On the chain of command, Ramos pointed out that the Constitution clearly states that the President is the Commander in Chief of all state armed forces and of the civilian government.
“As I said before, there are many chains of command—military, police, civilian, NGO, the media. The military [chain of command] is a bit different from the PNP chain of command, but both have one characteristic—the President is the Commander in Chief,” Ramos said.
“As military Commander in Chief, his chain of command goes down to the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The secretary of defense is just an alter-ego. Same with the interior secretary [and the chief of the PNP]. They cannot order operations unless delegated by the President,” he said.
Clearance for operation
This point was raised in connection with the question of whether the President gave the go-signal for the SAF operation to get Marwan and Usman. It was also related to the question why Roxas and Espina were not informed about the operation.
Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., AFP chief of staff, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin were also not told about the operation, but Gazmin and Roxas told a Senate hearing on Thursday that they heard about the Mamasapano clash in the morning of Jan. 25 but did not tell the President about it in Zamboanga City, where they were together throughout that day, because they did not know what was really happening.
The President learned what was going on from Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, chief of the AFP’s Western Command, during a briefing in Zamboanga City that afternoon. At that time, the 44 SAF commandos were already dead. They had been pinned down in a cornfield by MILF guerrillas, but their calls for reinforcements had gone without response.
Why were government officials and security forces withholding important information from each other—information relevant to the safety of law enforcers sent on missions to capture terrorists?
Up to now, after so many speeches by the President, it is not clear who gave the order to the SAF to enter dangerous and hostile ground without adequate cover from the military.
Hearings at the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano clash showed deep PNP distrust of the military bedeviled the SAF operation.
Roxas and Gazmin told the hearing that they did not realize the urgency of the Mamasapano encounter because the initial reports they had received were about a skirmish—“a typical incident in the area”—and they did not have then a complete picture of what happened.
The suspended PNP chief, Director General Alan Purisima, the President’s close friend who knew about the operation, clammed up when asked whether he informed Mr. Aquino about what was going on in Mamasapano that day.
“Your honor, may I be given time to seek clearance from the President to answer that question?” Purisima asked Sen. Grace Poe, head of the peace and order committee, who granted his request.
At some point, Purisima admitted talking with the President about the SAF operation while he was under suspension.
When asked if either he or the President was responsible for the operation above the level of the SAF commander, Purisima said “No.”
Napeñas has taken full responsibility for the debacle, but Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said he should not be entirely blamed for the disaster.
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