A LEAK by its very definition is bad news. It is defined either as a hole in a container or an intentional disclosure of secret information. No one wants a leaky faucet or a leaking Tupperware. A leak from within the Department of Foreign Affairs that exposed the private conversation between President Rodrigo Duterte and US President Donald Trump is more than just bad news. It was and continues to be a national embarrassment of epic proportions.
The memorandum signed by Acting Assistant Secretary Marshall Louis M. Alferez of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Office of American Affairs contained a transcript of the phone conversation between the two Presidents that transpired last April 29. Marked “Very Urgent and Confidential,” the memo was addressed to the undersecretary for civilian security and consular concerns through the Office of the Undersecretary for Policy. The memo was clearly marked confidential and had a security cover page declaring that its contents were not to be publicly shared.
President Duterte had already told the public about the contents of the phone conversation prior to the leak, so there was little surprise from the Philippine side. Unfortunately, the memo leak had been spun to heap ridicule on his American counterpart. The article written by Robbie Gramer on the supposedly private conversation between two world leaders for foreignpolicy.com bore this headline: “In leaked call, Trump praises Duterte’s campaign to ‘slaughter’ drug addicts.”
The Daily Mail, a UK-based online news portal, used this lengthy and incendiary headline: “Trump calls Kim Jong-un ‘a madman with nukes’ and discusses the possibility of missile strikes against North Korea during leaked chat with Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte”.
CNNPolitics.com featured a similar story with the following headline: “Trump praises Duterte’s deadly drug war in leaked transcript.”
That both world leaders, considered by the establishment as mavericks and “outsiders” elected into presidential office, showed a willingness to work together to address a serious security matter barely mattered.
In that brief phone call, the two heads of state discussed strategy. The two leaders agreed that China needed to take action to put a stop to North Korea’s provocative missile tests.
Whatever the motive or process involved, the unauthorized release of this official memorandum caused grave embarrassment to two sovereign states whose long, historic alliance is known to the world.
Whoever leaked the document knew what he or she was doing. The four-page transcript was front-page material, and the timing of its release was impeccable. That it came out first in foreign media made it possible for our own mainstream media to follow suit. None of these stories would have seen print without the transcript.
A full-scale investigation is warranted because unless identified, this person continues to have access to confidential documents. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano deserves to know that he is inheriting a department that he could trust; that would know how to secure and manage the flow of confidential and urgent information. President Duterte must also be assured that the contents of his future conversations and phone calls are secure, and that the people entrusted to transcribe such conversations can be relied upon.
Unless the leak is plugged, even when matters of national security are being discussed, DFA officials present at these meetings will most likely be at the receiving end of stern looks and uneasy conversations from their peers.
Diplomats around the world would also be more careful in dealing with one of our own, especially in arranging sensitive phone calls and bilateral meetings between their respective leaders and ours.
There have been leaks before, and not just within the DFA but in other government agencies as well. Nevertheless, this is the first time that an official memorandum concerning a private conversation between two world leaders has gone viral. Whoever leaked the document, wherever he or she is right now, has compromised the integrity and security of the sole government agency tasked to interface with foreign governments.
That person has betrayed not just the trust of his or her superiors, but also the trust of more than a hundred million Filipinos. We need to know who that person is.
It is in the national interest that this be known at the soonest possible time.