Ferdinand Marcos: Cowboys in the Palace
Cowboys in the Palace
Cowboys in the Palace
IT WAS A BIT LATE in the day when President Truman received the following top-secret report from his National Security Council:
Failure of the Philippines to maintain independence would discredit the U.S. in the eyes of the world and seriously decrease U.S. influence, particularly in Asia … Although on the basis of military factors alone the Huks lack the capability to acquire control … their continued existence, growth, and activities reflect the ineffectiveness of the Philippine armed forces and the generally unsatisfactory social, economic, and political situation in the Philippines … Denial of the Philippines to communist control depends not only upon military measures but even more upon prompt vigorous political and economic action … Inequalities in the Philippines, always large, have become greater during the past few years while the standard of living of the mass of people has not reached the pre-war level. The profits of businessmen and the incomes of large land owners have risen considerably. The deterioration of the economic system has caused a widespread feeling of disillusionment … The communist-led Huk movement has taken advantage of the deteriorating economic situation and exploited the antagonistic attitudes of the people toward the government in order to incite lawlessness and disorder … The extent and manner in which the necessary influence is brought to bear on the Philippine Government to accomplish essential reforms presents to the U.S. Government a most difficult and delicate problem. Extreme care must therefore be exercised in the methods used to persuade the Philippine Government to take the necessary action, to do nothing would result in disaster.
This refreshingly candid report acknowledged that half a century of American colonial rule had resulted in dismal failure. Living conditions were much worse for the majority of Filipinos, while the handful of rich had become very much richer, encouraged by MacArthur’s postwar favoritism. The economy was being abused and exploited by those MacArthur had put in power, and most Filipinos had lost any hope of reform. Misery, desperation, and antagonism were creating a dangerous situation, which was being exploited by the Communist leadership of the Huks. The Huks were not a serious danger, the report noted emphatically, because they were in no position to seize power. But the Philippine Army was incompetent, the government was corrupt, and the country could simply fall apart. If something was not done soon, Washington would be embarrassed.
This warning was sounded in 1950, but it could just as well have been the 1980s. All Washington’s efforts during the intervening decades were expensive failures. Disinformation campaigns portrayed the crisis as a bold struggle against communism, which it never was. No matter how many crash efforts were mounted, they failed for the same reason. Under U.S. colonial rule, expediency always overruled principle — a lesson not lost on Filipinos, who demonstrated an uncanny knack for caricature.
The cure recommended by the NSC report was to introduce “essential reforms.” Instead, expediency triumphed again. To rescue a thoroughly corrupt regime of its own invention, and to protect privileged U.S. investment, America returned to Manila clandestinely. The CIA and the Pentagon stepped into the breach and once again made a fool of Tom Paine.
World War II had been America’s first heady experience in large-scale covert operations. When the war ended, Truman disbanded the OSS on the grounds that paramilitary operations, psychological warfare, and political manipulation were not acceptable in peacetime, in a nation nourished on the premise that principle was important. However, Truman accepted the need for a permanent organization to coordinate intelligence gathering. In 1947, he created the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite his efforts to prohibit the CIA from undertaking covert operations, there was already a covert action cell within the State Department, jealously guarded by the old OSS fraternity. A rush of anti-Communist anxiety overcame Truman’s restraint. This existing covert action cell was grafted on as a clandestine part of the new CIA, with a secret charter based on National Security Council directives and presidential executive orders.
It was all done surreptitiously because everyone involved recognized that conducting foreign affairs without the awareness of Congress and the American people was at odds with the intent of the Constitution. This lack of accountability set the covert professionals apart, as a priesthood, and gave them a sense of something bordering on supernatural power. There were those who were covert, and then there was everybody else. As their numbers multiplied, simply being in the covert club encouraged an explosive growth of amorality.
“In a government of laws,” Justice Louis Brandeis observed, “the existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously … If government becomes a lawbreaker it breeds contempt for law: it invites every man to become a law unto himself.”
