National

Government revising guidelines on state secrets amid flurry of criticism

Kyodo

The government on Wednesday tabled revised guidelines regarding the designation and disclosure of state secrets, in a bid to ease concerns that the controversial secrecy law will limit public access to information.

Under the secrecy law that the government aims to put into effect in December, the heads of government ministries and agencies can designate as special secrets any information deemed to be sensitive in the areas of diplomacy, defense, counterterrorism and counterespionage.

Leakers such as civil servants will face up to 10 years in prison and those who instigate leaks will be subject to a five-year prison term.

Under the revised draft guidelines, which may require further changes before Cabinet approval possibly in early October, the government makes clear that the people’s right to know should be “greatly respected” as it is “linked to the existence of a democratic society” and freedom of expression.

The government “will designate the minimum amount of information as secrets for the shortest period of time possible,” according to the guidelines presented on Wednesday to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisory panel on information protection. The rules, if approved, could be open to further revisions after five years.

However, the latest changes are not designed to revise fundamentally the draft guidelines, which could become yet another source of criticism as debate continues over how to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and national security.

An analysis of the latest public comments shows criticism is focused on the “broad” and “vague” definition of what should be kept secret under the name of protecting national security. Criticism is also directed at the absence of an independent checking mechanism, as new oversight entities will be placed under government control.

In all, 27 changes were made to the original guidelines announced in July, reflecting the 23,820 comments, received from the public during a monthlong review period through late August, about the spirit of the law and how it should be applied.

Another point of controversy with the law is security clearance, as the government plans to pick those who will be given access to state secrets based on various criteria such as their family members, links to terrorism, criminal records, drug use and drinking habits, as well as mental health.

To protect the privacy of potential candidates, the revised guidelines propose that the government “should not be allowed” to inquire about “thought and creed, and religious beliefs, as well as political, civic, and labor union activities that are conducted legally.”

Abe is trying to increase information-sharing with foreign countries and bolster security ties, as part of a contentious campaign to give the Self-Defense Forces a greater role abroad.

Information about the development and capabilities of submarines, aircraft, weapons, as well as SDF operations and their plans involving the U.S. military will fall under the category of special secrets. The same will be true of intelligence obtained by foreign governments.

The state secrecy law was enacted last December. It was accompanied by the formation of the National Security Council, a body aimed at streamlining information-sharing within relevant ministries and agencies, and speeding up decision-making on diplomacy and defense.