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(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

Civilian Control "at Crisis"?
– Perhaps Not, for the Case of the Field Sit-reps from SDF's South Sudan Mission

Ippeita Nishida
Research Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation
Associate, the SSDP

Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are once again being criticized heavily in the National Diet over the mishandling of public information disclosure of daily reports from the SDF's overseas missions. Some media suspect that there were signs of manipulation by the authorities, putting Japan's civilian control in "crisis". The event resulted in a replacement of five top defense officials and a step-down of the Minister of Defense, Tomomi Inada six months ago. While the case is not yet over, it appears so far that it is not an issue of civilian control itself but is more about the problem of organizational management at the Ministry of Defense(MOD). This article seeks to explain why.

There are two cases of accusations being made (among others). The first is the subject of this article, in the case of the recently completed mission to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The second case, for the SDF's Iraq mission which lasted from 2003 to 2009 under a special measured law, is currently under investigation. In both cases what were said to be "non-existent" field records are now being "discovered". Coupled with other on-going political scandals that possibly entail actual manipulation of public records (e.g. the case of Ministry of Finance), these cases attract great interests from the public. Opposition parties also take advantage of the situation to discredit the capability of Prime Minister Abe's administration, trying to make their point that the SDF was deployed to "in-combat" situations, which the constitution prohibits.

It started with a public information disclosure request by a journalist immediately after the July 2016 crisis in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where 350-strong SDF engineering troops were present under blue helmets. During the crisis, hundreds South Sudanese were reported killed and two UN (Chinese) soldiers lost their lives. Thus the request demanded "all communication" sent from the field to Tokyo during this period. The intention of the journalist was to understand how the situation was related to the SDF' activities, with the belief that it might not be an allowed mission environment under the legislation. Given strict constitutional restrictions on the use of force, the law maintains non-intervention posture and adherence to the traditional peacekeeping role where stakeholders are in agreement with a peace deal.

In August, the MOD released information, except the daily situational reports (sit-reps) which contained the very information that the journalist was seeking. In October, he filed another application specifically requesting sit-reps at the time of the July incidents and received in December an official notification from the MOD stating "the document does not exist anymore".

As legal documents, the sit-reps were specified to be destroyed within one year after use, so officially speaking, this response was deemed appropriate. However, it was hardly conceivable and acceptable for the public that documents at the time of a severe crisis were non-existent after several months. So, what appeared to be a mere administrative issue had become a political issue. Sensing such attention, the leading LDP party made a request to the MOD for clarification, which prompted official search efforts, and led to the release of sit-reps and resulted in revealing a series of "inappropriate" decisions made at the Ministry.

From the special investigation report released by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), three major types of mishandling of documents can be identified:

  • Firstly, and to everyone's surprise, sit-reps were not stamped with specification, which confused the document's classification status "not necessarily having a common recognition" among the members of both field mission and command in Tokyo. Those who had access status to the classified data sharing server could view and download them for later use. In fact, for Ground Staff Office (GSO) alone, there were 178 cases (136 data and 42 paper) of personal possession of documents.
  • Second and worse, knowing that there were sit-reps preserved online, GSO decided to decline disclosing them upon receiving the initial request. Two of their rationales given to the disclosure were to secure operationally (and possibly politically) sensitive information and to avoid further burden to handle such requests. Later, upon the LDP's inquiry, GSO erased remaining sit-reps from the data system so that to maintain the consistency of their explanation.
  • Third and perhaps the most serious breach of the code of conduct was made by the top civilian defense officials. The investigation report says an order from Minister Inada to the top civilian defense official at the Joint Staff to "re-check the existence" of the sit-reps was never carried out (reason not provided). Moreover, when GSO identified some remaining sit-reps after the issue had become a public political matter, the Administrative Vice Minister dismissed them considering that the memos on sit-reps were "uncertain if they were subject to public release". This left Minister Inada without accurate information and not able to make fair political judgements.

What we can conclude from the OIG report is that 1. there was a general negligence of information management at MOD despite the fact that the legal basis for SDF overseas deployments had been repeatedly debated; 2. the uniformed officers were obedient to the political directions for overseas deployment yet reluctant to provide information as they were mindful that it could affect their operations; 3. the unique institutional arrangement of "civilian defense officer" to provide policy support to the Minister and to play intermediary role with SDF uniform fields was not functioning in this case.

To summarize, though there were some inappropriate judgements made, it appears that SDF professional military officers were not trying to manipulate or override the civilian political leadership in the treatment of South Sudan field sit-reps. Rather, they were so sensitive and afraid of the political impact of disclosure on their operations. Their concerns were proven to be accurate, but situations went worse after the mismanagement of sit-reps became public. Politicians of the opposition parties are now more eager to find other indications of mismanagement and the public are rightly more skeptical about the organizational culture of the MOD and the SDF. A mere use of military operational language like "combat" in sit-reps to depict what actually has happened brings a political impact on the Diet discussion if the situation is legally acceptable for the SDF's peace keeping operations.

What is now needed for the MOD and the SDF is more confidence in their professional military conduct, maintaining transparent posture and leaving political matters to civilian leaders. For the elected civilian officials, the responsibility is heavier. They need to work hard to set appropriate document classifications, to make sure to secure a sound political environment for the field troops to carry out their mandates without distractions, and to establish a trustful relationship between the civilian defense officials and uniforms alike. What was regretful of Minister Inada, as critics say, was that despite her strong adherence to hardline conservative thinking, she had little interests and insights on actual security business and was not able to perform proper leadership at the MOD. If this was the cause of disobedience by the civilian defense officers, then Japan's civilian control could have been in a real crisis.

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