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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.

Published inInternational PoliticsTaiwan 2012

14 Comments

  1. Printlessfoot Printlessfoot

    Under Ma’s admistration in the past three years, all international indices of freedom (press, human rights, …) have indicated that the democracy in Taiwan has been sliping backward stabily.

    Since Ma and KMT own a very strong hold over executive, legislative, judiciary, and intelligence offices, Ma has tendency to abuse such great power. Another proof of absolute power bringing absolute corruption.

    The worse is that several major TV stations and news paper have investment from China’s government-owned media companies. The cases of Ma’s power abuse got good cover-up.

    In summary, the cloud casting over Taiwan’s democracy is dark but people (international and local) are too blind to notice it.

  2. Printlessfoot Printlessfoot

    The Future Prediction Market in Taiwan (xfuture.org) has been ordered by the central election overseeing committee to close down all its probability trades related to the 2012 election while the committee prohibit all election-polls. I like to know what your opinion is about this.

    • Jonathan Sullivan Jonathan Sullivan

      There has been a blackout on polls in the final week or so of campaigns since (almost) the beginning of time. Supposedly this legislation was designed to deter speculation, gambling, and such which could cause either social instability or influence the outcome of the election. Personally, I don’t think that the blackout has the intended effect, as unfounded rumors etc continue as normal during this period. Moreover, the wildness of party claims is now untethered from the “reality” reflected in the polls (such as the virtual reality of the polls reflects what we mean by reality anyway). During the blackout, parties and candidates can say virtually anything with regards to the strategic context of the race, and there is nothing to rebut it. I have heard numerous conspiracy theories about this law, but my personal opinion is that it is a well meaning piece of legislation that has outstayed its original purpose and usefullness.

  3. Jonathan, the rules say that you can’t publish or discuss new poll data within 10 days of an election. However, the Central Election Commission ordered xfuture.org to stop publishing data one day earlier. Here’s a screenshot of the page from yesterday with their reply to the CEC’s order.

    • Michal Thim Michal Thim

      Tim, I think it is the same for everybody, no? Blackout for polls starts at 4 January. The last day for publishing polls was therefore yesterday and xfuture still released their latest predictions. I am not sure how it was in the past with NCCU/xFuture project but I had feeling that they were asked specifically because their predictions are not exactly the same as polls. Do you know if they were running during blackout period during last elections?

      M.

      • Michal Thim, you wrote: “xfuture still released their latest predictions.” Did you see the image I linked on the word “screenshot” in my earlier comment? That was from the day before the ban should have started. The numbers which were previously on that page aren’t there.

        • Michal Thim Michal Thim

          Tim, what do you mean the day before? I personally used data released by xfuture on 3 January which was the last day for polls to be released. They stopped to release data on afternoon just because there would not be any until next morning. No need to search for conspiracy here. You can still check for latest predictions on nccupm.wordpress.com, also here is concise round-up of the last pooling day: http://www.taiwanelections.org

          • Michal Thim: Why do you describe my comment as “search[ing] for conspiracy” when I only pointed out what was plainly visible?

            In case you may have missed them, here are some key quotes from the xfuture.org page in the screenshot I linked earlier [translations, emphasis mine]:
            —————————————————–
            回應中選會秘書長鄧天佑禁止未來事件交易所進行政治期貨交易之聲明

            Response to Central Election Commission Secretary-General Teng Tien-yu forbidding the Center for Prediction Markets and its Exchange of Future Events from carrying out futures transactions

            […]「未來事件交易所」表達相當遺憾與嚴正抗議。

            Center for Prediction Markets and its Exchange of Future Events expresses considerable regret and solemn protest.

            鄧秘書長不僅曲解選罷法相關法令,而且對於預測市場的研究方法與民調方法之差異完全不瞭解。

            Secretary-General Teng has not only misinterpreted the relevant part of the Election and Recall Act but doesn’t understand the differences between methods used for market research and opinion polls.

