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Gov't to discard 'special state secrets' for 1st time under secrecy law

In what is believed to be the first time since the State Secrecy Law went into effect in late 2014, government ministries and agencies are preparing to dispose of documents that include information designated "special state secrets," the Mainichi Shimbun has learned from multiple sources including the Cabinet Office.

    The documents are expected to be discarded on a rolling basis, but unlike other public documents, classified documents are not subject to the same checks by a third party before they are scrapped.

    Experts have expressed concern about the possibility that documents that should be preserved will be discarded.

    Under the Public Records and Archives Management Act, documents that include special state secrets, like other government documents, can be disposed of after they undergo checks by the Cabinet Office once their storage term is up.

    However, according to implementation guidelines of the State Secrecy Law -- or the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets -- documents that have been around for over 30 years after the information they contain was designated special state secrets are considered highly important, and must all be transferred to the National Archives of Japan and elsewhere for storage.

    The Cabinet Office, which checks documents before they are discarded, admitted to the Mainichi that it was in talks with ministries and agencies that are in possession of special state secrets regarding the disposal of documents. The Cabinet Office has not revealed which ministries and agencies it is holding discussions with, nor which documents are being considered for disposal, but it is believed the documents in question are those with storage terms of two years or less.

    The Cabinet Office receives catalogs of documents including state secrets from each ministry and agency, examines the documents, and determines whether their disposal is appropriate based on guidelines on the management of administrative documents. However, catalogs of documents that include state secrets are titled so as not to evoke ideas about the nature of information designated as special state secrets, making it difficult for the Cabinet Office to determine the importance of the documents themselves from the catalogs alone. The Cabinet Office is permitted to request the actual documents from ministries and agencies, but the ministries and agencies in possession of those documents can decline to hand the documents over, citing "a risk of significant detriment to the country's national security."

    In addition to checks by the Cabinet Office, documents are to be checked also by the government's Inspector General for Public Records Management -- serving as a third party -- but the method by which that is to be carried out has not been revealed.

    At an April 11 meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on General Affairs, Katsuya Tanaka, a Cabinet Secretariat councillor, stated, "My understanding is that state secret documents cannot be disposed of arbitrarily."

    Under the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, which was passed in December 2013 and went into effect in December 2014, the government can designate important information relating to foreign diplomacy, self-defense, terrorism and spying prevention as "special state secrets," and whoever leaks such information is subject to criminal punishment. As of December 2016, 11 government ministries and agencies designated 487 special state secrets. The period in which such state secrets are to be kept under wraps is renewed every five years, up to a total 30 years. (A maximum of 60 years is allowed for some information.)

    As of December 2015, there were 272,020 documents that contained special state secrets. The storage terms of such documents differ from the classification periods of the state secrets themselves, and it is possible for the documents containing special secrets to be discarded even before the information is declassified.

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