October 14, 2014
The government on Oct. 14 decided on guidelines for classifying and declassifying state secrets under the new state secrets protection law, together with a government decree which stipulates that 19 administrative bodies will be allowed to designate state secrets.
With respect to concerns over arbitrary designation of state secrets, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on Oct. 14, “The operational guidelines set out a mechanism to ensure that the law will be applied appropriately, banning designation of secrets to cover things up. We want to carefully explain the issues to the public to defuse concerns.”
The government regards the guidelines as an “operational manual” for officials in charge of classifying government information as state secrets. The state secrets protection law stipulates that information falling under 23 categories in four areas — diplomacy, defense, counterterrorism and counterespionage — can be designated as state secrets. But the operational guidelines further subdivide these into 55 items.
As for oversight functions, the post of a councilor-level “independent public document control officer” and a support unit, referred to as an “intelligence and security observation unit,” will be established within the Cabinet Office. A “Cabinet maintenance and oversight committee” consisting of officials from government ministries and agencies at the vice-ministerial level will also be set up within the Cabinet Secretariat.
The government will establish a hotline for whistleblowers at each of the 19 government units that are authorized to designate information as state secrets, in order to deal with attempts to hide information intentionally. If staff and other officials judge that designation or management of state secrets violates the law, they can use the hotlines to alert authorities. If Cabinet ministers or relevant figures who head the government units acknowledge that the whistleblowers’ claims are true, corrective measures, such as declassifying of particular state secrets, will be taken. If whistleblowers are deemed to be put in a disadvantageous position, they will be allowed to directly alert the office of the “independent public document control officer.”
The government decree approved on Oct. 14 limits administrative bodies that can designate state secrets to 19 organizations including the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the National Police Agency, as part of an effort to stop other government units from designating state secrets infinitely.
In July, the government presented a draft of operational guidelines and government decrees to an advisory council on the protection of sensitive information, headed by Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings. Responding to 23,820 public comments submitted thereafter, the government amended 27 sections in the draft guidelines and decree, clarifying its stance of respecting the public’s “right to know,” and adding a provision to review the law “five years after enforcement.” But because the framework of the system itself remains intact, there is no system in place to prevent the government from arbitrarily applying the law to expand the scope of state secrets and dispose of secret documents. Even some officials within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party suggest that the government should be penalized if it illegally designates state secrets.
As oversight posts including that of “independent public document control officer” are positioned within the government, their independence is not guaranteed. This has given rise to persistent suspicions and concerns over the effectiveness of their checking functions.