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Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner talks security threats with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte

Author: Ernest Luning - June 1, 2017 - Updated: June 2, 2017

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U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at Villamor Air Base in Manila, in a photograph provided by the Philippine government. Gardner was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, while Duterte was accompanied by his foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, the government said. (Photo via Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office)
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at Villamor Air Base in Manila, in a photograph posted online by the Philippine government. Gardner was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, while Duterte was accompanied by his foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, the government said. (Photo via Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office)

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner met Wednesday with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at an airbase in Manila, drawing strong criticism from a local progressive organization that demanded a “full accounting” of the senator’s powwow with “a murderous strongman.” But a spokesman said the Yuma Republican was simply doing his job by discussing security threats with an ally.

Duterte has come under fire for repeatedly “joking” about rape, boasting that his death squads were responsible for hundreds of executions when he was a mayor, and pledging to kill every Filipino who deals or uses drugs, a vow human rights observers say has led to thousands of deaths in the country over the last year.

Gardner, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity, met with leaders in South Korea and Taiwan earlier in the week, part of a four-day, multi-nation tour of the Pacific Rim.

Dubbed a “courtesy call,” the meeting between Gardner and Duterte came to light when a cybersecurity website reported on a number of hacked official Philippine documents posted online Wednesday, including “briefing notes” for the Gardner confab.

The Philippine government also posted photographs and a short, silent video depicting the official visit, which took place at Colonel Jesus Villamor Air Base, home of the Philippine Air Force.

A Gardner spokesman said the senator also met with Chito Gascon, chair of the Philippines Human Rights Commission, to discuss human rights concerns, as well as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim.

“These meetings have been an important first-hand opportunity to discuss threats to U.S. national security, such as North Korea’s illicit nuclear program and China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea,” Alex Siciliano, the senator’s communications director, told Colorado Politics in an email on Thursday.

But Ian Silverii, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group ProgressNow Colorado, ripped Gardner for finding time to meet with Duterte while declining to schedule traditional town hall meetings — he’s held several telephone town halls this year — with constituents back home.

“Since taking office last year, Duterte’s regime has been accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings, encouraging lawless vigilante violence against civilians, and threats against journalists,” Silverii said in a statement. “Duterte has boasted about personally committing murder. Duterte is the last person Sen. Gardner should be associating with, and yet there he was — a headline in Filipino news media, smiling and shaking hands with this murderous strongman.”

“Foreign policy is not a game,” Silverii added. “Sen. Gardner has a responsibility to condemn violators of human rights, not to embrace strongmen who slaughter civilians. Cory Gardner must explain himself, and apologize to the victims of Duterte’s campaign of terror against his own people — in person, in Colorado, in front of his constituents. Gardner can’t continue to hide from the people of Colorado while he coddles mass murderers abroad.”

Siciliano rebuffed the criticism.

“Instead of engaging in press-release diplomacy, Senator Gardner wanted to discuss face to face with President Duterte the importance to adhering to the rule of law. They also discussed joint efforts to defeat ISIS-linked groups, as they continue to gain a stronger presence in the country. These three nations all have an important role for the United States, and it is essential for our national security that we work together to stop anyone that wishes to cause harm to our country or our allies.”

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Siciliano said Gardner discussed human rights, in addition to security issues, with Duterte.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, left, meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at Villamor Air Base in Manila, in a photograph provided by the Philippine government. Gardner was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, while Duterte was accompanied by his foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, the government said. (Photo via Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office)
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, right, meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at Villamor Air Base in Manila, in a photograph posted online by the Philippine government. Gardner was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, while Duterte was accompanied by his foreign affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, the government said. (Photo via Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office)

An 11-page “briefer,” posted online by the website cyberscoop, appears to have been prepared for Duterte’s meeting with Gardner. It notes that Gardner is married with three children and has a law degree from the University of Colorado and a political science degree from CSU. It also points out that Gardner co-sponsored the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.

In a section about international trade, the document says that the United States was the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner in 2016, with $15.83 billion. The country’s top export to the United States is “digital monolithic integrated circuits,” according to the briefing, while the biggest import is “materials for the manufacture of dice.”

“Senator Gardner intends to have a quiet visit to engage our leadership, as he is very interested in the security and intelligence angle of Philippines-US relations. He is very eager to develop relations with the Philippines and comes from a ‘pro-engagement’ strategy,” the document reads.

“Welcome to the Philippines, Senator. I am pleased to meet you here in Manila,” reads a portion of the briefing labeled “Pleasantries.”

In the script, Duterte hails the two countries’ longstanding alliance — the United States is the only treaty ally of the Philippines, he notes — and welcomes American help combating terrorism and violent extremism. “Only through cooperation can we hope to finally break the backbone of terrorism and violent extremism,” he says. After taking “due note” of Gardner’s proposal to “promote a U.S.-led trade and market access in Asia” in pending legislation, Duterte says he hopes the countries can continue to cooperate on economic development goals in Mindanao, the recon-largest of the Philippines islands.

“I am determined to put an end to the illicit drug trade,” Duterte’s script says. “Illegal drug trade money is helping fund instability in my country. It will be dealt with accordingly, with the full force of the law employed to destroy the illegal drug trade apparatus.”

“We appreciate the US’ support for the Philippines’ comprehensive war against the illegal drugs trade,” he continues. “I hope we can continue to find ways to work together to completely dismantle and destroy the apparatus of the illegal drug trade.”

Duterte closes by discussing tensions in the South China Sea and expressing his intention “for all parties to work together to defuse tensions in the Korean Peninsula and create conditions conducive to peace and stability in the region,” adding a call for “all parties” to reach a negotiated settlement over concerns about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Philippines will do what it can and what it must in order to achieve lasting security and stability in the Korean Peninsula,” Duterte says.

— Ernest.Luning@coloradopolitics.com

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. Since 2009, he has been the senior political reporter and occasional editor for The Colorado Statesman.


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