The secrets of the sea

The investigative unit of the Ground Self-Defense Force has sent up a paper on an Air Self-Defense Force officer to the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, accusing him of passing a “defense-related secret” to a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter in connection with a 2005 newspaper article. The unit acted under an October 2001 revision of the Self-Defense Forces Law, which designated a leak of defense-related secret as a crime. This is the first time that legal action has been taken against an SDF member in accordance with the revision.

The newspaper article was about a dead-in-the-water Chinese submarine in the South China Sea. There is no explanation as to why the information passed by the officer should be treated as a secret. The Defense Ministry’s action will have the effect of intimidating reporters as well as SDF members who meet them, and could eventually lead to limits on people’s right to know.

The article appeared on the front page of Yomiuri Shimbun’s May 31, 2005, edition. Headlined “A fire in a Chinese submarine?,” it reported that a Chinese submarine was being towed toward Hainan Island. It quoted Japanese and U.S. defense sources as saying that an accident believed to be a fire had occurred inside the submarine several days earlier while it was submerged in international waters in the South China Sea between Taiwan and Hainan, which is Chinese territory.

While identifying the submarine as a Ming-class diesel-powered attack submarine, the article said Japanese and U.S. defense sources had confirmed the submarine’s hull number.

The ASDF officer, a colonel, is accused of passing information that the defense chief thinks should have been “specially protected” as a defense-related secret from the Yomiuri reporter. The SDF Law’s 2001 revision created a category of defense-related secrets that require a high degree of concealment. Not only SDF members but also private-sector workers under contract with the SDF and other public servants face imprisonment of up to five years if they disclose defense-related secrets. Those who instigate SDF members to disclose such secrets face imprisonment of up to three years. This provision itself could deter reporters from trying to get sensitive information from SDF members.

The ASDF colonel was the head of the Russia section in the electronic waves department of the then Defense Agency’s intelligence headquarters. He was assigned the task of analyzing armed-forces communications intercepted by the SDF. In October 2005, the agency filed a criminal complaint with the investigative unit without naming the suspect. In January 2007, the unit searched his home and workplace.

Following a Maritime Self-Defense Force leak of confidential data on the U.S.-designed Aegis radar and weapons system in and after 2000, the United States called on the Defense Ministry for stricter control of information. Thus the ministry might have taken legal action against the ASDF officer to show the U.S. that it is getting tough against information leaks.

The case is noteworthy in that the Yomiuri reporter obtained the information through normal news-gathering activities. The investigative unit did not question him; nor did it take any legal action against him. On the basis of its in-house investigation, the Yomiuri announced in February 2007 that the reporter had carried out his work properly.

The send-up of the paper on the ASDF colonel to the public prosecutors office means that the Defense Ministry is trying to treat SDF members’ conversations with reporters engaged in normal news-gathering activities as leaks of defense-related secrets in violation of the SDF Law. This could discourage SDF members from any contact with reporters, which would then limit the disclosure of information to which people are entitled.

Defense Vice Minister Kohei Masuda said the ministry acted with awareness that it must pay careful attention to freedom of the press and people’s right to know. If that’s so, the Defense Ministry must answer the question of whether information contained in the Yomiuri article deserves to be classified as a defense-related secret that had to be concealed at the risk of limiting people’s right to know. There is no explanation as to which parts of the newspaper article contained secret information. Given the recent activities of the Chinese Navy in waters near Japan, the announcement of information on an inoperative Chinese submarine at sea appears to be in the public interest.

The possibility cannot be ruled out that, under the name of protecting defense-related secrets, the Defense Ministry seeks to restrict the disclosure of information that people are entitled to. People and the Diet need to strictly watch the ministry and the SDF. The Diet, especially, should impose a check on the SDF’s tendency to treat any kind of information as secret.