Secrecy Before and After Secrecy Laws

Japan’s recently passed state secrets bill is without a doubt an atrociously regressive step for a society. It was formulated and passed without any clear explanation to the public why it was necessary, what sorts of information would need to be kept secret, and how decisions about what is secret would be made. This obscurity has led to wild speculation and paranoia about the silencing of free speech, but the result may be that effectively nothing will change, if Japanese society refuses to be intimidated by the fear that anything could be declared a secret.
Most reports have said that the law focuses specifically on two targets: journalists who would publish declared secrets and bureaucrats who would leak them to journalists. If this is all it is, there would appear to be nothing exceptional about this. Other nations do the same thing, although some others offer some constitutional protection to journalists and threaten punishment only on the civil servants who would leak secrets.
The confusion and panic seems to be caused by the vagueness of the new law. No one knows what is going to be declared a secret, or whether information would be declared a secret after it leaked and the government noticed the damage being done. It is also not clear how one would know what is classified and what is not. How would intentional leaking and conspiracy to leak be defined? At what point would the application of the law be unconstitutional? How does one define journalist, anyway? Under this vague cloud, there is a fear now that freedom of speech and assembly will be totally suppressed.
Much of this fear has been expressed by observers outside Japan, and there has been a fair amount of hyperbole in the interpretations of what the law implies. I hope that American critics have noted that the pressure to create the secrecy law came from the US government, in particular over the need to clamp down on leaks of information about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (See this article by Philip Brasor in The Japan Times, Dec. 14, 2013). It seems like Japan was the last country in the TPP deal to get its bureaucrats and journalists to fall into line. Another motive must be the security leaks by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The Japanese government has understood the need to formulate laws that would allow them to deal with their own such leakers, if they appear in the future. In this sense, Japan is only playing catch-up with the West, so there is something a little odd about American observers freaking out about Japan regressing to the dark days of its 1930s fascism. It is actually the US and its “five eyes” partners (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), among others, that have already been there for a while.
Another possible motive for the government is the looming dangers that lie ahead: conflict with China, worsening conditions at Fukushima, another nuclear accident, a natural disaster, or declaration of default on the national debt – which may be impossible to postpone much longer. All of these have the potential to destabilize society and cause the government to draft laws to deal with threats to social order.
  Another feared consequence of the new law is that it will make all matters related to nuclear energy national security secrets. But the fact is that this has always been the case with nuclear energy. In fact, one of the best arguments against nuclear energy is the potential of a nuclear power plant to be turned into a weapon of mass destruction by a terrorist attack. The need for security has been understood since the earliest days of the industry. Thus the routine operations of nuclear power plants are already subject to strict security. Too much is kept secret, yet a tremendous amount of information gets out because the public and the international community demand to be informed. There is no reason for this situation to change, if the public keeps up the pressure and refuses to be intimidated by the new laws.
At this point, it is too early to declare that freedom of speech has been crushed and all is lost. The new secrecy laws have to survive politically in the next election, and stand up to constitutional challenges. It remains to be seen what the government will dare to declare secret and whether it has the nerve to prosecute and punish offenders. And when it comes to these potential offenders, remember who we are talking about here: Japanese journalists and bureaucrats. Passing a law to tell these people not to divulge state secrets is like passing a law telling you to breathe. I’ll believe in their aggressive pursuit of the truth when they try to get answers about why Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 blew up. They are not exactly famous for being aggressive investigative reporters and heroic whistleblowers. Without the threat of jail sentences, there have been plenty of deterrents in the existing system to stop them from causing trouble for the government.
To make my point about the pre-existing attitude to secrecy in the nuclear industry, I cite a recent report in the Asahi Shinbun that stated, “There is growing concern that the government may be tempted to keep sensitive information on the safety of nuclear power plants under wraps once the state secrets protection law goes into force.” The article goes on to back up this fear in a way that disproves this point. It illustrates how US and Japanese nuclear authorities concealed information long before the secrecy law was drafted, and long before Fukushima.
Nonetheless, the Asahi article does make the essential point that the instinct toward secrecy was actually applied to something that was a well-known vulnerability of nuclear power plants. The secrecy actually made the operation of nuclear plants more dangerous. In this case, it was a knuckleheaded decision to hide from the public the shocking, shocking revelation, known by any fool with rudimentary knowledge of nuclear energy, that nuclear power plants could be blown up by a motivated terrorist group. If the secret B.5.b memo had been widely circulated to regulators and nuclear plant operators, they might have assured that they were prepared for the sort of station blackout that occurred at Fukushima.
But still, memo or no memo, the need for such defenses is commonplace knowledge. Operators of nuclear power plants shouldn’t have needed access to secret memos in order to know how to defend their investments against a station blackout. It is just a bit too cute to now blame the failure on bad decisions made by other organizations to declare some mundane information was “secret.”
The article concludes by noting the former US NRC chairman’s admission that the secrecy was not needed:

“Gregory Jaczko… told The Asahi Shimbun in an interview in September that B.5.b was initially clandestine to prevent would-be terrorists from learning about the vulnerability of nuclear power plants. He served as NRC chairman at the time of the Fukushima crisis. B.5.b was declassified after the Fukushima disaster because U.S. authorities decided that making it public would contribute to the improved safety of nuclear power plants.”                     


   For those who are still feeling pessimistic and doomed by the passing of Japan’s secrecy laws, don’t despair. I finish with a reference to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem: Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

Listen: Anthem
by Leonard Cohen
from the album The Future (1992)

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see. 

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.


Philip Brasor. “TPP offers early test of how far secrets law will cow Japan’s media.” The Japan Times. December 14, 2013.

Toshihiro Okuyama and Hiroo Sunaoshi. “State secrets law raises concern about safety of nuclear power plants.” The Asahi Shinbun. December 17, 2013.