MANILA - A retired justice of the Supreme Court urges the publication of redacted audit reports of confidential and intelligence funds in order to boost accountability and transparency in the use of surveillance funds, while also securing the confidentiality of sensitive or dangerous aspects of intelligence operations.
Former Justice Adolfo Azcuna also believes Congress should pass a law governing the audit of surveillance funds. He also disagreed with the planned realignment of surveillance funds in the 2024 budget, saying lawmakers should instead pass a separate law.
“Dapat, there should be procedure there should be the law that will define the procedure for auditing confidential funds. Maybe the COA (Commission on Audit) can propose or draft such a law para magkaroon ng accountability, even with respect to confidential fund but the confidential funds I think are needed," Azcuna told Teleradyo Serbisyo’s Anong Ganap on Sunday morning.
Azcuna believes the country can take inspiration from the practice in the United States where redacted reports on the use of surveillance funds are published.
“Iyung paggamit ng confidential fund wala naman yan sa experyensiya ko sa Supreme Court. 'Yung alam ko diyan, yung confidential funds kahit sa US meron diyan, pero ang ang ginagawa nila sa US pag mayroong report on how it was used dine-delete nila yung confidential items," he explained.
"Halimbawa yung mga names of their secret agents, binubura yan, nilalagyan ng black line. Kaya pag-publish, 'di mo makita. Pero there is a general idea of how the money was spent," he added.
"'Yun siguro dapat sundin natin, pag-aralan natin para magkaroon ng some kind of accounting for the use of the confidential fund without disclosing the confidential portions that are dangerous to disclose, 'yun pag-aralan natin okay," Azcuna added.
Azcuna also believes that the President should put more details in his budget proposal on how the funds will be used.
“Iyung confidential funds. 'yung paggamit niyan dapat ilagay na doon sa budget proposal, kung paano gamitin 'yan. Halimbawa, for spying equipment ganoon. So dapat i-spell out in general terms what is the use of the proposed confidential fund. Nakalagay naman yan sa Revised Budget Act meron na tayong batas diyan,” Azcuna said.
“Meron po tayong regulation nasa batas na kailangan sabihin ng presidente kung may proposed siyang confidential fund paano niya gamitin yun,” Azcuna added.
Azcuna explained this will make it easier for the COA to check if the funds were properly used.
“Meron tayong revised budget act, republic act kung saan nakalagay kung paano gumawa ng budget at nakalagay doon na ang budget dapat magkaroon ng budget message ang presidente at i-explain niya ang purpose ng bawat proposal," he said.
"So kung meron man siyang i-propose na confidential fund, dapat sabihin niya kung ano ang purpose nitong confidential funds na ito. Kaya yung COA naman maaring tignan kung talagang sinunod yung purpose ng confidential fund, kung talagang sikreto yung pag gastos niyan maari naman sa pagpublish ng report maari burahin yung mga siktreo na portion mga pangalan halimbawa ng agent ganun,” Azcuna added.
Meanwhile, Azcuna also flagged lawmakers’ plans to realign the confidential and intelligence funds of civilian agencies in the 2024 budget to the guardians of the West Philippine Sea.
While he supports the idea of giving those agencies more funds, Azcuna said that should be done through a supplemental budget instead.
“Iyun po ay opinyon ko lang naman, dahil nakalagay sa saligang batas na bawal dagdagan ang rekomendasyon ng presidente sa budget. Maaring bawasan ngunit bawal dagdagan kung ano nilagay na budget na prinopose ng presidente sa kaniyang budget recommendation. Sabi sa saligang batas, bawal i-increase ng Congress yun. Sa palagay ko, pag nilipat mo yung isang item at dinagdag mo sa another item ay yun increase magkakaroon ng increase na bawal sa saligang batas,” he said.
Azcuna refers to Article 6, Section 25 of the 1987 Constitution which states: The Congress may not increase the appropriations recommended by the President for the operation of the Government as specified in the budget.
Azcuna, however, acknowledged that Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, a long time budget expert in the House, disagreed with his stance because lawmakers have been making realignments so long as they do not increase the budget ceiling.
The former justice believes it's a matter that may be elevated to the High Court.
“Ngunit sinagot po yan ni Cong. Edcel Lagman, ang sabi niya po tama yan. Maari po nilang dagdagan, provided yung buong total ng proposed budget ay 'di lumalagpas doon," he said.
"So yung sinusunod nila yung total appropriations, di nila pwedeng increase. Pero yung individual appropriations, pwede'Yun po interpretasyon nila, magkaiba po interpretasyon namin," he acknowledged.
"Ngunit ang Kongreso, may karapatan din mag interpret ng constitution at ang final authority diyan ay ang Supreme Court. 'Yun po ang sitwasyon doon. Hanggang di po sabihin ng Supreme Court kung ano ang tunay na interpretasyon kailangan sundin natin yung Kongreso,” Azcuna said.
Azcuna concedes the current practice is more practical.
“Iyun ang praktikal na solusyon kaysa gagawa pa ng separate law. Matatagalan kasi yun eh, kung kailangan talaga pondohan halimbawa yung West Philippine Sea kukuha doon sa isang parte na di kailangan, doon ilagay sa West Philippine Sea. 'Wag lang humigit sa total yun po ginagawa ng kongreso praktikal po yan baka di naman gagalawin ng Supreme Court yan,” Azcuna said.
“Ang opinyon ko kasi dapat tanggalin lang, 'wag idagdag. Kung gusto nila bigyan ng pera yung Coast Guard, dapat magkaroon ng special law funding the Coast Guard. Supplemental budget or separate law,” Azcuna said.
“Kung sa (2024) budget tanggalin na lang siguro yung mga confidential fund tapos buuin yung savings, gawa ng bagong batas, separate bill na-ipondo yung kailangan pondohan,“ Azcuna said.
Azcuna served as associate justice of the court from 2002-2009. He was also Spokesperson for President Corazon C. Aquino and a member of the 1971 Constitutional Convention and 1986 Constitutional Commission. He retired as chancellor of the Philippine Judicial Academy in 2021 and is now serving as the only Filipino member of the International Commission of Jurists.
Earlier this week, the House leadership announced plans to strip civilian agencies including the Office of the Vice President and Department of their surveillance funds and channel them to agencies tasked with safeguarding the West Philippine Sea.
The House approved the 2024 budget on final reading last Wednesday, with plans to submit it to the Senate by November.