Ma’s Watergate?

On December 28, Next Magazine published an investigative report describing an alleged operation by which the head of the National Security Council (NSC) bypassed official channels to order members of the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) to provide information about Tsai’s campaign activities, meetings, etc. to the Presidential Office.

The story cites multiple sources inside the MJIB, NSC, and the National Security Bureau (NSB), and the reporters obtained copies of internal MJIB documents that specifically describe illegal operations against Tsai (mentioning her by name). Most egregiously, requesting agents to assess how various meetings Tsai held would shift vote counts in the respective areas. The report also gave the dates of the operation, starting from Tsai’s victory in the DPP primary back in May 2011, and named 28 agents in charge of various geographic zones. The report went on to say that these reports were forwarded to the Weng Shih-tsan, Director of the NSC Secretariat, “for the reference of President Ma.”

All the agencies involved, as well as Ma himself, quickly denied any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, there are sufficient grounds to believe the main substance of the allegations is credible. This can be demonstrated by the process of elimination of the other possible hypotheses, of which there are two.

First, there is the hypothetical possibility that Next Magazine simply fabricated the story. Although many people look down upon it, Next Magazine is the best investigative media that Taiwan has got. It probably has broken more scandals than all the rest of Taiwan’s journalists put together. Even when reporting salacious or sordid stories – which they do frequently, to shift the copies off the shelves – their reporters are usually very careful to verify sources and where possible to procure hard evidence (photographs, documents, etc.). They also, as a matter of policy, give people accused a chance to reply before publication (for example, in this case, the various agencies were informed of the article the day before and asked to comment, and a summary of those comments was printed at the back of article). Finally, the Next Group (including Next Magazine, Apple Daily, and now Next TV), run by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, is by no means considered a “green” media outlet.

Putting all that together, it is highly unlikely they would destroy years of reputation-building by simply fabricating such an explosive story. Indeed, the costs could possibly be quite a bit higher than commercial, considering the legal and other forms of pressure the government could bring to bear. Instead, we can be confident that the Next reporters did talk to some sources in the relevant agencies, and that the documents they have displayed were given to them by one of these sources.

That brings us to the second alternative hypothesis, which is that some agents within one or more of the intelligence services themselves fabricated the documents and scripted the interviews which were presented to Next’s reporters. That is, the reporters were victims of an elaborate disinformation campaign; they received information and evidence that appeared to be authentic, but was not.

Connoisseurs of conspiracy theories will undoubtedly find this pleasing. But it quite comprehensively fails the Occam’s razor test. It would require a complex coordination among a number of agents from multiple agencies, all of whom would be at significant risk if any of them made any slipups. Furthermore, the motive for such action is totally unclear.

Moreover, the history of these agencies, especially the MJIB (known during the Martial Law era as the Garrison Command) makes such activities seem plausible. Wiretapping has always been widespread in Taiwan, and as recently as Chen Shui-bian’s term in office, the KMT accused him of carrying out quite similar election-related operations. Amid such accusations, a law to prohibit misuse of the intelligence agencies was enacted for the first time in 2005. Ma made a very specific point of including in his inauguration speech in 2008 that under his Administration, illegal wiretapping would not be tolerated, showing that he understood this to be a current issue.

Third, one of the main lines of defense from the MJIB so far has been that any information gathered was done for the protection of candidates. However, according to the relevant regulation, coordinating responsibility for candidates’ security lies with the NSB; the MJIB is only one of the agencies the NSB can authorize to assist it with this responsibility. The Next report specifically says that the MJIB carried out this operation and passed its information directly to the NSC, bypassing the NSB (one of the NSB sources was apparently angry about this). The NSB statement is notably circumspect, not mentioning the operation itself, only denying that any “high-ranking official” within the NSB had criticized the NSC, and then going on to offer praise to NSC Secretary General Hu Wei-chen for his uprightness. An additional piece of circumstantial evidence is that Weng Shih-tsan, who reportedly played the key role in transmitting the intelligence, was himself a long-serving agent of the MJIB before being transferred to the NSC in 2010.

What does it mean?

Thus, for purposes of political analysis, we can only conclude that the operation described by Next did in fact occur. However, what we do not know is to what extent President Ma was directly aware of these activities. He has denied ordering any such operation, or receiving any such intelligence information. It is well within the realm of possibility either that orders were given in a very vague way; or that they were given by someone else actually or purportedly acting on Ma’s behalf; or indeed that no orders were given, but the MJIB and/or the NSC acted on their own initiative as an effort to please Ma or some others of their superiors at one or another level.

What impact might this have on the campaign? The DPP is citing a number of instances where KMT figures took measures suggested that they had prior knowledge of Tsai’s activities (such as meeting or calling the person Tsai was to meet). It is very difficult to pin down any one of these incidents conclusively. More importantly, it is even less easy to ascertain what if anything Tsai might have gained from any particular meeting in terms of votes, much less to what extent any preemptive actions from the KMT side would have reduced such a gain.

As for political responsibility at the top, the DPP and Tsai’s campaign have strongly asserted that Ma must have known about the operation, but they have hedged their statement slightly (given the likely difficulty of proving his knowledge) by saying that if he didn’t, it proves his incompetence. Certainly if a genuinely rogue operation was carried out, it would constitute a quite serious lapse in the chain of command, and one would expect Ma to be genuinely angry about it. However, one can also imagine that he might prefer to wait until after the election to take any disciplinary action. The calls of some, such as the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan, for an independent investigation are warranted, but it is hardly realistic that such an investigation could not only be properly organized but also make a conclusive finding within less than two weeks. At most, announcing an investigation before the election might earn Ma some credit for trying his best. At worst, it could be seized upon as some kind of admission of guilt. Surely Ma would play it safe and try to ride it out.

Here the lessons of Watergate are instructive, although perhaps not in the way the DPP and sympathizers have been asserting. Recall that the Watergate burglars were caught red-handed almost five months before the election, and investigators quickly found evidence of financial connections to the Nixon campaign. However, Nixon steadfastly denied any involvement, and he was re-elected as easily as he could have expected. Even as the investigation expanded, and key White House officials resigned and were indicted, Nixon continued to deny his involvement and to resist resignation for over two years after the burglary. If the “smoking gun” recording of him discussing the cover-up had not emerged, he might well have been able to serve out his term.

What will the impact of the revelation of the operation be on the election results? In principle, such an impact might be significant. Although the shock value would seem to favor the DPP, Ma and the KMT are doing their best to counterattack, accusing Tsai of making irresponsible accusations, etc. Voters who have already made up their minds are perhaps rather unlikely to change their votes either way as a result. However, in a very tight race, even rather small shifts of undecided voters could have a decisive impact.

However, regardless of who the actual or intended end users of such information were, the mere existence of such operations itself poses a threat to the integrity of the election process. As such, it behooves a serious examination from all who are concerned with or study Taiwan’s politics, as a concrete indicator of why the health of Taiwan’s democracy, vibrant as it is, cannot be taken for granted.

For interested readers, here is the NSB press release and a report about the NSC release. The MJIB press releases are here and here  and the relevant law is available here. All links in Chinese.

Bo Tedards is a Taipei-based political analyst and formerly Director of International Cooperation at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.