State secrets have just become less secret

31 December 2018

State secrets have just become less secret

Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok is in deep trouble as a result of the leaking of state secrets concerning supplies to controversial militias in Syria. The blunder has demonstrated how fatal it can be if crucial information is marked 'secret' in a one-sided process. A committee chaired by SP Member of Parliament Ronald van Raak will give his parliamentary colleagues more of a say over what is and is not a state secret.

The militias in question are known as Jabhat al-Shamiya and the Hama Rebels Gathering. The names of these groups, which were financed by the Netherlands, have now been made public by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, following an official request for documents from the daily newspaper Trouw and the television programme Nieuwsuur. Parts of the requested information had been declared state secrets yet had, as result of a mistake by the ministry, not been made unattainable. As well as the above-mentioned groups, twenty other militias have been supplied with goods which have been used for military purposes. These werepaid for by the Netherlands. The total value of these goods was €30 million.

Foreign Minister Stef Blok was deeply embarrassed by the matter, because, as he had previously told Parliament, the goods were intended to be used for civilian purposes as part of 'non-deadly assistance'. Yet it now turned out that the vehicles supplied as well as bullet-proof jackets had actually been employed in attacks carried out by the Syrian rebels. In addition, Trouw reported that the computers had been used 'to select military targets.' Moreover, Jabhat al-Shamiya had in the recent past been listed as a terrorist group by the Netherlands' Public Prosecutors' Office and accused by human rights organisations as being guilty of executions, torture and rape, as well as forming part of the controversial Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region at the beginning of this year. This was despite the fact that the Dutch government had just guaranteed that support for participants in this invasion would immediately be blocked. According to sources in Parliament, sections of the twenty-two groups supplied with aid had, furthermore, in all likelihood operated in networks connected to Al Qa’ida. SP Member of Parliament Sadet Karabulut responded to these revelations by presenting a motion of no confidence in Blok.

There are now two important questions in relation to this affair. Was it in reality the aim of the government to give these groups military support? In other words, what did the government know and when did it know it? For the moment, all of this remains speculation. According to Ronald van Raak, however, it is obvious why the names of the militias were supposed to remain secret, and that was to conceal the fact that the government almost certainly knew that the materiel supplied was indeed intended for military ends. Their names had been labelled 'state secrets' for purely political reasons.

Why are crucial matters such as this declared to be state secrets? This is precisely the question which has for several years exercised the mind of Ronald van Raak. The Temporary Committee on the Evaluation of the Law on Parliamentary Enquiries, which he chairs, has taken important steps towards clearing the fog obscuring the question of state secrets. “It's still the case that the government can declare that they find certain information to be secret.,” says Van Raak, “and Parliament has no idea why. Our proposals, which have been supported on all sides of the House, would give Parliament co-decision on this, so that the government would have to come to us with arguments to convince us of the reasons why something should remain a secret.” And in practice what progress has been made towards this? “Look, as a Member of Parliament I've been active on the issue of the secret services for a number of years,” he replies. “My experience has been that the best means to combat unnecessary secrecy is to discuss it openly. If this can be done, then this will lead automatically to less unjustified secretiveness. Take the current affair around Blok, the crux of which is that the Parliament in the first instance could not find out which groups had been supplied with just what goods. It leaked out due to a mistake at the ministry. But if Parliament had been afforded the time to discuss these supplies, the ministry wouldn't have got away so easily with his secrecy.”

The Temporary Committee has been hard at work following the fact that the 2012 Parliamentary Enquiry Committee into the financial system, chaired by another SP Member of Parliament, Jan de Wit, kept coming across information which the government wanted keeping under wraps on the grounds that revealing it would be in conflict with the interests of the state. As a result, the Committee of Enquiry could not complete its work to the letter. But happily that's all in the past, says Van Raak. “The last word on secrets will from now on lie with Parliament, and a good thing to,” he says. “'The state' is of course not just the government, but also the representatives of the Dutch people. And this applies not only to grand matters such as parliamentary enquiries or questionable supplies to foreign militias. We want to see this henceforth to be employed at all times, whenever a minister wants to declare information a state secret. In that way we can prevent state secrecy from being misused to prevent political discussions.”

Text by Rob Janssen. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the December 2018 edition of the SP monthly Tribune.

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