MANILA, Philippines – Former President Joseph Estrada said Tuesday he has been notified by an American court that U.S. authorities bugged his telephone conversations with an FBI analyst accused of revealing U.S. government secrets.
The New Jersey court indicated it authorized the wiretapping as part of an investigation into Leandro Aragoncillo last year, Estrada said, adding that there was no suggestion he was under investigation.
Estrada, who was toppled by a popular revolt in 2001, previously acknowledged receiving American government assessments of Philippine political events from Aragoncillo, a 21-year Marine veteran who became an FBI intelligence analyst in 2004.
"The notice said that my telephone calls with Aragoncillo were wiretapped," Estrada told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "The wiretapping was authorized by the court."
Aragoncillo was arrested in the United States last year. He has been charged with conspiring to reveal government secrets, acting as a foreign agent and improperly using FBI computers. Those charges carry a maximum sentence of 25 years.
He has not been charged with espionage, which carries a maximum penalty of capital punishment.
Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., has refused to comment on the alleged wiretapping, which was first reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, citing government sources.
"Even if that were so, I would not comment on it," Drewniak said last week.
Estrada is under house arrest while on trial for corruption charges.
He has acknowledged speaking by phone with Aragoncillo and receiving U.S. government documents on the political situation in the Philippines. But he has played down their value, saying the assessments were similar to those being reported by Philippine newspapers.
Asked about the wiretapping, Estrada said: "My reaction is nothing, because even before this, I have admitted that I've talked with him ... (and) that those details were nothing more than newspaper accounts of what's happening in the country."
Estrada has insisted that Aragoncillo passed on information to the Philippines not in exchange for money but out of his concern for his impoverished homeland.
Aragoncillo became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1991. He worked at the White House on the security detail for vice presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney in 1999-2002 before joining the FBI as a civilian intelligence analyst at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
Estrada said he met Aragoncillo when he visited the United States while he was still president and was introduced to him and other White House staffers of Filipino descent. Their friendship blossomed, with Aragoncillo visiting him at the Malacanang presidential palace and in a hospital where Estrada was once confined.
Washington has invoked its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Manila to get files on a number of Filipinos who might have received information from him, a Philippine investigator has said.
Meanwhile, a lawyer for Aragoncillo's co-defendant wants to question the former president and Philippine Sen. Panfilio Lacson, an opposition leader, as part of the defense.
Mark Berman, who represents Michael Ray Aquino, asked U.S. District Judge William Walls on Monday to approve the depositions. The U.S. Attorney's office in Newark opposes such a move.
The judge ordered both sides to return to court next month to discuss the request.
Lacson has said he also received information from Arangocillo through Aquino, a former deputy director of the Philippine National Police. Prosecutors say Aragoncillo gave the classified documents to Aquino, who then passed them along to current or former Philippine officials.