MANILA, Philippines - US Special Forces troops have been directly involved in hunting down suspected terrorists in Mindanao, several diplomatic cables released by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks revealed.
Cable 06MANILA3401, classified secret and sent August 14, 2006 in the name of US embassy deputy chief of mission Paul Jones, said US Special Forces troops and ships gave "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the 87-plus maritime interdictions" in Jolo, Sulu during an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) campaign in the said year against Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leaders on the island.
It added that this was made possible because the US Navy's Joint Venture and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines' (JSOTF-P) Mark V special operations crafts and rigid-hull inflatable boats are already fully integrated into the Philippine Navy.
The US embassy, however, wanted to hide this from the public.
In the cable's "if asked - press guidance" section, US officials are told to say that "US forces are not directly involved in this operation, but are providing support. Our forces, in a support role, advise, train, and share information with AFP forces."
Another cable, 06MANILA4439, said US troops also helped their Philippine counterparts intercept terrorists fleeing from Jolo in 2006.
"US and Philippine forces worked seamlessly to intercept two vessels (one of them high-speed) attempting to flee Jolo for Basilan," said the confidential cable.
JSOTF-P in action
"Following reports that Umar Patek may have been trying to escape, U.S. P-3 aircraft; Joint Task Force 515 helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles; and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) MK-V vessels shadowed the two boats and vectored an intercept by Philippine Navy and Philippine National Police Maritime Group units," it said.
US troops under the 600-strong JSOTF-P were also involved in fighting in Jolo November 12 and 13 that involved an AFP operation to either capture or kill key ASG sub-commander Dr. Abu, according to secret cable 05MANILA5316.
"[JSOTF-P] liaison elements provided intelligence support and advice at the battalion-level and above during the operation. JSOTF-P was not involved in the planning phase of the operation until it was well underway, and was, therefore, unable to assist in developing its more detailed aspects," said the cable, which has a "NOFORN," or "Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals" caveat.
The JSOTF-P, which is composed of Special Forces personnel from the US Army, Navy, Air, Air Force, and Marines, is also mentioned in other cables published by WikiLeaks.
The headquarters of US Special Forces troops deployed in the Philippines is based in Zamboanga City. The JSOTF-P has 3 subordinate regional task forces, as well as personnel in Manila who work with the US embassy and the AFP General Headquarters.
Secret cable 06MANILA4378 also revealed that Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents also joined the JSOTF-P in testing the "forward deployment" of US federal agents.
"The concept works," it said.
The cable said 2 FBI agents "examined and exploited for US law enforcement purposes" pieces of evidence seized during a raid by Philippine security forces on an Abu Sayyaf safe house in Jolo City and backpacks recovered after an encounter between Abu Sayyaf terrorists and AFP units in 2006.
The evidence was then sent to the FBI Crime Laboratory in Washington "for analysis and additional exploitation," it added.
The FBI agents also helped the Philippine military gather and analyze other pieces of evidence. "They are helping to develop new procedures for securing sites and evidence handling," the cable said.
"FBI deployment with JSOTF-P is an innovative concept that puts US law enforcement officers where they need to be to collect vital evidence on terrorists who target US interests. We urge that this program be continued," said the cable, purportedly sent by then US Ambassador Kristie Kenney
'Push the envelope'
According to cable 05MANILA286, former Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz sought ways to expand joint Philippine-US counterterrorism operations "within the perceived limits of the Philippine constitution."
"Attorney Norman Daanoy, Chief of the DND's Office of Legal Affairs, in a January 13 legal brief to Secretary Cruz, argued that, while prohibited from engaging in combat except in self-defense, U.S. forces in the Philippines could engage in a range of 'combat-related activities,' to include providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the AFP," it added.
"Attorney Jose Pascual, Secretary Cruz's Legal Counsel, seconded this view in talks with US counterparts, noting the Philippine Supreme Court (Lim vs. Executive Secretary, 380 SCRA 742) explicitly 'authorized' U.S. forces to assist, advise, and train GRP counterparts," the cable said.
It quoted Pascqual to have told US officials that the DND, under Cruz, was trying to "push the envelope in respect to combat-related activities."
"Pascual, who previously worked for Cruz as a member of the Malacañang legal staff, noted, however, any proposed activity should fall under "the rubric of exercise" because of the difficulty the word 'operation' posed for the Filipino side," it added.