Abe’s play for secrecy law

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is striving to protect state secrets by stiffening the penalties for leakers in a new law touted as a pillar of his envisioned security framework.

With the focus on how Tokyo will address public criticism about tightening control over government information in the Diet, Abe is laying the groundwork for the Self-Defense Forces to engage in overseas missions to make more “proactive” contributions to global peace under the new framework.

The Cabinet on Friday approved a bill to toughen penalties for civil servants, politicians and others who leak sensitive information related to diplomacy, defense, terrorism and espionage. Those who disclose information designated as “special secrets” will face up to 10 years in prison.

Abe has said Japan needs to create a new framework that guarantees confidentiality as a prerequisite for sharing sensitive information with its allies, especially the United States.

His main desire, however, is to bolster the Japan-U.S. security alliance to cope with new threats in the Asia-Pacific region, experts say.

“It is a reasonable step because Japan has been too lenient compared with other countries. It is also timely because the SDF will likely engage in more overseas missions to contribute to global peace,” said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

“When a country tries to gain greater influence on the global stage, there may be other countries that will see such a move as hostile and attempt to obtain state secrets of that country,” Michishita said. “So more steps should be taken before such secrets are leaked.”

Cabinet ministers and lawmakers from Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have repeatedly said the new law is vital, amid criticism about the absence of substantive debate on exactly why it is needed.

The government hopes to pass the bill before the extraordinary Diet Session ends Dec. 6, around which time the government will launch a U.S.-style National Security Council to strengthen the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in crafting security policy.

“If we want to share intelligence that is highly confidential, we need to have a framework to protect it,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a news conference Friday. “With the creation of the envisaged National Security Council in mind, our information management should also be unified.”

Passage of the bill is likely because the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc controls both the upper and lower chambers of the Diet. Riding on relatively high public support ratings, Abe is trying to modify Japan’s defense posture to deal with China’s increasingly assertive maritime activities and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

With Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines scheduled to be revised for the first time in 17 years, the Abe administration is trying to compile new guidelines by year-end.

A government decision on whether to lift the nation’s self-imposed ban on the right to collective self-defense is also expected next year, with Abe maneuvering to change the government’s interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution to permit Japan to come to the aid of an ally under armed attack.

In such a changing environment, experts say the advantage of having a secrecy law is that it would allow Japan to facilitate information exchanges and become a provider of data to its allies on such countries as China and North Korea, rather than a mere receiver.

Concern is mounting, however, that the public’s right to know and the freedom of the press would be compromised if the government is given stronger control over public disclosure in the name of national security.