Scope of secrecy must be narrowed; more Diet discussions needed
The House of Representatives’ passage of a bill to tighten the confidentiality of specified government information can be regarded as a clear indication that many legislators believe this country needs such legislation comparable to what has already been enacted in other advanced nations.
The bill is designed to tighten penalties on public servants and others who leak classified information related to national security. On Tuesday, the legislation was laid before a plenary session of the lower house, which approved it with the endorsement of a significant 70 percent of lawmakers in that chamber—those from the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, as well as Your Party and some other legislators. The bill was then forwarded to the House of Councillors for further discussions.
Members of the opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) left the chamber before the bill was put to a vote, despite its earlier agreement to support the legislation if some modifications were incorporated into it. Ishin no Kai was antagonized by the governing coalition’s decision to vote on the bill Tuesday instead of going along with its calls for more discussions.
Although Ishin no Kai regrettably refused to vote in favor of the bill, we find it commendable that the legislation passed the lower house with the backing of many lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties.
Japan NSC comes into play
Still, debates on revisions to the initial bill—an amendment drafted by the ruling parties, Your Party and Ishin no Kai—were far from sufficient. It is also a stretch to say that public anxiety about the nature of the bill has been laid to rest, as shown by the widespread fear that the legislation could restrict the people’s right to know.
The government and the ruling parties should carefully explain how the envisaged law would be applied in actuality during upper house debates on it, with the aim of gaining broad support for it.
Japan’s security environment has become even more difficult in recent years due to such factors as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and China’s growing military build-up.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had every reason to tell a session of the lower house Special Committee on National Security that “information gathering is critical for defending the safety of the people.”
The Abe administration intends to establish a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council that would play a central role in issuing directives related to Japan’s diplomatic relations and national security. Every nation needs to refine its legal framework to ensure none of its secrets are leaked. This is essential for promoting efforts to exchange and share critical information among allies and friendly powers.
Given this, the envisaged NSC and legislation for preserving the secrecy of crucial information are inseparable when it comes to the government’s strategic decision-making function.
The most contentious issue debated in connection with the bill was how the government would actually apply the envisaged law. During debates in the lower house, legislators said it would be impossible to dispel the anxiety that the government could arbitrarily expand the scope of information to be designated under the legislation, thus making it possible to keep concealing such secrets.
The prime minister brushed off that assertion as a mistaken notion about the bill. He insisted that the legislation would be used as a multilayered system by which the government would be prevented from making arbitrary decisions about designating information as secret. Steps to be taken for that purpose include limiting the scope of designation to items stated in a table attached to the bill, and setting standards for secrecy designation based on the opinions of experts.
Information to be classified under the legislation would be removed—as a general rule—from the list of secrets 30 years after its designation. The modified bill stipulates the term of designation for each secret could be renewed by consent of the cabinet, but that the ultimate period would not exceed 60 years, except for areas of critical importance, including secret codes used by the government and sources of confidential information.
The prime minister told the lower house that information whose designation period could be extended beyond 30 years would be limited, as a general rule, to these seven areas.
Debates on the bill in the lower house certainly did much to clarify the government’s thinking about how to apply the law, and also imposed tighter limits on the duration of secrecy designation.
Fend off arbitrary judgment
Nonetheless, bureaucratic organizations, with their ingrained principle of not rocking the boat, are expected to broaden the range of documents subject to protection as specifically designated secrets and become more cautious about declassifying them.
Presently, the government possesses about 420,000 documents containing specially managed secrets. Ninety percent of these documents are said to be related to Japan’s information-gathering satellites. The government should narrow down the range of classified information to be protected when it transfers documents into the category of specifically designated secrets.
If the number of specifically designated secrets grows too large, it would be physically difficult to check every piece of classified information and to declassify them should “the heads of administrative organizations” be replaced through a change of government or a cabinet reshuffle. It is important to work out a structure that prevents bureaucrats from hanging on to specifically designated secrets for too long.
During a Diet session, Abe went so far as to say the government should establish a “third-party body” that would examine the appropriateness of the designation of documents branded as secret. He referred to such organizations as the Information Security Oversight Office within the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
It would be unreasonable for specifically designated secrets to be examined by people outside the organization. It would also give rise to the danger of information leaks. If a third-party organization is to be set up, it would be proper to have an internal unit within an administrative organization do the job, modeled on the setup in the United States.
According to the modified bill, all secret documents that have been declassified “are to be made public, in principle” after a certain period. This modification is an improvement that will enable future generations to examine these documents.
How such documents should be made public, stored or destroyed are major issues to be resolved. The Democratic Party of Japan asserted that certain rules should be established on information disclosure so that courts will be able to look at specific documents when handling a lawsuit that involves classified information. We think this proposal has some merit.
As to the Diet’s involvement in specifically designated secrets, the ruling and opposition parties should stipulate such matters as the management of closed meetings through lawmaker-initiated legislation.
Protecting ‘right to know’
The bill also clearly gave some consideration to the freedom of news gathering and reporting. We welcome the fact that news gathering activity by people in the media will not be considered a crime unless it is conducted illegally or extremely improperly.
Some opposition parties have been up in arms and claimed this bill “will cover the people’s eyes and ears and muzzle their mouths” and “control the state’s information and silence any criticism of the Japan-U.S. alliance.” But such fears are off the mark.
That being said, there is a danger that public servants will become so afraid of leaks that they will reject requests for interviews, making it harder for the media to share necessary information with the public.
How should the protection of classified information for national security be balanced with the people’s “right to know”? This topic also needs in-depth discussion in the upper house.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 27, 2013)