It is the nature of covert action to be beyond the law, so it requires extraordinary restraint. Too often, the end justifies any means. Since the private lives of agents also must remain covert, it takes abnormal restraint for them to avoid enriching themselves. During the period from 1950 to 1988, the Philippines provided classic examples of both — one in the form of a CIA officer who became carried away by his own omnipotence, the other in the form of a secret team of senior American officers who became entangled with Ferdinand Marcos and Yamashita’s Gold.
America’s new proconsul in the Philippines was Edward G. Lansdale, the Walt Disney of covert action. Lansdale was a peculiarly American mixture of naivete and aggressiveness; some thought him a dangerous adolescent (Graham Greene characterized him as such in his Saigon novel, The Quiet American). Lansdale was the first in a long line of postwar secret agents totally dedicated to apple pie laced with blowfish toxin. He was a pleasant, warm, good-natured man, with a sincerity that disarmed all but his most determined critics. A former advertising executive, Lansdale had the spontaneous imagination of a copy writer, an instinctive grasp of modern psychology, behavior modification, and psychological warfare. Many of his ideas now seem harebrained, but on unsophisticated people they sometimes had surprising effect. The age of media mystification made him a guru to those looking for a quick fix overseas. His techniques were so admired in the CIA and the Pentagon that they became routine procedure a decade later in the Vietnam War. He tried them out first in the Philippines. There was a straight line leading from Lansdale’s persecution of the Huks in the 1950s to William Colby’s Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, which resulted in assassinating perhaps as many as forty thousand civilians.
Lansdale had found a niche in psychological warfare with the OSS during World War II as an intelligence officer on MacArthur’s staff, working for General Willoughby. By the war’s end he was their chief of intelligence in the Philippines. During this period Willoughby was seeing Bolsheviks under every bed, and the men working for him did their best to prove that it was not hallucination. Lansdale left the islands in 1948, ostensibly to be an instructor at the Air Force Strategic Intelligence School in Denver, but he was actually in Washington being considered for a role in the CIA. He was put to work setting up a Philippines desk for the new agency.
Lansdale understood very clearly the temper of his times and the anxieties of his new clients, the generals and bureaucrats of the McCarthy era. While President Truman was being told that the Huks posed no real military threat to the Philippines, Lansdale was doing everything he could to make the Huks look like a large and extremely dangerous guerrilla army personally guided by secret agents of Stalin and Mao.
Much of Lansdale’s strategy was built around the promotion of a bearlike Filipino congressman named Ramon Magsaysay, destined to be America’s new hero in Manila. At the time, Magsaysay was in Washington “conferring with the U.S. Congress about Filipino veterans’ benefits.” But he found time to join CIA planning sessions in which Lansdale argued that the Philippines was about to go Communist like Yugoslavia, Albania, and the rest of Eastern Europe.
“Mindful of the part played by Americans in the recent Greek struggle against Communist guerrillas,” Lansdale wrote years later in the oily language of Foggy Bottom, “I talked to United States leaders about giving similar help to the Philippines … It was suggested that I draw up a modest plan for simple measures that could be added to the United States’ military and economic assistance already being given … I went to work on a plan for … less conventional actions against the political-military tactics of the Huks.” As the first step in the CIA program, President Quirino was pressed by the U.S. Embassy to name a new defense minister, Lansdale’s friend Magsaysay.
Ramon Magsaysay was an uncomplicated man of great energy — high-strung, restless, and brusque. For the islands he was a big man, at five feet eleven inches, and hefty. He did not gamble, drink, or smoke. Magsaysay liked to claim that he was a man of the people, with a humble background; he said his father was a poor carpenter in Zambales Province, 85 miles northwest of Manila, his mother an Ilocano woman who had to struggle to make ends meet. The truth was that his family owned a general store and several farms, one of over 1,000 acres, and employed tenant farmers to work their fields. In 1927 he entered the University of the Philippines, but dropped out to go to work for a bus company. As a guerrilla during the war, Magsaysay became very popular with his American advisers, and at war’s end was rewarded with an appointment as military governor of his native province. This encouraged him to run for Congress and, with a bit of nudging from Lansdale, he was soon listening to the CIA’s long-range plans for his career.
