SPECIAL Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go on Monday blamed “irresponsible reporting” for generating controversy on the P15.7-billion Philippine Navy frigate project, calling out two media outlets: the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Rappler.
Go, who attended the Senate national defense and security committee hearing on the frigate deal, noted that the multibillion-peso project only became an issue after the two news outlets came out with allegations that he intervened in the process, which he branded as “fake news.”
“Ang pinag uusapan ngayon ay naging isyu lamang nang maglabas ang Rappler at Inquirer ng fake news at sinabing ako daw ay nakialam. Lahat ng ito ay nagsimula sa isang irresponsible reporting (this became an issue only after Rappler and Inquirer come out with a fake news and claimed that I intervened. All this started with irresponsible reporting),” Go told the senate panel.
The President’s aide took the opportunity to request the Senate to continue with the hearing and investigation on fake news and have the two news organizations invited and questioned.
The so-called frigate controversy stemmed from a “white paper” dated January 12, 2017 citing delays in the project, which was coursed through Go’s office.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, also during the hearing, said he got hold of the document and then endorsed it through a note to then Navy chief Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado, but forgot about it because he never got a reply from the latter.
The latter was used by Inquirer and Rappler to run stories accusing Go of interfering in the project.
Mercado, who was present in the hearing, cleared Go of any involvement in the multibillion-peso warship procurement deal between the Navy and South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI).
Mercado, in a prepared statement read during the Senate committee hearing, said Go never made any move to influence his decision-making regarding the procurement of the Combat Management System (CMS) that would be fitted to the two frigates to be delivered by HHI.
“Secretary Bong Go never approached me to inquire about the frigate acquisition project. Neither did he make any form of communication to influence my decision-making as the end user and flag officer in command of the Philippine Navy,” Mercado told the senate committee.
Mercado was relieved from his position in December 2017 for his supposed insubordination, but the former Navy chief denied this and maintained that he never disobeyed any legal order from his superiors.
Other members of the Senate committee were not convinced that the Malacañang official intervened with project.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto 3rd said there was no evidence to back allegations that Go intervened in the deal.
“Wala namang ebidensiya at lalong walang nagtuturo na may kinalaman si Bong Go sa frigate deal, ginagawan lang nila ng isyu para masira ang Pangulong Duterte (there is no evidence that Bong Go was involved in the frigate deal. They only made an issue out of it to destroy President Rodrigo Duterte),” Sotto said.
Sen. Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito concluded that the issue was between Defense Secretary Lorenzana and Mercado, as the two had different positions on the selection of the CMS for the ships.
“It has nothing to do with SAP Bong Go, who was simply doing his job,” Ejercito added.
Sen. Loren Legarda said there was nothing in the letter endorsed by Lorenzana that would indicate that Go intervened in the project.
“I’ve read all documents, and all I see is this handwritten message and it’s a pro forma request of the secretary that says, ‘Look into it.’ Don’t we all do that?” said Legarda.
Sen. Grace Poe, head of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, for her part, said she would resume the hearings on fake news and invite Go to attend the proceedings.
Completed during Aquino admin
Go also pointed out that the frigate acquisition deal was completed during the time of former President Benigno Aquino 3rd and no changes were made to it when the contract was signed in 2016.
“Tapos na po ito sa panahon ng Aquino administration. Walang nabago,walang binago, walang nakialam at walang pinakialaman sa kontrata (It was finished during the Aquino administration. No changes, no one intervened in the contract),” Go said during the hearing.
He described the deal as “photo finish” because it was completed right before the end of the Aquino administration.
“While it would appear inappropriate to describe it as such, I would say that the contract was a photo-finish as it was concluded just before the end of the Aquino administration,” he said.
Former defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who was present during the hearing, confirmed that the procurement of the two warships happened during the previous administration, but no approval was issued.
He said he was advised against awarding the contract lest the project be labeled a midnight deal.
Lorenzana said Gazmin informed him about the frigate deal and then had his legal team review the contract before pushing through with the awarding, without changing anything in the deal.
Mercado was relieved from his post allegedly for insisting that HHI use the CMS of Thales-Tacticos instead of the Korean Hanwha system.
The Thales-Tacticos system was said to be superior to the Hanwha brand but the Defense department decided to go with the latter since it was also complaint with the technical specifications stated in the contract.
HHI has the prerogative to choose what system will be installed with the two frigates to be purchased so long at it was compliant with the requirements set by the Navy, Lorenzana said.
Go said the Navy needed the frigate project to be able to patrol the country’s waters, but the controversy was derailing the implementation of the project.
“Perhaps, this is really their intention, to block the implementation of this important security program and ensure that this administration will fail,” he said. “But we will not allow them to win because the truth is on our side. I am confident that the Senate will be a vehicle of truth and will not allow itself to be used to advance the self-serving interests of others.”