MANILA, Philippines - A spokesman of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III rejected on Wednesday allegations that infighting by several groups in Malacañang Palace contributed to the botched rescue of Hong Kong tourists held hostage last August 23.
In a radio dzMM interview, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said it is untrue that factions within the President's inner circle led to a lack of coordination on who should take charge during the hostage crisis.
"Let me just clarify, it is not true that the factions contributed to the lack of coordination. President Aquino already said that the person in charge of the police is Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Rico Puno because he is undersecretary in charge of public order," he told dzMM anchor Ted Failon.
Lacierda said there was already an agreement that Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo would take charge of local governments, which is his known expertise.
"The two are not fighting. In fact, they are working together to fix the procurement system of the Philippine National Police. There is no factionalism. It was clear from the very beginning that Undersecretary Puno is in charge of the peace and order [situation]," he said.
Several sources earlier told ABS-CBN that infighting among the different factions in the Cabinet is partly to blame for the hostage crisis that saw 8 Hong Kong tourists killed inside a hijacked bus in Manila.
The officials, who belong either to the Samar or Balay factions, reportedly did not communicate well with each other during the hostage incident.
The Samar faction is composed of close allies and loyalists of the Aquino and Cojuangco families, who were based at the Samar Street office in Quezon City during the Aquino campaign. It includes members of the PNOY lawyers group that is headed by now Executive Secretary Paquito "Jojo" Ochoa, a long time close friend of the President.
The Balay faction is made up of Liberal Party and Hyatt 10 stalwarts and supporters, and was named as such because they were based in the Balay Aquino-Roxas campaign headquarters in Cubao, Quezon City.
ABS-CBN sources said the turf war has led to a lack of guidance over the Philippine National Police. In previous administrations, the police force was placed under the supervision of the DILG Secretary since he has the authority to request for help from various agencies.
Under the Aquino administration, the PNP was placed under DILG Undersecretary Rico Puno because of a previous agreement between the two camps. Robredo is supposedly part of the Balay camp while Puno allegedly comes from the Samar camp.
Robredo on Tuesday admitted he did not have a crisis management role during the hostage-taking incident because he was kept out of the loop. "I was not in the loop. Hindi ko alam kung ano ang nangyayari sa mga pag-uusap nila. It was treated like an ordinary police situation," he said.
The lack of coordination between the 2 camps also became apparent after Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Secretary Ricky Carandang of the Balay Group confirmed the attempted phone call of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang to President Aquino at the height of the August 23 hostage crisis.
On the same day, Presidential Communications Operations Secretary Herminio "Sonny" Coloma of the Samar group voiced doubt that Tsang could not contact the President.
"Hindi po kapani-paniwala iyan dahil accessible naman po siya sa lahat ng oras. Kung tumawag talaga sa kanyang tanggapan, tiyak naman matatanggap iyong tawag na iyon, at kung lumabas man siya ng panandali ay tiyak namang mare-reach din siya dahil dala ng kanyang mga aides iyong mga teleponong maaring magamit para makontak siya," he told an ABS-CBN show.
A South China Morning Post story said the Hong Kong executive's phone call came through Malacañang's main phone line past 4 p.m. of August 23. Carandang said Aquino was not aware of the call because he was in a meeting. Aquino called Tsang the day after the hostage incident and apologized for not calling back immediately.
For his part, Lacierda said he reviewed the transcript of Coloma's interview and clarified that host Anthony Taberna asked the Palace secretary a hypothetical question.
"If I am not mistaken, I read the transcript of Secretary Coloma's interview and the question was hypothetical so the truth is -- he knew that Donald Tsang made a call," he said.
No passing the buck
Lacierda denied that an ongoing turf war inside the Palace could have contributed to the lack of coordination during the hostage crisis.
He said the subject of Cabinet infighting is being blown out of proportion by the media especially since all government officials are working together to manage the crisis.
"Kung sasabihin mo yung faction ng Balay at Samar, I can speak for the communications group -- nung pinatawag kami ni Pangulong Aquino, lahat kami ay nakikipag-coordinate sila Sonny. In fact, nung gabi after the --- si Secretary Coloma at si Secretary Carandang, if I am not mistaken, they were also in Emerald Restaurant," he said.
He added: "Magkasama na rin po kami with the President, we were discussing and asking the police generals to narrate. Yun po ang situation dun. Wala ho yung relevance yung faction, faction. Yung lumabas lang po sa media, eh kami po -- we work together with all the agencies concerned, with officials concerned. It has been blown out of proportion by media. We are all working together po sa Palasyo."
Asked about which group has the ear of the President more often, Lacierda said it depends on which official has the most expertise.
"Sa mga major major decisions, depende po kung sinong expert na official na concerned. So kung kapag health, si (Health) Secretary (Enrique) Ona. Kapag finance, si Secretary Cesar Purisima. These are the appointed Cabinet officials so he expects them to be experts in their respective fields," he said.
He also denied that the Palace is passing the blame to Manila Vice-Mayor Isko Moreno for giving the Ombudsman's letter to hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza. The letter, which ordered a review of Mendoza's case, allegedly incensed the hostage-taker.
"We never said anything on the show of Tina Monzon Palma that we were blaming the vice-mayor. In fact, we said the local crisis committee had jurisdiction so they did not need to ask permission from us to deliver the Ombudsman's letter. We were just monitoring. There is no reason for the vice-mayor to think or feel that we were blaming him because we never said anything like that," he said.
Need for better leadership
A former DILG Secretary, meanwhile, said President Aquino must exert his leadership in succeeding crisis situations. (Click here for full story.)
"The President shouldn't be exposed but he should be well advised. The President should be involved in a discreet very diplomatic manner, but not publicly associated. Someone should have taken this role so people know someone is in charge. Even the DILG secretary, even the communications team should have been well coordinated. Kung meron talagang namamahala diyan, alam niya ang lahat ng facets, lalo na on the information side, importante communicatons in hostage crisis. It was shown [that] obviously, it could have been done in better manner," Cesar Sarino, Interior and Local Government Secretary to the late former President Corazon Aquino, said.
Sarino said the issue of factions inside the Cabinet is not new but it is up to the President to ensure that the infighting does not interfere with government's job.
"First thing is, there will always be factions. You can't have one family of the same mind of one time since Malacañan is where power is.... It's really how you manage the competition. Whether inner circle of power, pagka may diperensiya in terms of policy, compromises can be made. Minsan magbibigay kayo para walang prublema at mabilis desisyon," he said. With a report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News