The first-ever case alleging a 'mole' in the White House
WASHINGTON — On the morning of Aug. 5, 2005, according to court documents, FBI intelligence analyst Leandro Aragoncillo downloaded a secret US document about the Philippines onto his computer, copied it to a disk, and stuffed the disk into a bag lying on the floor of his cubicle at the Fort Monmouth Information Center in New Jersey.
He had reason to believe that his contacts in Manila would be pleased with the information. But there was something much more important that he didn't know: FBI surveillance agents were watching his every move.
They watched as he picked up the bag and left the building. They watched him get in his car, and drive to his home in nearby Woodbury. And they spied on him as he used a personal e-mail account to forward the data to, not just one, but two Philippine government officials.
"The attached documents are provided for your own consumption," read Mr. Aragoncillo's cover message to one of his contacts. "These are for tomorrow's daily morning briefings...."
Aragoncillo is now in jail, and the investigation into his alleged espionage activities is continuing to widen. He worked in the office of the Vice President from 1999 to 2001, serving both Al Gore and Dick Cheney, and law enforcement officials are now studying whether he smuggled secret information out of the White House itself.
That might be worrisome enough on its own. Combined with this week's guilty plea by ex-Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin, who admitted channeling secrets to an Israeli embassy official, among others, the US appears to be experiencing an unwelcome surge in espionage cases connected to friendly governments.
If we can't protect ourselves against our allies, who can we defend against? "This is a major problem to say the least," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
In the great game of geopolitics there is a tacit understanding that friends may try to spy on friends, say experts. Weapons plans and troop deployments aren't nations' only closely held secrets, after all. Going into trade negotiations, it might be useful to know what kind of positions other parties are holding. The US undoubtedly would like to know how its allies are planning to proceed in regard to such sensitive issues as the upcoming vote on the proposed constitution in Iraq.
Besides the cases of Aragoncillo and Franklin, State Department official Donald Keyser earlier this year was charged with unauthorized dealings with Taiwan. Overall, the most active collectors of intelligence in the US include Japan, Israel, France, Korea, Taiwan, and India, according to an unclassified 2000 list from the National Counterintelligence Center, the latest such information publicly available.
There is now no evidence that the Philippine government itself initiated the efforts of Aragoncillo, who was born in the Philippines but later came to the US and served in the Marines for 21 years before becoming an FBI intelligence analyst.
But the ease with which Aragoncillo operated has raised concerns among US officials and outside experts. He was noticed only after he sought to help one of his main contacts, Michael Ray Aquino, after Mr. Aquino was arrested by US immigration authorities in March and charged with overstaying his visa. Aquino was a high official in the Philippines National Police under the administration of former President Joseph Estrada.
Due to the demands of the worldwide struggle against terrorism, currently the FBI has only six two-man teams working on counter-intelligence in Washington, according to knowledgeable sources in and outside the government.
That's a vulnerability the nation may need to worry about.
"We need to have confidence in our ability to defend against these things," says Mr. Walsh of Harvard's Belfer Center.
So far, the charges against Aragoncillo deal only with his activities after he joined the FBI in July 2004. After he tried to intervene in his friend's immigration problems, a routine FBI investigation quickly discovered that he had downloaded 101 classified documents relating to the Philippines - and that he had no good reason to have done so, since his work did not deal with that country.
Ex-president Estrada of the Philippines has acknowledged in media interviews that he received some of this information, although he adds that he did not know it was illegally obtained.
According to e-mails reproduced in court documents, some recipients of the documents were very grateful.
"I find all the information you are sending me very useful. I hope you will continue sending me more.... Just for curiosity, who else at our end share these [sic] information," reads one.
Cover notes appended by Aragoncillo indicate that the information contained in at least some of the documents may have dealt with internal Philippine politics.
"Please note that the [US] is aware of your tribulations in passing an important bill," reads one e-mail. And Aragoncillo may have known he was playing a dangerous game. "Again, please protect the source - ME," concluded one message, according to court documents.