The Mamasapano Report

The Philippine National Police’s board of inquiry (BOI) released the other day the result of its six-week investigation of the Mamasapano incident. Masterfully blending the somber tone of an academic paper with the narrative arc of a war movie script, the 125-page document, tersely titled “The Mamasapano Report,” is a fascinating read.

The report offers answers to many questions in the public mind, and draws conclusions about the Mamasapano affair that are as bold as they are instructive. Most importantly, it defines the applicable norms, and unhesitatingly allocates blame for the operational failures and lapses that marked this tragic police mission.

Although written primarily from the perspective of police and military science, the report can be read in many different ways. The legal aspects of this incident understandably dominate the public outlook. This is due in large measure to the insistent demand for justice for the 44 police commandos who died in this mission. People want to know why they had to wait vainly to be rescued, and who is at fault.

The report is likewise of immense value from a political standpoint. Some will obviously be interested to know if President Aquino might have committed an impeachable offense when he continued to rely on former PNP director general Alan Purisima for direction of this sensitive mission despite the fact that the latter had lost the authority to do so following his suspension. Others will look for further ammunition in this report to undermine the credibility of P-Noy and the viability of his political influence beyond his term.

My own interest is slightly different. By asking the kind of questions I raised in a previous column (“Questions for P-Noy,” Inquirer, 02/19/15), I seek to draw from this experience important lessons on how, as a society, we struggle to navigate the complex terrain of modern governance.

My first question was: When the President received Purisima and then Special Action Force commander Getulio Napeñas on Jan. 9 for the briefing on “Oplan Exodus,” did he, at any point during that meeting, communicate the need to coordinate with the people in charge of monitoring and maintaining the cessation of hostilities in Mindanao? The answer is clear: The peace process never figured in that conversation. The BOI report notes this lapse but puts it quite diplomatically: “As Chief Executive of the Philippines, the President could have given strategic guidance to Napeñas on the implications of conducting a law enforcement operation within the [Moro Islamic Liberation Front]-controlled communities.” (p. 53)

Second, did the President not foresee the implications of conducting such a delicate police operation in MILF-held communities on the fragile peace process in Mindanao? Again, the answer is no. It is either of two things: The question of protecting the peace process was entirely absent from the President’s mind, or he was made to believe that the risk of escalation was minimal because the joint ceasefire mechanism could be easily activated if necessary. The BOI’s observation is quite telling: “All involved SAF elements interviewed by BOI stated that they did not recall any instance where the peace process was factored in the planning process.” (p. 58)

Third, what reasons did the President have for not consulting his immediate political family—for example, the security cluster of his Cabinet—on so important a mission as this? Here, the BOI report offers no answer, and does not dare to speculate. But the explanation for this lapse is as clear as day. The President saw no need to consult anyone else about this mission because, in his mind, this was Purisima’s project, and he had full trust in his friend’s judgment.

Fourth, did the President not anticipate the complications of allowing the then already suspended Purisima to play an active role in this operation, while keeping PNP OIC Leonardo Espina and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas uninformed? This is as perplexing as the previous question. There is only one possible answer: On the matter of getting Marwan, the word of Purisima was more valuable than any other. The President authorized the final plan presented by Napeñas mainly because of Purisima’s endorsement. That also explains why he communicated with Napeñas through Purisima.

Fifth, what actions did the President take to save the trapped SAF commandos? The BOI report indicates that the President could not have taken any decisive action because, like everyone else outside the Tactical Command Post on Jan. 25, he was grossly misled about the situation in Mamasapano. The lack of urgency in the response to the SAF commandos’ cry for reinforcement was the tragic outcome of a series of miscommunications.

And finally, what role did the Americans (who were first seen by media members in the company of the medical evacuation team) play in the Mamasapano affair? Here, the BOI confirms what everyone has suspected all along: that US personnel were with Napeñas at the Tactical Command Post throughout that fateful day, monitoring the battle on the ground (clearly with the aid of drones), and providing “real-time information on the actual movements of friendly and enemy forces in the area of operations.” (p. 78)

The report does not ask whether this foreign participation is covered by any existing agreement, nor does it comment on the irony of a Filipino police operation making room for foreign operatives while shutting out the Philippine military. Indeed, it pays full credit to the Americans: “It is worth noting that because of the U.S. [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] support, the 84th SAC was able to elude large enemy formations, thereby avoiding further casualties.”

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