Much debate last week centered on whether the prosecutors' search of Next magazine's offices constituted repression of press freedom and whether the magazine's reporters actually leaked state secrets, rather than just explored the political significance of the alleged embezzlement by former National Secu-rity Bureau (NSB) chief cashier Liu Kuan-chun (
The NSB's use of intelligence funds is a problem left over from the long period of KMT rule. National security agencies argue that intelligence activities need to be carried out in secret, using a direct chain of command. But this kind of system apparently provided Liu with the opportunity to embezzle funds.
Taiwan lacks an effective mechanism for monitoring intelligence agencies. A small num-ber of high-level officials can decide whom they want to fund and how they will do it. This cloud of secrecy and the lack of supervision have obscured plans by officials to enrich themselves.
The exposure of the Liu affair highlights the urgent need to establish a mechanism for monitoring the activities of the intelligence agencies.
The Control Yuan has established a task force to investigate the issue and the party caucuses in the Legislative Yuan have reached a consensus on formalizing the national security sys-tem. The legislature will probably eventually pass a law on supervising intelligence activities and perhaps establish an oversight committee.
However, Next, in trying to protect the people's right to know, went too far in its story. It was inevitable that the NSB, citing concerns about protecting its intelligence-gathering appa-ratus, would claim that the magazine was in possession of documents concerning national security and that it might release to the public.
Liu's motives for reportedly giving secret documents to the media are certainly open to question. Either he did it to take revenge or to create more political infighting. If the materials really did come from Liu, then regardless of how many media organizations have them or who obtained them first -- the decision of whether they are classified should still be made by national security agencies.
Looking at the issue from the experience of Western nations, legislative monitoring of national security matters has its limits. Legislative intelligence committees in Europe and the US therefore place more importance on the honesty of intelligence officials. Systematization is a preventive measure against intelligence being turned into a tool for political infighting. So, as long as national security agencies conduct their business in the interests of the nation, the legislature will respect their expertise.
In recent years, examples of media abuses of press freedom have been common. We've rarely seen the media exercise self-discipline. It has to show particular restraint when it comes to reporting the vulgar habits of politicians in Taiwan defaming, smearing and frivolously accusing each other. Taiwan is rapidly moving towards a full-fledged democracy and the public finds it difficult to tolerate the use of national security to benefit a small group of people.
The lesson highlighted by the Next incident must be that the legislature needs to set up a mechanism for reviewing the budgets of national security agencies as soon as possible. At the same time, it should create clear legislation that blocks the media from possible violations of national security matters.