Once he was in position as defense minister, Magsaysay and Lansdale set about purging top echelons of the Filipino military establishment. With the discreet backing of the U.S. ambassador and the chief of JUSMAG (the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group), Magsaysay pressed President Quirino to get rid of the politicking army chief of staff, General Mariano Castaneda, and the corrupt boss of the Constabulary, Brigadier General Alberto Ramos, who were both cronies of the president.
“Each night we sat up late discussing the current situation,” Lansdale recalled. “Magsaysay would air his views. Afterwards, I would sort them out aloud for him while underscoring the principles or strategy or tactics involved. It helped him select or discard courses of action.”
Magsaysay was not interested in the world at large, nor was he especially concerned about due process of law. Thanks to Lansdale, he had a tight focus on what needed to be done each day. At his urging, reinforced by the U.S. Embassy, President Quirino suspended the writ of habeas corpus to enable the arrest and imprisonment of anyone remotely suspected of communism, Hukism — or simply being stubborn, and therefore subversive. Suspending the writ was essential for the CIA program to succeed. Providing evidence was time-consuming or impossible, so Magsaysay had to be free to arrest, imprison, and interrogate suspects without evidence. The writ was restored in 1953, but only as a legal pretense that could be dropped again momentarily. Once dishonored, it is a difficult legal tradition to re-establish.
Lansdale then set up a psychological warfare unit euphemistically christened the Civil Affairs Office. His enemies were the poor, so for inspiration Lansdale studied peasant superstitions. One result was the “eye of god.”
“The idea,” he wrote, “was to get exact information about the enemy and then broadcast it through loudspeakers in combat situations, making individual enemy soldiers feel that they couldn’t hide from an all-seeing eye.” In areas where villagers were thought to be helping the Huks, a psy-war team crept in at night and painted an Egyptian-style evil eye on a wall facing the house of each suspect. The mysterious appearance of the evil eyes (Lansdale claimed) had a sobering effect. Another operation played upon peasant dread of the asuang or vampire. In an area thought to be harboring a team of Huk guerrillas, Lansdale’s ambushers snatched a peasant one night, punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, hung the body by the ankles to drain it of blood, then put the corpse back on the trail. When the peasants found the toothmarked bloodless corpse, the entire Huk unit moved away. The novelty of these games amused Lansdale, who slyly passed them on as combat anecdotes to his superiors in Washington, disguised in his unctuous prose, enchanting his CIA superiors. This was a period when the CIA was busy engineering cobra-venom dart guns and building cigarette lighters with cyanide jets. The very real grievances of Filipino farmers were forgotten. Lansdale’s experiments were given top priority.
The anti-Huk campaign was fought mostly on that old agrarian reform battleground, the rice bowl outside Manila. At Lansdale’s urging, Magsaysay politicized his job by roaming the provinces in car or jeep, often with Lansdale beside him, visiting troops and talking with farmers and villagers, a burly man always in an aloha shirt. Poor people liked him because he made personal contact and because he corrected some of the worst abuses of the army and Constabulary: rapes, theft, and bullying. These minor reforms were promised everywhere, but implemented selectively. They were window-dressing, as part of Lansdale’s scheme to build Magsaysay up for the presidency.
Success was measured by the attention given Magsaysay by American journalists. Lansdale knew that few correspondents were in a position to check the facts, or had the patience to do so in the stultifying heat. One story given wide publicity then (and repeated many years later in praise of Magsaysay) was that he had arranged for thousands of safe-conduct passes to be dropped to the Huks by plane over the islands. These passes supposedly meant any Huk could come in and surrender without fear of being killed. This made persuasive copy for feature writers in New York. The catch was that passes were dropped only in areas where the Huks were not operating. Meanwhile, the real scoops of Magsaysay’s war against the Huks were kept hidden from the press. Magsaysay offered “cash incentives” or bounties for Huk bodies — preferably identifiable Huks, but any peasant would do. The “incentive” of 5,000 pesos represented ten years’ wages for a Filipino farm worker. A bounty of 100,000 pesos was offered for the body of a Huk leader, the money apparently coming partly from the CIA and partly from a 1 million peso “Peace Fund” raised from big landowners by Vice President Fernando Lopez.
