Tue, Jul 22, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Be careful with secrets, Mr Ma

Citing press reports, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) News Network reported on Thursday that KMT Legislator Chang Hsien-yao (張顯耀), a deputy caucus whip, asked President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration how it would handle the question of the “downgrading” or “declassification” of documents related to the “state affairs fund,” which has hovered over former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his close circle for more than a year.

A decision on whether to open the classified files has yet to be made, but pressure from within the KMT has been growing and some may even see it as a fait accompli, given the second half of Chang’s question, which pointed to the difficulty KMT legislators appearing on TV talk shows would have explaining the move.

While the reports quoted Ma as saying that the Cabinet was considering the matter and that a president must obey the law, he also added: “I have heard the voices of the public.”

Ma, facing dilemmas over the legality of opening up his predecessor’s classified memorandums and heat from within his party to press on with the witch hunt and get their nemesis, could yet make another non-decision and claim that “the public” — meaning KMT supporters, as interpreted by the party — wanted it, even if this meant breaking the laws regulating the handling of classified information.

Tampering with “state affairs” documentation carries no small number of problems. Chief among them is the fact that such documents may contain information that, if obtained by another state, could be detrimental to national security. As such, if it is not handled properly, leaked or passed on by a KMT official on friendly terms with, say, Beijing, national interests could be compromised.

Another danger with declassification is not knowing where to stop. Once the green light has been obtained to dig for dirt — and especially when that permission was given as part of a political witch hunt — investigators will be tempted to turn to the next page and take a peek at material that, for one reason or another, had better be left alone.

Once such a precedent has been created, there would be nothing to prevent other KMT legislators from calling for the “downgrading” or “declassification” of other documentation. Left unchecked, we could soon find ourselves with years of secret presidential diplomacy spilled out on the floor for the world to see.

Far too often, heads of state and government agencies have used classification to cover up ugly dealings or unseemly mistakes.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that certain things ought not to remain classified, especially when a state lives in the shadow of diplomatic isolation and military invasion.

Declassification, should it come to that, must be conducted with the greatest care, for apolitical reasons, by neutral professionals with proper skills and the appropriate checks and balances, to ensure that no disproportionate harm is done to the nation once secrets have come to light. Sadly, based on its bloodthirsty approach to indictments, KMT officials do not meet those criteria.

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