A draft national security and counterintelligence bill and proposed anti-espionage legislation have recently kicked up dust due to public misgivings about their possible affect on human rights, as well as vociferous opposition from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
It is ironic that the KMT — the pioneer of ridding Taiwanese society of Communist spies, both real and presumed — would raise the banner of human rights, but more alarming is the party’s attempts to steer attention away from what is really at stake.
Giving the KMT the benefit of the doubt, concern about overreaching state surveillance power causing harm to freedoms and rights is real and palpable, and the tug-of-war between national security and civil liberties has been a recurring debate. That is why the Cabinet said it vetoed Ministry of Justice drafts that contained some unnerving articles, such as granting authorities easy access — with the signed consent of their superiors — to background information on suspected spies.
In response to concerns that setting up counterintelligence offices in security-sensitive state institutions would amount to a return of the White Terror-era “second personnel office” — which was embedded in all public institutions, including schools, and was responsible for vetting and monitoring civil servants and students — the Cabinet has firmly rejected rebuilding such a system, which one spokesperson pointed out was abolished by the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration.
According to local media, a more practical reason was also cited by a minister without portfolio reviewing the drafts: Extra agencies would lead to jurisdictional overlaps and unnecessary competition within the central government.
However, the rejection of the drafts should not be regarded as an endorsement of the view that there is no need for Taiwan to boost its counterespionage efforts.
Political scientist Fan Shih-ping (范世平), who has participated in the government’s forums on the institutionalization of counterintelligence efforts, said that the US and Japan have expressed concerns over Taiwan’s infiltration problem, which in turn has compromised their willingness to upgrade cooperation with Taipei in the wake of eight years of the China-friendly administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), which left the nation’s intelligence agencies porous.
As Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) said, an executive order is all that is guiding the nation’s counterintelligence efforts, and national security-related laws are mainly focused on punishment, not prevention.
The new attempts at legislation attempt to clearly prescribe legal parameters to avoid possible abuses of power and to reinforce the nation’s ability to defend itself.
The KMT has criticized the controversies of a “letter of agreement” signed by universities and a former Chinese student suspected of being a spy as the DPP government’s ploy to move further away from China and consolidate the DPP’s “authoritarian rule.”
The government could justify its efforts to boost counterespionage and anti-infiltration capabilities without referring to those examples. However, when did requiring reciprocal respect, denouncing unilateral coercion and catching spies become as deplorable as “suppressing academic freedom” and “manufacturing cross-strait tensions?”