            […]

            根據總統副總統選舉罷免法第52條,「政黨及任何人自選舉公告發布之日起至投票日十日前所為有關候選人或選舉民意調查資料之發布,應載明負責調查單位或主持人、抽樣方式、母體及樣本數、經費來源及誤差值。政黨及任何人於投票日前十日起至投票時間截止前,不得以任何方式,發布有關候選人或選舉之民意調查資料,亦不得加以報導、散布、評論或引述。」

            According to Article 52 of the Presidential and Vice Presidential Election and Recall Act [instead of trying to translate it, I’ll directly quote the actual law here]: “During the period from 10 days before the polling day to the deadline for voting, any political party or person may not, by any means, issue any investigation questionnaire on the candidates or the public opinion about the election, and also may not report, diffuse, review or cite it.”
            —————————————————–

            Are they protesting something they did voluntarily? No. Does the “round-up” disprove something I actually said? No. The fact that there was information online earlier in the day doesn’t change the fact that the CEC ordered xfuture.org to stop publishing it before the deadline. Otherwise, the info could have remained on that page until 11:59 PM Tuesday along with the response to the CEC. The data remaining on the WordPress site (“latest” being January 3, 2012) doesn’t change the fact that the CEC ordered xfuture.org to stop publishing a (partial) day earlier than they needed to.

            Conspiracy“? That sure is a strange word for you to use.

          • Michal Thim Michal Thim

            Tim, we are obviously talking about two different things. I refer only and only to deadline and that is it. You claim that they closed one day before deadline (if I understand well) which they did not, they released prediction on the last day as everybody who does polls, is not it? I am not sure why do you read that CEC ordered to stop immediately, I understand from your post that CEC ordered xFutures to comply with provisions on ban of election polls. Refer please to Bo Tedard´s post below. I think he made the point already

            NCCU/xFutures from what you quote actually dispute that xFutures should be regarded as poll and therefore bound by the relevant provisions (“Secretary-General Teng has not only misinterpreted the relevant part of the Election and Recall Act but doesn’t understand the differences between methods used for market research and opinion polls.”) and not the deadline itself. We may have a long debate about the legality of CEC demand and I am more prone not to see xFutures as a poll but I also understand the logic of Bo´s argumentation below. In any case, our debate is not much relevan to the actual content of the article. What about to switch to that?

  4. Ah… thanks Maddog, I thought the CEC was complying with the law, not stepping outside it.

    Michael

  5. Bo Tedards Bo Tedards

    I agree with Prof. Sullivan about the nature of the law, I don’t think there’s any dark conspiracy there (but elsewhere, that’s another matter….).

    And I think that, although the law specifically mentions polls, it’s a reasonable interpretation of the legislative intent that it should include xFuture as well (something which could not have been foreseen when the law was written).

    Finally, although it’s a technicality, I think Tim has slightly misunderstood the dates issue: all polling data are banned from release from midnight between the 3rd and 4th, i.e. they cannot appear on the 4th, ten days before the polls open. That’s the usual way of calculating legal dates in Taiwan, and all the other media are being held to that same deadline. That xFuture decided to shut down at 5 pm on the 3rd (7 hours early) was their own decision, presumably for technical or administrative convenience.

    • Bo, I didn’t “misunderst[an]d the dates issue” at all. Tuesday the 3rd = OK. Wednesday the 4th = not OK. I linked to an article which explained it clearly. Did you look at the screenshot I linked above (in case the page itself disappears)? If not, you can just read my translations above. It sure doesn’t sound like it was “[xfuture.org’s] own decision.”

  6. Printlessfoot Printlessfoot

    Probability trade is not a poll. It can be interpreted as a hedging against risk or many things else, depending on how you interpret the percentage numbers. The regulation regarding poll-publication does not cover xfuture.org futures trading, in which no any monetary equivalent is used and hence can not be counted as a gambling.

    Anyway, compared with bugging the opponents with national intelligence, blacking out probability game is nothing.

  7. Printlessfoot Printlessfoot

    Another thing worries me is that some US politicians worried that if Tsai should be elected, she would not accept so called 92agreement. I remember US also pushed Chiangmai Kai-Shek to accept peace agreement with Mao. We know what those agreements turned out to be later on.

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