Evolving security threats

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Without any fanfare or special activities to mark its 69th founding anniversary, the government’s chief spook agency quietly celebrated the event last Wednesday. Chaired by National Security Adviser (NSA) Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) observed the special occasion, however, with no less than their Commander-in-chief, President Rodrigo Duterte.

The NICA also operates as the secretariat of the National Security Council (NSC), the premier policy-making body on all peace and order and national security matters chaired by the Chief Executive. In consonance with their mandate and functions on how to effectively perform their job – at best cloaked in secrecy – the men and women of NICA celebrated their founding anniversary without any media coverage.

But Esperon, who once served as Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff, is only too aware that while national security affairs are always regarded as “top secret,” certain matters are best addressed through media. Anyway, even the best kept secrets come out in media one way or another, if I may add.       

And that’s precisely how Esperon made best use of media when he openly talked about the internal and external threats facing the Philippines during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay breakfast news forum at Cafe Adriatico in Remedios Circle last Wednesday. Esperon gave us a glimpse of his speech before he joined President Duterte at the NICA anniversary held at their office in Quezon City.

At the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, Esperon cited the latest arrests of government personnel caught in the intensified war against corruption at the bureaucracy that President Duterte declared in his state of the nation address (SONA) last week. As head of the NICA, Esperon said they assist in the counter-intelligence operations to weed out grafters whoever and whatever state agencies are involved.

Internally, Esperon admitted the severity of corruption in government has become a national security concern of the Duterte administration in terms of huge amounts of state funds that should have otherwise been spent in the provision of roads, health, education, and other basic public services.

On the remaining three years in office of the Duterte administration, he echoed the President’s call at the SONA on the need for the support of all Filipinos in going after grafters.

Esperon expressed satisfaction with the administration’s strides in resolving the Muslim secessionist problem in Mindanao. To date, he cited the significant reduction in secession-related violence, especially after President Duterte made good his campaign promise to enact the Bangsamoro Organic Law establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

However, Esperon remains wary of the continuing terrorist threats in Mindanao from the Abu Sayyaf and Maute bandit groups which are both influenced by international terrorists from Islamic State (IS). Proof of which, he mentioned, is the first-ever Filipino Muslim suicide bomber behind the Indanan attack and the Indonesian couple in Basilan suicide bombing.

On the communist terrorism front, Esperon counts upon the Whole Nation Approach of President Duterte in addressing the festering roots of insurgency in the Philippines. This included, he said, the creation of the Cabinet Officer for Regional Development and Security (CORDS) assigned each to the 19 regions of the country. Being from Pangasinan, Esperon is CORDS for Region 2.

Externally, Esperon noted with concern the “swarming” of Chinese ships and fishing vessels around the Kalayaan Island Group in West Philippine Sea (WPS) that have gone up from 25 as of Feb. 8 to as many as 113 on July 25. This went down to three fishing ships and one Chinese Coast Guard vessel three days later which Esperon surmised was apparently due to bad weather.

We could only thank Mother Nature for driving out the unwanted presence in the area.

As the chairman of the National Task Force on WPS, Esperon recommended to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) that this “swarming” be protested in note verbale for immediate transmittal to Chinese Embassy in Manila. As soon as Esperon announced this during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay, DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. posted in his Twitter account: “Diplomatic protest fired off.”

This will be in addition to the protest made by Department of National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the reported “sightings” of Chinese naval vessels in breach of protocol for sailing through Philippine waters without prior diplomatic clearance or notice to either the DFA or at his office.

“Konting katok lang,” Esperon quipped (A little knock first on the door please). The chief spook turned gun shy when I pressed him how Philippine authorities detected the Chinese naval intrusions and merely chuckled in his own retort: “Certain people saw them.” And how!

Esperon vows to continue strengthening the country’s position in the WPS, including five lighthouses that have already been built and five more to be put up. The Philippines will also have its own high-flying unmanned aerial vehicle with a direct access to satellite imagery to help in this effort, the NSA chief added. “We even now have wi-fi at Pag-asa,” he boasted.

Esperon sneezed at claims by administration critics that the country has lost three islands at WPS despite The Hague ruling in favor of the Philippines. On the contrary, Esperon argued, the Philippines actually gained three new islets when Sandy Cay sandbars in the Kalayaan Island Group emerged two-meters high from sea level.

While he welcomed tourism growth in the Philippines coming from China, Esperon candidly admitted his concern on the sudden influx of Chinese nationals into the country is an evolving security risk. “As the National Security Adviser, I have the tendency to look at it as a threat,” he pointed out.

With all these evolving security threats, both internal and external, we can sleep soundly on the thoughts that our chief spook is 24/7 doing his job right.

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