United States officials continue to insist that the probe into the possible misuse of US funds by Philippine defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile is not a shot across the bow of Philippine President Corazon Aquino's most prominent critic. And then they stop talking. Governments are customarily reticent about ongoing investigations. But the Reagan administration's tight-lipped policy in this instance also reflects the concern of US officials that the criminal investigation against Mr. Enrile, which leaked out to the American press last month just as the defense minister was stepping up criticism of President Aquino, might be interpreted as US meddling in Filipino affairs.
``It's not in anyone's interest to have it appear that the US is pulling Mrs. Aquino's chestnuts out of the fire,'' says a Reagan administration source.
Consequently, US officials have been emphatic in maintaining that there is no link between the timing of the Justice Department investigation and Enrile's recent criticism of Aquino's government.
``I don't think there's any puppeteer manipulating the Justice Department to serve US foreign policy interests,'' says a congressional source.
Some US officials also have worried that an actual indictment of Enrile could force the defense minister's hand, producing a government crisis that could have implications on the future of US bases in the Philippines.
Last week, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the Philippine chief of staff, warned of a possible coup attempt by Philippine military officers loyal to Enrile.
But a US State Department source said Friday that while Enrile may be strong enough to prod Aquino to adopt stronger measures in the government's war against communist insurgents, the immediate risks of an outright military coup appear small.
Enrile assured President Aquino Saturday that he would ``do his best'' to prevent a coup during her four-day visit to Japan this week. Aquino also received assurances from General Ramos that he would act to ``neutralize'' any coup attempt. (Coup rumors persist in Manila, Page 11.)
The Justice Department is seeking to determine whether US aid funds were used by Enrile and his wife to purchase two San Francisco condominiums, which have since been sold to a dummy corporation.
Enrile, who recently called the US probe a ``veiled blackmail scheme,'' insists his large personal fortune was acquired through shrewd business and financial dealings.
Enrile, who also was the defense minister in former President Ferdinand Marcos's government, played a pivotal role in assuring Aquino's accession to power following last February's disputed national elections.
Since then, however, he has become a vocal critic of the government, speaking at pro-Marcos rallies and calling on Aquino to revamp her government and step up the government's war on communist insurgents.
In a pointed statement two weeks ago, State Department spokesman Charles Redman called US support for Aquino ``complete and unequivocal,'' adding that her eight-month old government offered the ``best hope'' for reforms needed to bring political stability to the Philippines. The statement was criticized by Aquino opponents as US interference in Philippine politics.
From the Philippines, the Monitor's Clayton Jones reports that Western diplomats in Manila last week said they were concerned that the US government may have touched off a new and more personal dispute between Enrile and Aquino.
The leak of the Justice Department probe of Enrile's real estate dealings in San Francisco can only be taken by Enrile as collusion between Aquino and the US to stop his criticisms of the Aquino government, according to these foreign observers, although evidence of any collusion is only circumstantial.
For several weeks, Manila had been preparing for a potential barrage of corruption charges between the Aquino and Enrile camps.
Enrile's many business dealings when he was Mr. Marcos's defense minister are well known in Manila.
On the other side, many Aquino critics allege that her brother, Jose ``Peping'' Cojuangco, is somehow skimming money from government-run casinos. Also, low-level government graft is widely reported to have increased under Aquino.
Any further rupture with Enrile could damage Aquino's ability to gain military support just when she needs it. Ceasefire talks with communist insurgents began to crystalize last week, and Aquino will have to control all elements within the armed forces to prevent violations of a ceasefire, if one is achieved.