Toothless secrecy oversight body

The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner New Komeito jointly submitted a bill to the Diet last week to set up a body in the legislature that oversees the government’s implementation of the state secrets law. However, the scheme does not give the Diet body effective power to rectify government decisions in classifying state information. Nor does it provide measures to protect officials who blow the whistle on inappropriate designations of state secrets. The Diet should scrutinize the bill’s deficiencies so that the proposed body can provide meaningful oversight.

Under the proposal by the ruling parties, the Diet Law would be revised to set up a permanent body in each chamber of the Diet. Each body would comprise eight lawmakers chosen according to the number of seats held by individual parliamentary groups at the house. It would receive a report each year from the government on the designation and declassification of state secrets, and would be able to call on the government to provide the content of a state secret when irregularities are suspected in the classification process.

If the body, in closed-door examination of a secret, finds problems with the way it has been classified, it would be able to recommend that the government change its classification under the law. It can also recommend that the government submit a state secret to a relevant committee of the Diet.

But the government has no legal duty to abide by the body’s recommendation or request. If the government says that submitting a state secret to the body or to a Diet committee would compromise national security, the oversight body has no other choice but to accept what the government says. It is clear that the body will have no effective power to oversee the government’s decisions in designating state secrets.

The ruling parties say the Diet should not have strong power to intervene in the government’s actions in view of the separation of the three powers of administration, legislation and judicature. This is a bizarre argument. The Diet, which is the supreme organ of the state under the Constitution, should clearly have such power.

Under the state secrets law, the definition of government information that can be designated as a state secret is so vague that there is the danger that the scope for designating secrets will widen without limits. There is also no effective system in place to prevent government ministries from putting inconvenient information under wraps at their discretion. The law provides such heavy punishment — up to 10 years in prison for those who leak designated secrets — that it is important for the oversight body to determine whether particular government information merits classification as state secret.

It is imperative that the Diet body be given the power to view the content of the designated secret and determine whether its classification is appropriate. The bill should be revised to make it mandatory for the government to comply with the body’s request for access to the content of a secret.

Another defect of the state secrets law is the lack of a mechanism to protect whistle-blowers — government workers who raise alarms over inappropriate classification of state information or designated secrets that are too important to be kept under wraps. The oversight body should be empowered to serve as the organ to which whistle-blowers can report abuses of the state secrets law without fear of prosecution.

It will be important for the oversight body to have specialized staff well-versed in both the preservation of secrets and freedom of information, and able to closely examine information provided by whistle-blowers.

The bill requires a drastic revision so that the oversight body can effectively function to stop the abuse of the government in the designation of state secrets.