Although it became customary in the American press to refer to Magsaysay with the veneration reserved for heroes, and to take Lansdale seriously as a cold warrior, some of their antics were comic. To create the impression that his man was personally brave, Lansdale had soldiers dress up as Huks, so that Magsaysay could safely lead government troops to victory. CIA technicians forged Huk documents for Magsaysay to capture, while false reports were planted in the press that repression of peasant farmers in the Philippines was coming to an end. These tricks, orchestrated as part of a slick promotional campaign, had an impact on individual members of the Huk rebellion. Many Huks stopped fighting because they wanted to believe what they heard. Few of them cared anything one way or the other about Marxism, so they were not ideologically committed enough to stay in the movement as things actually grew worse militarily.
To increase military pressure, Lansdale and Magsaysay announced that they were making the Constabulary part of the armed forces. It would be more accurate to put it the other way around: they began turning the army into a police force, something that the CIA would eventually make part of its Third World doctrine. Despite the talk of Stalin and Mao, the Philippines were not threatened by foreign enemies, only by internal misery. The main job of the armed forces was not national defense but population control. Combining the Constabulary with the army brought total strength up to fifty thousand men, and permitted the deployment of troops in larger units under a single command. The old Nenita death squads became death battalions, consisting of three infantry companies, 110 men each, a heavy weapons company, a reconnaissance company with armored cars, a headquarters and service company, and a battery of artillery. When its training by JUSMAG was complete, each Nenita battalion was made responsible for part of a province, creating much larger free fire zones where they were licensed to kill anything that moved.
Colonel Valeriano, the inventor of the Nenita, became Lansdale’s chief peasant killer, now assisted by tactical fighter support and napalm. Local oligarchs participated enthusiastically in his campaigns, as if they were fox-hunting to hounds, and posed for commemorative photographs beside dead peasants. On one killing spree, Valeriano’s men murdered eight farmers who were attending a funeral and displayed their corpses beside a highway with crudely painted signs reading “HUK.” By summer 1951, Lansdale noted with satisfaction that the Huks were showing the strain of being under constant attack. So, for that matter, were all the impoverished farmers in the rice bowl around Manila. It was open season on peasants.
Other CIA operatives were busy arranging the 1951 Philippine congressional elections. Internationally, these elections had to be seen as exceptionally honest, in order to inspire the right press coverage, to undercut peasant grievances further. A secret State Department memo to Truman summed it up: “Our Embassy at Manila is seeking to convey indirectly the intense interest of the U.S. in fair and honest elections. A repetition of the intimidation and fraud of 1949 would provide great impetus to the Huk movement and would add even more to the Filipinos’ already cynical attitude about the type of democracy they now have.”
Onto the scene came Lansdale’s alter ego, Gabe Kaplan, New York lawyer, politician, and public relations man, who understood the many levers of a political campaign and how to pull them. Kaplan’s first operational cover was the Asia Foundation, later the Committee for Free Asia, and then the Catherwood Foundation of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He had a knack for dealing with civic groups, chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, and veterans’ organizations. With a team of eager and well-paid young Filipino CIA employees, Kaplan persuaded these middle-class organizations to support a nationwide effort to “educate” the public about the importance of free and honest elections. Kaplan’s umbrella was the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), which Lansdale and the CIA set up with the help of some Filipino friends — Terry Adevoso, Jaime Ferrer, and Frisco Johnny San Juan, all former guerrillas and national commanders of the politically powerful Veterans Legion.
President Quirino was conveniently out of the country for medical reasons while these CIA maneuvers were set into motion on the political front. The U.S. Embassy had generously offered to arrange for Quirino to have an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, after which he was encouraged to take a long vacation in Spain. By the time he got back to Manila, the stage was set.
