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Govt. information belongs to the public

July 5, 2016

EDITORIAL: Parties should address Diet’s inept oversight of state secrets



In some cases, the government has good reason to keep certain pieces of information secret. But that doesn’t change the fact that information gained by the government belongs in principle to the public.

It is therefore important for the legislature to have adequate power to monitor the executive branch’s activities concerning information it has acquired.

Unfortunately, we cannot say that the Diet, which represents the public, is sufficiently performing its responsibility as the people’s watchdog of the government.

On Dec. 6, 2013, the Diet passed the Abe administration’s controversial state secrets protection bill into law. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initiative to ensure the secrecy of what the government deems sensitive information caused a bitter division among the public.

Two days before the law was enacted, Abe announced the establishment of two organs to monitor government operations related to state secrets: the Independent Public Records Management Secretary and a Cabinet committee responsible for checking the qualification assessments of government employees who deal with state secrets.

The following day, four parties--the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, plus the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party--agreed to set up monitoring bodies within the Diet as well.

All these actions were taken immediately before the Upper House vote on the secrecy legislation. Their effectiveness is in serious doubt.

The two institutions set up within the government are actually internal organizations that are not independent of the government.

The Boards of Oversight and Review of Specially Designated Secrets of both Diet houses are intended as independent watchdogs, the only institutions that can monitor the implementation of the state secrets law from outside the government.

But their ability to monitor the government’s moves to classify or declassify specific information is highly questionable if their first annual reports published at the end of March are any indication.

Most of the accounts contained in the government’s record book about the designation of specific pieces of information as state secrets were too vague to help the boards judge whether the designation was appropriate or not. One typical description about classified information in the document is “information provided by a foreign country.”

When members of the boards asked ministry officials for more detailed information, the officials often simply refused.

The boards’ efforts to carry out their missions were also unsatisfactory.

The Lower House board failed to make any judgment about the government’s decisions to classify specific information.

Instead, it only called for improvements in the way the law was implemented as its “opinion” without issuing more powerful “recommendations.”

While pushing for the enactment of the state secrets protection law, the Abe administration also created the National Security Council and then led the Diet to pass national security legislation.

With these moves, the administration has sought to expand the government’s discretion in making and implementing security policy decisions, including those related to the operations of the Self-Defense Forces, while concentrating related powers in the prime minister’s office.

The Diet, which is supposed to check such government policy decisions, is dominated by the ruling camp.

It is unacceptable to leave the Diet’s ability to monitor the government’s handling of information in such poor shape.

The situation raises concerns that the government could indefinitely expand the scope of discretionary security policy decisions made behind closed doors without being exposed to public scrutiny.

The Abe administration has put off important steps under the security legislation in an apparent attempt to prevent negative repercussions in the July 10 Upper House election.

If, for example, the government decides to deploy SDF troops overseas after the election, the Diet will unlikely be able to extract necessary information from the government to judge the appropriateness of the deployment.

The ruling and opposition parties should spend more time during the election campaign addressing the question of how to enhance the Diet’s monitoring capabilities after the election.





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