MSDF knew of oil error since ’03

Opposition demands sworn Diet testimony by officials

by Reiji Yoshida

The Defense Ministry admitted Monday that some Maritime Self-Defense Force officers were aware of an underreporting “mistake” concerning the amount of fuel Japan provided to the U.S. in 2003 but failed to report it to their seniors for more than four years.

The ministry called the mishap “a grave problem in civilian control” over the Self-Defense Forces and in the evening launched an investigation committee.

The fresh scandal for the Defense Ministry is expected to make enactment of a bill to extend the controversial MSDF Indian Ocean mission more difficult for the ruling bloc, as the emboldened opposition will now be in a position to put up greater resistance to prolong deliberations during the current Diet session.

Initially, top government officials, including then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, stated that 200,000 gallons of oil (around 760,000 liters) were provided from the MSDF oiler Tokiwa to the U.S. naval oiler Pecos in February 2003. The Pecos then provided fuel to the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk near the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Fukuda quoted the figure on May 9, 2003, at a news conference, saying this amount of oil should have been consumed by the Kitty Hawk in only one day and could not therefore have been used for the Iraq war as alleged by opposition parties.

But according to the ministry, the MSDF officers, whose names are being withheld, learned the same day as Fukuda’s news conference that the figure was actually 800,000 gallons (about 3.04 million liters). However, they did not try to correct the error in the government’s official statement.

Exactly how much oil Japan provided to the U.S. carrier Kitty Hawk in February 2003 has long been the focus of a Diet dispute, as the opposition parties suspected the fuel might have been used for the Iraq war, in violation of the strictly stipulated special law allowing the MSDF to participate in the operation in the Indian Ocean.

Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda said the ministry is considering punishing the officers and officials involved in the reporting failure.

According to a senior Defense Ministry official, it usually takes three months for the ministry to conduct an investigation to decide whether to punish ministry officials.

Kenji Yamaoka, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, argued the ministry’s report Monday was totally unacceptable because it only blamed lower level officers without explaining the responsibilities or roles of the senior ministry officials involved.

Yamaoka said that all the officials and officers involved should be summoned as sworn witnesses to the Diet.

Fukuda lashes out

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda lashed out Monday over the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s failure to notify the defense chief about the correct amount of fuel Japan supplied to a U.S. vessel in the Indian Ocean almost four years ago.

“I’m sure the decision (to not report the calculation error) was made by an officer in charge, but when something like this happens, people start to become suspicious of the whole body,” Fukuda told reporters.

His comments came after the Defense Ministry submitted a report to the ruling and opposition camps admitting MSDF officers were aware that the level of oil provided in a February 2003 refueling was four times greater than the amount reported.

The underreporting was confirmed Sunday. Diet deliberations kick off Tuesday over a contentious bill to continue the MSDF refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for the U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.

The incident also comes as the Fukuda administration tries to win public support for the bill, which the opposition camp hopes to block.