Photo/IllutrationMembers of the Lower House Board of Oversight and Review of Specially Designated Secrets meet in March 2015. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Board of Oversight and Review of Specially Designated Secrets of both Diet houses on March 30 submitted their first annual reports to the president of the Upper House and the speaker of the Lower House.

The boards are tasked with checking the designation and declassification of state secrets by the government under the state secrets protection law, which came into force at the end of 2014.

Sadly, the documents indicate the watchdogs have done a poor job of monitoring the government’s moves to classify or declassify specific information. They can hardly claim to have carried out their responsibilities as the Diet organs consisting of lawmakers representing the people.

The boards examined a total of 382 cases in which 10 government organizations, including the defense and foreign ministries, designated about 189,000 pieces of information as state secrets. To carry out their tasks, the panels referred to related documents, including a record book about the designation of specific pieces of information as state secrets, in addition to interviewing officials of the 10 organizations.

But only a few pieces of classified information have been disclosed as a result of the boards’ efforts. Most of the accounts about classification contained in the record book submitted by the government are too vague to help the boards judge whether the designation was appropriate or not.

One typical description about classified information in the document is “information provided by a foreign country.”

The biggest problem is the flawed secrecy law itself, which doesn’t clarify the criteria for classification and could allow arbitrary and capricious withholding of information by the government.

The opposition parties demanded that the government be mandated to submit information about designated secrets to the Diet. But the ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party rejected the demand, saying the government’s administrative power should be respected from the viewpoint of separation of powers.

Why, then, did the ruling camp agree to set up secrecy watchdogs within the Diet?

The checks and balances system based on separation of powers requires the legislature to monitor and check the actions of the administrative branch of the government.

The watchdogs are the only institutions that can monitor the implementation of the state secrets law from outside the government.

The Diet should be alarmed by the situation and take steps to enhance the capabilities of the monitoring bodies.

What is especially disappointing is the boards’ failure to make any judgment about the government’s decisions to classify specific information. Instead, the bodies only called for improvements in the way the law was implemented as their “opinions.”

It is hard to think of any good reason why they didn’t admonish the government to mend its way.

Even so, the boards’ “opinions” contain some ideas worth serious consideration.

For example, they proposed that the Cabinet Office’s inspector general for public records management, who is responsible for reporting on the appropriateness of classification to the prime minister, should also report to them. The government should give serious thought to this proposal.

The new national security legislation took effect on March 29, giving the government more power and discretion to take policy actions concerning the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces and other issues.

If the secrecy watchdogs lack the teeth needed to properly monitor the way the secrecy law is implemented, the government could make a wide range of arbitrary decisions without knowledge of the people.

The Diet needs to recognize its responsibility to monitor the government’s actions in this respect as the representative of the public and make constant efforts to improve the implementation of the law and rectify its problems. Such efforts would put necessary pressure on the government.

The boards must not become watchdogs in name only that merely rubber-stamp the government’s decisions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 31