An investigation by the Ministry of Justice’s Investigation Bureau into National Security Bureau (NSB) personnel who allegedly colluded with China Airlines (CAL) employees to smuggle cigarettes into Taiwan as President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) returned last month from a state visit to Caribbean allies has rocked the nation and sent shockwaves through political circles.
In the past, flight crew on presidential flights abroad took the opportunity to purchase smaller, but still excessive, quantities of duty-free tobacco and alcohol, which was perhaps understandable. However, since former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office and through the Tsai administration, the magnitude of the offenses has skyrocketed. Bringing in thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of cartons of cigarettes at once is not only excessive, but is on the level of a professional smuggling operation. This is not just unethical behavior, it is an egregious example of illegal activity that deserves to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The case involves bureau staff who provide security for the president and CAL staff, a 50 percent government-owned company that is responsible for the aviation safety of heads of state. It is unbelievable that people shouldering such responsibility are lining their pockets with illicit profits. Their actions not only go against national interests and tarnish the government’s reputation, but also eclipsed the significant diplomatic coup achieved by Tsai’s stopover in Washington.
At first glance, it might seem that the situation has been impressively handled, but the investigative team’s methods raise suspicions that there might be more to the investigation than meets the eye:
First, people traveling with the president on a state visit engaging in smuggling is a huge national security issue. However, former NSB director-general Peng Sheng-chu (彭勝竹), who resigned last month over the scandal, outranked those in the Investigation Bureau, but was only briefed on the incident after he arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and was waiting for the presidential plane to land.
Was this because the bureau was concerned that Peng would leak details of the probe? If so, who might he have told?
Second, according to media reports, the bureau’s New Taipei City branch received a tip-off while Tsai was abroad that smuggled cigarettes were being stored in a warehouse at the airport belonging to China Pacific Catering Services.
Why did the bureau not file a report with prosecutors, asking them to immediately seize the goods?
Instead, the goods were not intercepted until after the plane landed, the cigarettes had been loaded onto vehicles joining the president’s motorcade and it was leaving the airport.
Many say that the operation was designed to humiliate the president — a deliberate attempt to smother the administration’s diplomatic achievements abroad with a scandalous news story that would dominate the airwaves. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not.
As in other military intelligence organizations, the bureau still holds allegiance to the one-party state. Successive bureau heads have trotted out the mantra: “The Investigation Bureau belongs to the nation.” However, this is nonsense. Seasoned bureau veterans down to the newest arrival believe that the one-party state takes precedence over the government of the day — ideology trumps professional ethics.
This is not the first time that the bureau has meddled in politics. More than a decade ago, it passed a file on alleged money laundering by then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to a legislator, surnamed Hung (洪), who revealed the explosive details of the dossier at a news conference at the Legislative Yuan.
In January, after taking office, KMT Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) met with a group of high-ranking bureau officials, led by the New Taipei City branch director, for a sycophantic photo-op, in which everyone gave the thumbs-up gesture. At the beginning of last month, the deputy director of the Kaohsiung branch, in a Line group, reposted a slanderous report about Tsai and Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌).
With this latest smear attempt, it is again the New Taipei City branch that is playing politics. Hopefully, the government is paying attention.
Ling Po-chih is a former head of the Kaohsiung District Prosecutors’ Office.
Translated by Edward Jones
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