The action phase started with a formal request by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to Secretary of Defense Magsaysay asking for the assistance of the military in policing the polls. NAMFREL and “a group of public-spirited citizens” (plus some publishers friendly to the U.S. Embassy) encouraged citizens to get out and vote, while Magsaysay’s army transported and guarded ballot boxes until the final official count was completed. The declared objective was to prevent cheating by anyone. The biggest cheating in the previous election had been carried on by President Quirino’s supporters, so he returned from Spain to find the dice loaded against him.
Lansdale meant business. Colonel Valeriano headed one of the poll-watching units. As balloting closed at each precinct, radio reporters obtained the unofficial tally and relayed the numbers immediately to Manila, where friendly newspapers and radio stations announced the results to the public, forestalling the manipulation of ballots. As Lansdale put it: “The honesty of the election was attested to by the fact that most of the candidates who were elected belonged to [our side].” From America’s viewpoint, the “clean” election of 1951 served notice to the world that genuine democracy was restored in the Philippines, that there was no need for anyone to join the Huks. Because it had all been done so cleverly, many Filipinos were persuaded that it was true. Good had beaten evil. Sympathy for the Huks had been growing not only on the left but in the political center. But the “clean” election so impressed the Filipino middle class that middle-of-the-road support for the Huks dwindled to a trickle.
Following the election, Magsaysay’s popularity grew enormously. He acquired the reputation of being the one honest man in the Manila government. American magazine readers were told again and again that he had all the makings of a presidential candidate who could restore confidence and, more important, would not hesitate to cooperate with American interests in the islands. In Washington, the formal decision was made to remove Quirino like a bad tooth and to put Magsaysay in his place.
A high-powered international media campaign was launched. In New York, Lansdale and Kaplan’s associates held meetings with publishers, editors, and journalists. Soon Magsaysay was on the cover of Time and other magazines as “the man who broke the back of the communist rebellion in the Philippines.” If you have imaginary enemies, it is possible to have imaginary victories.
It was necessary to project Magsaysay not only as a great anti-Communist fighter but as a man of large ideas capable of leading a nation. Here his image makers had a problem, for he was not articulate, and most of his ideas came from Lansdale. In mid-1953, an invitation was arranged for him to deliver the keynote address at the world conference of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City, with controlled press coverage. For many days beforehand, Lansdale had Magsaysay locked with a language instructor in a hotel room in Los Angeles, learning to read a speech in Spanish. His performance was a resounding success. Whatever his delivery lacked in eloquence could be attributed to the language problem.
Before Magsaysay could be run for president, he had to be eased out of Quirino’s cabinet and set up with a rival political machine. An oust-Quirino pact was negotiated by the CIA with the aging bosses of the Nacionalista party — Jose Laurel and Claro Recto — and with Lorenzo Tanada of the idealistic Citizens party. All were eager to tar-and-feather the Quirino brothers right out of Malacanang Palace, eager enough even to strike a bargain with Washington, which all three detested. Accordingly, the Citizens party temporarily merged with the Nacionalistas, Magsaysay resigned from Quirino’s cabinet and from the Liberal party, and became the presidential candidate of the Nacionalista/Citizens alliance.
For years, Washington had been keeping Laurel and Recto out of Malacanang by regurgitating the issue of their wartime collaboration, a tiresome device but one that inevitably worked on a population with bitter memories. Both Recto and Laurel were gentlemen of extraordinary guile, for whom one need not feel pity, only compassion. They thought they were taking this opportunity to lay the collaborator issue to rest by joining forces temporarily with the CIA. Years later Recto told a CIA agent, “I thought it amusing to arrange a deal with the American military who spent most of their time unjustly defaming me. As for Ramon [Magsaysay], he was so dumb I knew I could handle him.”
The Philippine presidential election campaign that followed was incongruously American. Filipinos were coaxed by slick radio jingles, children sang “Magsaysay is my Guy,” and couples danced to the “Magsaysay Mambo.” Planted news photos showed the overweight candidate sharing humble meals with peasants and workers. Lapel pins, wall posters, and bumper stickers appeared everywhere. Nobody thought to ask where Magsaysay had gotten all the dough.
