, September 29, 2005
(STAR) (AP) President Gloria Arroyo on Wednesday further angered her critics in Congress by ordering officials -- including military and police officers -- to get her consent before testifying in congressional investigations.

"It's a gag order," said opposition Senator Jamby Madrigal. "The Philippines is now under a virtual martial rule by a president who will do anything to survive in power."

The executive order also said officials' testimonies before any congressional probe should be given behind closed doors if the president states in writing that a public hearing would endanger national security or the public interest.

The order was signed Wednesday and made public just hours after a general and a colonel were fired and ordered to face court martial for testifying in the Senate -- without Arroyo's permission -- on wiretapped recordings of Arroyo allegedly discussing ways to rig last year's election.

Cabinet members also need GMA green light before facing Congress By Aurea Calica The Philippine Star 09/29/2005

In a move that could put Malacañang on a collision course with Congress, President Arroyo issued an executive order yesterday prohibiting officials from the executive branch, including the military and police, from testifying before Congress without her approval.

She complained that anti-Arroyo lawmakers were using legislative inquiries as weapons to destroy her administration.

Lawmakers, especially from the opposition, promptly denounced Executive Order 464, saying it undermined Congress’ power to check wrongdoing by the administration.

Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. said the House of Representatives would continue to invite executive officials to its hearings, saying the chamber "has not used its congressional hearings for partisan political purposes… or weakening the stability of the state."

"Therefore, the House sees no valid reason why the President should not consent to the appearance in the House of her department heads and officers and invoking executive privilege," De Venecia said in a statement.

In her order, Mrs. Arroyo stated there was a "need to prevent such inquiries in aid of legislation from being used for partisan political purposes, disrupting diplomatic relations with foreign governments and weakening the stability of the state, thereby impeding the efforts of the government to generate and attract foreign investments."

The EO would ensure the "observance of the principle of separation of powers, adherence to the rule on executive privilege and respect for the rights of public officials appearing in legislative inquiries in aid of legislation under the Constitution."

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita announced the issuance of the order, which he said was drafted after National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales was cited for contempt and detained by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee last Sept. 21.

Gonzales stonewalled the committee, which wanted to find out if he had authority to sign the government’s contract with American lobby firm Venable LLP and who funded the deal.

Malacañang defended Gonzales, saying he enjoyed executive privilege and therefore could not disclose information that could compromise national security.

Ermita also confirmed that Mrs. Arroyo ordered military officials not to appear before the Senate without authority from her as Commander-in-Chief, though two military officials have defied the order.

Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani, assistant superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy, and Col. Alexander Balutan, assistant commandant of the PMA corps of cadets, alleged at a Senate inquiry yesterday that the administration was involved in vote fraud during last year’s presidential election. They were relieved following their appearance.

Mrs. Arroyo’s order states that heads of departments may only appear before a legislative inquiry with prior permission from the President.

Mrs. Arroyo said her administration "must be free to explore alternatives in the process of shaping policies and making decisions since this is fundamental to the operation of the government."

"Article 6, Section 21 of the Constitution mandates that the rights of persons appearing in or affected by inquiries in aid of legislation by the Senate or the House of Representatives shall be respected," the EO read, in apparent reference to Gonzales’ detention. Not a legal maneuver Ermita denied that Mrs. Arroyo was trying to block scrutiny into alleged wrongdoing by her administration, explaining they wanted to prevent the use of legislative oversight as a weapon against the administration.

The Palace also doesn’t want a repeat of the kind of intense questioning that Gonzales faced.

Senators looking into the Venable contract were suspicious because it sought US funding for Mrs. Arroyo’s initiative to amend the Constitution.

"(We hope) members of both houses (of Congress) will understand why the Executive branch is taking this position," Ermita said.

He lamented that some senators were reviving issues raised in the defeated impeachment complaint against Mrs. Arroyo, saying she must be tried in a proper forum and not before the court of public opinion.

Yesterday, Senate President and former Arroyo ally Franklin Drilon turned down a request from Ermita to postpone yet another Senate inquiry, this time on alleged anomalies in the planned $500-million railway project that will link Metro Manila to northern Luzon.

The opposition had earlier accused Mrs. Arroyo of wrongdoing in the North Rail project as part of their impeachment complaint.

Drilon said the inquiry, set for today, could not be postponed because Ermita’s request was made too late. Senators wanted to know why the project was awarded to a Chinese company without public bidding.

In a statement signed by several administration congressmen, De Venecia maintained that congressmen "recognize that respecting the rights of witnesses and resource persons appearing before the House is a limitation upon its legislative powers to investigate and hear executive officers in executive session."

"We, however, maintain that the House shall continue its inherent duty to invite the executive heads and officers in aid of legislation and by virtue of the people’s right to public information," De Venecia said.

De Venecia insisted that the House "shall respect the Executive department’s prerogatives and expect it to equally respect the prerogatives of the House of Representatives."

Executive privilege

The EO enumerated the scope and coverage of executive privilege, arguing that confidentiality is fundamental to the operation of government and rooted in the principle of separation of powers under the Constitution.

It stated that government officials and employees "shall not use or divulge confidential or classified information officially known to them by reason of their office and not made available to the public to prejudice public interest."

It also reminded that the law prohibits a public officer from revealing any secret known to him by reason of his official capacity or wrongfully delivering papers or copies he is in charge of and which should not be made public.

Under the EO, executive privilege covers all confidential or classified information between the President and the public officers covered by the order, including: conversations and correspondence between them; and military, diplomatic and other national security matters which in the interest of national security should not be divulged.

The others are: information between inter-government agencies prior to the conclusion of treaties and executive agreements, discussions in closed-door Cabinet meetings and matters affecting national security and public order.

Aside from Cabinet secretaries, those covered by the EO are senior officials of executive departments who in judgment of the department heads are covered by executive privilege; generals and flag officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines; and Philippine National Police officers with rank of chief superintendent or higher.

Senior national security officials and other AFP and PNP officers, per the judgment of their superiors or the President, may also be prevented from testifying.

Constitutional crisis?

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, chairman of the Senate committee on defense and national security, criticized the executive order and called on Drilon and De Venecia to thresh out the situation.

"I consider this an interference by one co-equal department in the functions of the other. I hope this has been well thought out to prevent the possibility of a constitutional crisis," the former armed forces chief said.

Biazon backed the call of Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. to challenge EO 464 before the Supreme Court.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago said the order was "irregular."

"The standard procedure is for the Constitution to be carried out by a law passed by Congress. Thereafter, the President issues an executive order to execute the law passed by Congress. Here, Congress has not yet passed the law," Santiago said.

Minority Leader Francis Escudero said the Senate and the House "should assert their powers and challenge the presidential issuance."

Escudero also questioned the coverage of Mrs. Arroyo’s directive, saying the Constitution states that only Cabinet members may refuse to testify in legislative inquiries if they are not permitted by the President. The provision does not cover lower-level officials and military officers.

Deputy Minority Leader Rolex Suplico said Mrs. Arroyo apparently wants a "rubber stamp" Congress. "This is another stage of Mrs. Arroyo’s creeping martial law," he said.

Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla said Mrs. Arroyo is "throwing the principle of checks and balances out the window." — With Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz, Michael Punongbayan

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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