'Secret défense' - when national security takes precedence

Charles Pasqua, who was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in Angolagate, has called on the French authorities to waive the “secret défense”, by which sensitive evidence is kept secret. FRANCE 24 asked an expert to explain.

What is 'secret défense'?
In France, "Secret défense" encompasses any extremely sensitive information concerning national security, be it military, diplomatic, or political.  It can concern arms technology, the fight against terrorism, and also the activities of intelligence services.  It is a procedure governed by the penal code. Only the executive powers – the president, the prime minister and other ministers – have the right to classify documents as being related to national security. A law enacted in 2009 made it possible to render locations classified as well.
According to Yves Bonnet, former director of the French agency for homeland surveillance (DST), “There is a clear abuse of ‘secret défense’. Today, it is used to hide procedures that have nothing at all to do with the greater interests of national security.”
Who has the right to waive 'secret défense' status?
The authority who conferred the status has the right to lift it. The presiding judge can make a request to waive it for the purposes of legal proceedings. In such an instance, the request has to be put before a minister. The minister in turn seeks recommendations from a consulting commission on national defence secrets. But the final decision to declassify is in the hands of the minister.
What is the consulting commission for national defence?
The commission was created in 1998 with the aim of avoiding misuse of the “secret défense” label. It consists of three state employees and two members of parliament. But the commission is limited to a consulting capacity, only. “The commission’s domain has to be broadened,” said Bonnet. Additionally, he regrets that there is no parliamentary means to audit security and intelligence services, as is the case in the United Kingdom.
In what circumstances is the 'secret défense' invoked?
It was cited in the case regarding the sale of French frigates to Taiwan. After having refused to declassify the documents, judge Renaud van Ruymbeke revoked charges in the case, in which French political figures were accused of having received kickbacks for the sale.  
The 'secret défense' was also invoked regarding forged client lists in the Clearstream affair, in which French President Nicolas Sarkozy was pitted against former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.


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