Espionage Case Breaches the White House

Leandro Aragoncillo, a former Marine and FBI intelligence analyst, passed classified information from the White House to opposition leaders in his native Philippines.

Espionage Case Breaches the White House (ABC News)

Both the FBI and CIA are calling it the first case of espionage in the White House in modern history. Officials tell ABC News the alleged spy worked undetected at the White House for almost three years. Leandro Aragoncillo, 46, was a U.S. Marine most recently assigned to the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. “I don’t know of a case where the vetting broke down before and resulted in a spy being in the White House,” said Richard Clarke, a former White House advisor who is now an ABC News consultant.

Federal investigators say Aragoncillo, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines, used his top secret clearance to steal classified intelligence documents from White House computers.

In 2000, Aragoncillo worked on the staff of then-Vice President Al Gore. When interviewed by Philippine television, he remarked how valued Philippine employees were at the White House. “I think what they like most is our integrity and loyalty,” Aragoncillo said.

Officials say the classified material, which Aragoncillo stole from the vice president’s office, included damaging dossiers on the president of the Philippines. He then passed those on to opposition politicians planning a coup in the Pacific nation. “Even though it’s not for the Russians or some other government, the fact that it occurred at the White House is a matter of great concern,” said John Martin, who was the government’s lead espionage prosecutor for 26 years.

Last year, after leaving the Marines, Aragoncillo was caught by the FBI while he worked for the Bureau at an intelligence center at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

I’m honestly surprised this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. The process for granting people security clearances is based on a 1950s America where everyone lives in the same place their whole life and knows their neighbors. Unless someone has a criminal record, there’s very little that a background check will turn up. Presumably, those working in the White House also have to pass extensive polygraph examinations; unfortunately, they are extremely unreliable.*

Michelle Malkin notes that there have been several security breaches involving naturalized Filipinos and that this is further evidence that we should apply additional scrutiny to that particular group. Of course, we’ve also had several cases of Jewish Americans passing classified information to Israel and/or its lobbying groups in this country; I suspect we’ll not be looking harder at them.

*For more background on this issue, see my June 2004 piece for Tech Central Station, “Bouncing the Security Check.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Ixnay on the polygraph. Many of the staffers in the WH have low-level clearances–think of all those volunteers who end up stuffing envelopes, handling correspondence, staffing-up Presidential visits. They are also supposed not to have access to classified materials.

    A Marine, however, working near classified materials, would have a proper clearance, at least to the level of the materials he’d be near–probably jointly handled by FBI & Secret Service. Neither of them would include polygraphs. And once you’ve the clearance, it’s pretty much good for five years until it’s updated on a regular cycle. Going bad in mid-cycle is a danger, obviously.

    USMC Embassy Security Guards are assigned to US Embassies abroad solely to protect classified documents and equipment–protecting people and facilities is done on an as-needed proposition. They scour embassy offices for materials or equipment left unsecured nightly, securing what they find… one expects. Was Aragoncilllo recycling documents found laying around loose?

    The USMCSG are also responsible for destroying classified documents and equipment if things get too “interesting” locally.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I know FBI requires polygraphs for its intel analysts; not sure about its other employees.

    Presumably, low level staffers wouldn’t have access to the VP’s office, let alone unsupervised access to classified email.

  3. McGehee says:

    Tbird, you too need to go read the Constitution WRT treason.

    This was political espionage, not on behalf of an enemy of this country, but on behalf of an opposition political party in a country that’s been more or less friendly to us, regardless who’s been in power, for generations.