Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has accused intelligence agencies of gathering information about the movements of opposition presidential candidates and, consequently, interfering with the election. Appearances do suggest there are grounds for the accusations. The Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) operates the “An-Ping-Shun Project,” recording candidates’ movements and, in this case, Tsai’s in particular. It does seem serious, with both political and legal implications, and is not something the government can brush aside with a simple denial.
Anybody with even a passing familiarity with Taiwanese politics knows intelligence agencies gather information on opposition candidates. They would be astounded if this didn’t happen. This has been a contentious issue in every major poll since direct elections began in 1996. When former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was in power, the then-opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) complained of being subjected to monitoring by the intelligence agencies.
In response to Tsai’s accusations, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that at no point had he ordered the intelligence services to listen in on or gather intelligence about other candidates, and neither the MJIB nor the National Security Bureau (NSB) is targeting any particular party or individual; they are merely working to ensure the safety of each candidate. There is no suggestion that Tsai is being singled out.
It sounds like Ma, the NSB and the MJIB are just doing what the law requires them to do. Things become a little murkier on closer inspection, however. Yes, it is true that neither the NSB nor MJIB is monitoring or gathering intelligence on any particular party or individual. As part of their daily reports on the political situation, however, they collect information on all parties and individuals and the resultant reports are sent directly to the Presidential Office for the president’s eyes only. That is why any opposition party will always rail against being monitored by the intelligence services: It gives the incumbent president an unfair advantage. Ma says that at no point did he give the command for intelligence to be gathered, but that is simply because this has been a routine task for the NSB and MJIB for decades now, something for which they need no specific directive from on high.
Ma may not have asked the intelligence agencies to do this, but the heads of these agencies were appointed by the president and election time is a perfect opportunity for them to demonstrate their loyalty and score brownie points. It’s quite normal for them to report to the president on the election. These heads are quite aware of how Ma likes to operate, however, so they won’t go directly to him with the information, they will pass it on through intermediaries, through his aides and the people around him. Ma himself may well have access to the intelligence, but he won’t know the exact source. It’s also possible that his aides will not pass it on to him at all, acting on it themselves, depending on the situation. This still puts opponents at a distinct disadvantage and forces them to compete on an uneven playing field.
The 2005 National Intelligence Services Act (國家情報工作法) states that intelligence agencies must exercise political neutrality, submit to the oversight of the Legislative Yuan and not interfere in political affairs. If one of the agencies is found to have favored the incumbent and targeted an opposition candidate, the head of that agency would be deemed to have broken the law and could be prosecuted. There is already a precedent in Taiwan for the head of an intelligence agency being imprisoned for such an offense.