It’s often said of the Taiwanese military that it leaks like a sieve, and that it is incapable of keeping secrets from whomever wants to access them. Although this characterization is perhaps a little unfair, security breaches in recent years have drawn attention to the nation’s poor safeguarding of classified information and undermined confidence in the Ministry of National Defense (MND). An embarrassing mishap exposed by a legislator earlier this week won’t do much to reassure.
The extraordinary story goes as follows. At about 5pm on May 6, a woman surnamed Liang (梁), who identified herself as a contract worker for MND, approached the driver of a shuttle bus for military personnel on Changsha Street in Taipei and asked if she could be taken back to MND headquarters because her legs were sore from walking. According to Ministry spokesperson David Lo (羅紹和), the driver failed to ask the middle-aged woman to present any identification and drove her, along with other military personnel, inside the compound.
Once inside, Liang headed straight for the headquarters’ main building, known as the Red Building, and allegedly identified herself as the spouse of Minister of National Defense Yan Ming (嚴明). Although she was spotted by a guard, Liang was able to reach the third floor of the headquarters building, where the minister’s office is located, before she was intercepted by security. In all, the intruder spent about 10 minutes inside the compound before being escorted out.
Grilled by legislators the following day, Andrew Hsia (夏立言), the deputy minister of national defense, confirmed the incident, though he was vague on the matter of Liang passing off as Minister Yan’s spouse, adding that she appeared to be “mentally unstable.” He did not confirm whether security officers had investigated her background or simply let her go.
Even if Liang was indeed mentally unstable, as Hsia claims, her ability to reach the inner sanctum of national defense without proper identification is worrying and a reminder of the generally lax security at the nation’s critical government agencies. Though MND has since announced that the bus driver was disciplined for his lapse, surely there has to be more than one line of defense before one can access such a sensitive area. One can only wonder what a professional spy could have achieved given the same opportunity.
Such lax security is incomprehensible given the fact that despite the recent détentein the Taiwan Strait, the nation remains technically at war with a neighbor that never shelved the military option to achieve unification. Although the risks of war in the short term are ostensibly low, Beijing’s intelligence apparatus has been relentless in its collection efforts against Taiwan, as evidenced by the series of espionage cases uncovered in recent years targeting Taiwanese military personnel at air defense sites and naval bases, as well as individuals involved in foreign arms procurement. Added to the greater ease of access for Chinese spies resulting from the influx of Chinese tourists, students, and investors, the fact that MND has not adjusted its security measures accordingly is disquieting, to say the least.
Besides threatening national security, the security breach provides ammunition to officials in the U.S. government and academics who argue that Washington should no longer provide Taiwan with advanced military technology or highly classified material, as it will likely be leaked to China. With incidents like the one this week, MND only has itself to blame if the Pentagon grows more inclined to listen to the voices that call for “abandoning” Taiwan. (A source in the U.S. defense industry once told this author that arms dealers transfer systems with the expectation that they will eventually fall in the hands of their opponents. Be that as it may, it is extremely risky for Taiwan to test this notion with U.S. defense firms, and it should instead do everything in its power to reassure its allies that it takes information security seriously.) The potential fallout could explain why MND apparently sought to keep the matter secret, as People First Party Legislator Chen Yi-chieh (陳怡潔), who first brought the incident to light, has claimed.
Espionage is a serious issue which not only threatens the ministry’s reputation with its allies, but also the lives of our soldiers, who would be the first victims of a compromised defense apparatus in time of war (not to mention the psychological impact of serving a military that does not seem to give security the attention it deserves).
Another disturbing angle to this story is the fact that it occurs at a time when law enforcement authorities have been granted unprecedented powers of intrusion in the wake of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative and Executive Yuans in March. In stark contrast to Liang’s ability to access MND headquarters, several young Taiwanese in recent weeks have been approached by police while in public areas and asked to show their national I.D. cards and the contents of their bags. In most cases, police had no valid justification for doing so, except perhaps to intimidate an increasingly mobilized civil society that has grown critical of the current administration. Incidents last year also pointed to the possible involvement of the National Security Bureau (NSB) in government efforts to counter protests by Taiwanese activists.
It would be reassuring for everybody if the government could reaffirm, through proper action, its commitment to defending the nation from real and external threats rather than turning the state’s security apparatus against its own citizens. The NSB, for example, should focus its energies and limited resources against foreign spies, not middle-aged university professors. However destabilizing civil society may have been in recent weeks, theirs is a battle to preserve this country’s way of life; we can’t say this much of the powerful military and intelligence apparatus across the Strait which relentlessly endeavors to undermine our democracy.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.