Oversight for secrets too weak

Committees in both chambers of the Diet overseeing government operations under the state secrets law held their first meetings last week. But their powers are so weak they may not be able to compel the government to reverse improper designations of state secrets. The Diet should earnestly search for ways to strengthen these committees.

The launch of the committees was delayed even after the law took effect on Dec. 10 due to a tug of war between the ruling and opposition forces over their membership and the setup of their secretariats. The eight-member committee in each house will receive a report annually from the government on its operations under the state secrets law. Their meetings will be held behind closed doors and committee members who leak state secrets will be punished.

The committees’ first task will be to check 382 items that the government designated as state secrets last year. But the report will only feature lists that summarize the contents of these secrets. The descriptions of some listed items, disclosed at the request of the Democratic Party of Japan, are fairly concrete — such as “information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development,” and “information on territory preservation and protection of interests in the air and the ocean in the East China Sea.” But descriptions of other items are too vague and each item can include a large number of secrets — such as “information provided by foreign governments,” “plans and methods for cooperation with foreign governments in the field of information on security” and “conclusions of National Security Council meetings in 2013 and 2014.”

This is problematic in at least two ways. First, committee members will have no clue as to what bits of information have actually been designated as secrets. Second, by using vague and catch-all designations, government ministries and agencies may designate as secrets a vast amount of information that does not merit such classification and should instead be made public.

In theory, the committees have the power to compel the government to submit state secrets to it for examination, and if necessary recommend that the government declassify specific secrets or improve its handling of them. But the committees’ request for submission of state secrets has no binding power because the government can turn it down if it deems the disclosure would greatly aggravate the nation’s security. In addition, the panels’ recommendations have no binding power.

The composition of the committees’ members are decided in accordance with the number of seats held by the parties in each chamber. The Lower House committee will be composed of five lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party and one each from the DPJ, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito. The Upper House committee will be made up of four LDP members, two DPJ members and one each from Ishin no To and Komeito.

Committee members from the ruling camp have been quoted as saying that they in principle trust what the government does. Such an attitude risks turning the Diet panels into bodies whose function is to simply rubber-stamp the government’s designations of secrets.

To help ensure the committees function properly, the Diet should make changes to the way they operate. Receiving a report just once a year from the government is not enough. Such reports should be provided to the committees more frequently. The description of items on government lists need to be more concrete and detailed. Experts on information management, security and diplomacy should be assigned to the committees to help the members examine the government’s reports and make recommendations. More importantly, the committees each should have a section that government workers can report to when they believe information has been unjustly classified as a secret. The Diet should develop effective measures to protect such whistle-blowers.

Even if these measures are implemented, the state secrets law can hide information that the Diet and public may need to scrutinize the actions of the government since it gives discretionary powers to government ministries and agencies to classify information related to security, diplomacy and anti-terrorism policies almost without limits. At the very least, these deficiencies in the law must be corrected.