WASHINGTON – An American expert on classification policy has said that Japan’s recently enacted secrecy law lacks proper checks and balances that are necessary to prevent bureaucratic overreach and ensure government accountability.
Speaking in a recent interview, Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said, “This act on specially designated secrets . . . I don’t see an appeals process at all.”
Blanton said appeals processes for declassification are necessary to balance potential damage to national security with the public’s right to knowledge and government transparency.
“You only get that harm test and balancing test when you can force the information out of the hands of the originating agency, or the original bureaucrat and get it into new review,” he said, adding that the law does not provide a meaningful mechanism for moves to protect the public.
“This law includes language about the people’s right to know but it needs to have some actual formal and bureaucratic process that would balance those interests.”
Without such a balance, the current law is “essentially an invitation to the bureaucracy to put a secret stamp on anything they create that’s protecting their own bureaucratic power,” he said.
The Washington-based nongovernmental archive obtains and publishes declassified documents, and Blanton has testified before Congress on classification policy several times in the past decade.
Japan’s secrecy law was enacted in December 2013 as part of an attempt by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to create a framework to protect intelligence-sharing with its allies — particularly the United States.
The Japanese public, media and opposition parties have all voiced criticism of the secrecy law, saying it may limit freedom of the press and discourage whistle-blowers.
In response, lawmakers in Abe’s ruling bloc are deliberating on a system that could check whether the government designation of state secrets is reasonable.
Blanton says the information security oversight division has “a mandate to push declassification because if the system inevitably over-classifies, which it will, this law is an invitation to throw a burka over all government bulk process in Japan, unfortunately.”
He noted that the U.S. government’s interagency appeals panel has approved 70 percent of the declassification appeals previously rejected by the CIA, suggesting that over-classification is reflexive and that not all information is harmful to national security.
Without such a panel in Japan’s secrecy system, Japan will find itself in a situation where information that can be published without consequences to national security is protected from public scrutiny, he said.
Blanton also insisted that the protection of individuals seeking the declassification of information must be guaranteed and applied as part of any meaningful process. Referring to President Barack Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 19, signed in 2012, he said, “It’s written into the executive order that implements the classification system that people are encouraged to do this and if they do it, their supervisors and agencies are prohibited from retaliating against them.”
Noting that President Bill Clinton had vetoed a bill similar to Japan’s in 2000, he added, “If that bill had gone into place there would be far more prosecutions on leaks grounds of reporters and others.”
The scrapped U.S. bill would have expanded government power to prosecute anyone who revealed “any classified information” regardless of the reason for, or effect of, disclosure.