The volatile Manila press, tired of the monotonously single-minded Quirino brothers and their legions of thugs and triads, universally favored Magsaysay, especially the American-owned Manila Daily Bulletin and the Manila Times. With CIA assistance, newsman Teddy de Los Santos and his staff generated pro-Magsaysay articles for newspapers all over the archipelago. The CIA unabashedly published and distributed a monthly “Digest of the Provincial Press,” featuring articles that it wanted to emphasize as the dominant views in the provinces, all favorable to Magsaysay.
Lansdale and Kaplan were pouring millions of dollars and pesos into the campaign, buying the archipelago back from the forces of darkness, but Magsaysay resolutely denied that he ever received a single contribution from any foreigner, insisting that his campaign was financed entirely with voluntary and unsolicited contributions. In his memoirs, Lansdale remained as pious as ever: “I was surprised to hear my name included in the rumors as having given Magsaysay three million dollars for his campaign. The rumormongers certainly didn’t know the tiny budget of government and personal funds on which I was operating.”
Outwardly, the Magsaysay-for-President Movement was billed as an independent political group. But the organization, headed by Lansdale protégé Colonel Terry Adevoso, had a more sinister role. If Quirino’s Liberals, to ensure his re-election, again resorted to cheating and murder on the scale of 1949, Adevoso’s team was to take over radio stations and military installations throughout the country. Secret planning sessions were held at the Del Monte pineapple plantation, MacArthur’s old haunt, and at the homes and estates of landed gentry. One of the CIA’s favorite estates was the Cojuangcos’ Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, which provided the Agency with facilities to train agents for conspiracies throughout Southeast Asia. Some Filipino elite were offended by the suggestion that they should participate with the CIA in a military conspiracy. In deference to their sensibilities, Lansdale was careful not to be present at any of the secret briefings.
To prevent any possible “misuse” of the Philippine Army and Constabulary during the election, JUSMAG’s General Robert Cannon sent American military officers on inspection rounds of all Philippine Army units in areas of potential trouble. Several days before the election, a flotilla of American destroyers and a light aircraft carrier appeared in Manila Bay, seeming to confirm rumors leaked slyly by the Magsaysay camp that a U.S.-backed coup was in the works in the event of “large-scale fraud and coercion of voters.” The naval exercise was stage-managed by the CIA’s Far East Division to frighten Quirino. When polling began, Magsaysay and the Nacionalista party bosses were guarded at the U.S. Navy’s Subic Bay base.
With so much backstage help, Magsaysay won by the biggest landslide in the nation’s history, taking 68.9 percent of the vote. At noon on November 12, 1953, Quirino conceded defeat and went home to count his bank balance. Everybody at the U.S. Embassy and at JUSMAG felt that it was a memorable day for democracy.
One of the CIA’s post-election contributions to the democratic process was the passage of President Magsaysay’s new Anti-Subversion Act, under which many Filipinos were stripped of jobs and reputations, or sentenced to prison. McCarthyism suffocated dissent in the islands; subversion thereafter became whatever Malacanang Palace wanted it to be. Lansdale’s many Filipino protégés remained politically powerful behind the scenes; anyone running for office for the next thirty years had to take them into consideration. Whenever a leading leftist was murdered, the running gag of the Lansdale gang was that he had been executed by his own supporters to create ill-feeling against the entrenched right.
One of the persistent myths about Magsaysay was that he was an enlightened man who brought the Huk movement to an end by making genuine concessions to the embittered rebels, offering them land and a chance to start a new life, trading plowshares for rifles. It was Lansdale, not Magsaysay, who created the land resettlement program, as a media device to impress journalists. The first farm showplace was established on 4,000 acres in Mindanao. There, nine hundred fifty families were resettled, but less than two hundred fifty had any remote connection with the Huk peasant movement. The Magsaysay government hoped that few Huks would accept this offer of land, because only a little land was available — why waste it on Communists? The gentry could not be persuaded to part with more, and except in the most extreme cases Washington considered land redistribution a dangerous manifestation of Marxism. Jose Crisol, principal Filipino architect of Magsaysay’s “agrarian programs,” candidly described these efforts as “psych-war aimed at the soft core of the Huk movement.” Crisol was not an expert on agrarian policy but a secret policeman.
