Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tuesday that he did not find out about Ground Self-Defense Force activity logs from Iraq until 2½ months after they were supposed to have been discovered.
The Defense Ministry has been rocked by news of the existence of the logs, which it once claimed did not exist, raising criticisms over the ministry’s management of such records. A similar incident occurred in February last year when it revealed that it found GSDF activity logs for a U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan that it earlier said had been discarded, a scandal that led then-Defense Minister Tomomi Inada to resign.
Onodera pointed that he has been telling officials at his ministry to swiftly report to him when something happens but it took 2½ this time.
“I’d like to investigate the background of this issue. I’d like to confirm why it took so long to report” the discovery of the logs, Onodera said, adding that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had advised the minister on Monday to carry out a thorough investigation.
A ministry official said the GSDF electronic logs from Iraq were found on Jan. 12, but the minister was only informed of their existence on Saturday morning.
The Defense Ministry admitted Monday that it had found the logs. But in February last year they told opposition lawmakers that the logs did not exist.
Lawmakers from six opposition parties conducted a hearing with senior defense ministry officials later Tuesday, including those from the Joint Staff, to probe the issue.
Specifically, lawmakers took issue with the apparent delay in reporting the discovery of the logs to higher officials, asking why it took so long to notify Onodera.
“I can’t help but wonder if the delay may have been politically motivated,” Kibo no To (Party of Hope) lawmaker Shu Watanabe said.
“You kept them hidden (from Onodera) because you knew the logs’ discovery was the kind of revelation that would pour gasoline on the (political) fire that has engulfed the Diet, didn’t you?” Watanabe said, referring to recent furor in the Diet over the Finance Ministry’s falsification of official documents. Watanabe said the apparent unwillingness of Joint Staff officials to swiftly report news of the logs to Onodera raises questions about civilian control over the SDF.
In defense of the delay, Atsuo Suzuki, administrative vice chief of staff, explained he thought it was wise to first conduct an internal probe into the discovery of the materials so he and his team could give a full and in-depth report to Onodera. Opposition lawmakers, however, slammed this initial response, saying officials involved should have notified Onodera of the existence of the logs first before gathering specific details.
Onodera denied that the ministry attempted to cover up the logs.
Rather, the minister said that the logs were found as a result of the ministry’s effort to “prevent the same thing from happening again,” citing last year’s case with South Sudan.
“The Defense Ministry faced severe criticism from the people and and members of the Diet last year over the issue regarding activity logs for peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, and we were taking preventive steps (to avoid a repeat),” Onodera said.
The logs “were found during the process” of taking such steps, he said.
Since last July, the Joint Staff Councilor has been in charge of managing logs in a unified manner to prevent future scandals from taking place.
The latest scandal is likely to add to the recent furor over the government’s handling of official documents. It emerged last month that the Finance Ministry falsified dozens of papers related to a 2016 shady land deal with nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he believes the Defense Ministry’s handling of the logs is now “under harsh scrutiny” by both the public and lawmakers.
Asked where responsibility for the latest flap lies, Suga said the Defense Ministry should for now be held accountable.
“Going forward, I expect minister Onodera to exercise strong leadership in disclosing relevant information and handling official documents,” he said.
The top government spokesman also quoted Abe as saying in a recent meeting with his Cabinet ministers that all public servants should be reminded that official documents are “intellectual assets” shared among the public, and that they have “heavy responsibility” in properly managing them.
The logs in question covered the dispatch of GSDF personnel to Iraq between 2004 and 2006 and totaled 14,000 pages, the ministry said.
Japan sent roughly 5,500 GSDF members to Iraq from January 2004 to July 2006 to provide water and medical aid, and help repair infrastructure in the city of Samawah in southern Iraq, according to Kyodo News.
It was the first time for Japan to send the SDF, whose role is restricted by the pacifist Constitution, to a country where an armed conflict was taking place.
Information from Kyodo added
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