The Magsaysay gambit was such a success that the CIA was encouraged to try the same thing elsewhere — in Indonesia, where President Eisenhower was anxious to end the flamboyant career of Bung Sukarno, in Cuba, in Chile, and in Vietnam. The same Americans and Filipinos who created Magsaysay created the Diem regime, tried unsuccessfully to remove Fidel Castro, and succeeded in removing Salvador Allende.
Edward Lansdale arrived in Saigon in June 1954 to set up the Saigon Military Mission after the French defeat at Dienbienphu.
“I talked to Magsaysay,” he said, “about the conditions under which Prime Minister Diem was working, particularly the inadequacies of the military guard. Magsaysay agreed that, if Diem desired it, Colonel Napoleon Valeriano might be spared to advise on ways to improve security for the prime minister.” Soon after Valeriano came to Saigon, opponents of Diem began to experience fatal accidents. It was the start of an impressive international career for the Huk killer. Through Lansdale, Valeriano became a favorite of CIA covert operations specialists William Colby and Theodore Shackley, moved on from Saigon to train Shackley’s Cuban Brigade for the Bay of Pigs, then back to Indochina as chief “gook-zapper” in Colby’s Operation Phoenix. In Washington, D.C., where he made his new home, he was something of a hero. When he died years later, apparently of natural causes, his Washington Post obituary portraying him as a national patriot of the Philippines was read into the Congressional Record.
As for Lansdale, he was so much in demand in the cause of freedom elsewhere that he was not in the Philippines when, shortly after midnight one Saturday in March 1957, Ramon Magsaysay’s presidential plane, Mt. Pinatubo, crashed into a mountainside near Cebu City, killing all but one of the twenty-seven aboard. The lone survivor was Nestor Mata, a reporter for the Philippine Herald. The Mt. Pinatubo was an old C-47 given to Magsaysay by the CIA. Despite its age, it was in excellent condition. Magsaysay’s pilot had more hours than any other Philippine aviator. The crash was said to have been caused by failure of the electrical system — power failure.
Back in 1953, when it was arranged for Magsaysay to be nominated for president by the Nacionalistas, the CIA had agreed as a trade-off to run crusty Carlos Garcia for vice president. Garcia was a lawyer who had been in politics since the 1920s as a congressman, a governor, and a senator, and he owed everything to party bosses Laurel and Recto. The CIA considered him a meaningless cipher. Magsaysay’s men warned that Garcia was “a crook like Quirino.” But the Agency never anticipated a fatal plane crash. With Magsaysay’s death, Garcia automatically became president and the Nacionalista old guard had no difficulty getting him elected to a full term in 1957. Once Magsaysay was gone, the intricate electrical circuits set up by Lansdale shorted out quickly.
Magsaysay’s popularity with ordinary Filipinos had been great, but Recto and Laurel had reason to regret their pact with Lansdale. They found it was really the CIA that had taken over Malacanang. There were cowboys in the palace. Claro Recto became the leader of an anti-Magsaysay (anti-CIA) faction among the Nacionalistas. The Agency chose to interpret his opposition as an obstacle to its sincere activities throughout Asia. When he ran for president with Lorenzo Tanada under the Citizens party banner in 1957, Recto was smeared by the Agency for his role as Laurel’s foreign secretary during the war — in support of fascism — and was simultaneously labeled a Communist. At one point, CIA station chief General Ralph Lovett and U.S. Ambassador Raymond Spruance considered poisoning him. Lovett later revealed that they decided not to do it for practical reasons rather than moral scruples. When CIA agent Joseph Burkholder Smith was assigned to the Manila Station, he discovered envelopes containing defective condoms bearing the inscription “Compliments of Claro M. Recto, the People’s Friend.”
Looking back, former President Truman mused:
For some time I have been disturbed by the way [the] CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational arm and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.
I never had any thought when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations.
… the last thing we needed was for the CIA to be seized upon as something akin to a subverting influence in the affairs of other people …
… I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President, and whatever else it can properly perform in that special field, and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.
We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historical position, and I feel that we need to correct it.