EDITORIAL: Abe unclear on vision for Japanese national security council

February 18, 2013

On the instructions of the Abe Cabinet, a panel of experts has started discussing a proposal to establish the headquarters for Japan’s policy efforts to deal with diplomatic and security challenges.

The headquarters envisioned by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council.

Given the harsher diplomatic and security environments surrounding Japan, we understand Abe’s desire to enhance the government’s ability to effectively respond to the tough challenges facing the nation.

Abe, however, embarked on an initiative to create an NSC six years ago during his first tenure as prime minister. He failed to carry it through. The question is whether he has learned the bitter lessons needed to build up a truly effective system that can play such a role.

Confusingly, the government already has the Security Council of Japan, comprising nine Cabinet members, including the prime minister. The council’s job is to discuss important issues related to national defense.

In 2007, the first Abe administration submitted to the Diet a bill to reorganize this council into an NSC. The bill was also intended to establish a system for frequent meetings among only the prime minister, the foreign minister, the defense minister and the chief Cabinet secretary to work out integrated policy responses to diplomatic and security challenges.

However, the bill can only be described as a seriously flawed blueprint based on half-baked ideas.

It seems unnecessary to go through the trouble of enacting legislation to create a new organization only to hold frequent meetings among the four Cabinet members. Abe’s successor, Yasuo Fukuda, dropped the plan and abandoned the bill.

Probably because of the debacle six years ago, Abe is now stressing the importance of intelligence gathering.

“There is no agency that gathers and analyzes information obtained by different departments of the government and presents the results to the prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary,” Abe recently said. Japan’s ability to analyze information collected by various government organizations in an integrated manner may be inferior to that of other major countries, he said. In short, Abe intends to use the NSC to put together and analyze various information gleaned by the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the National Police Agency and other bodies.

Indeed, the government’s ability to acquire, evaluate and interpret sensitive information needs to be enhanced. This problem has been brought to the fore by recent developments concerning North Korea’s nuclear arms program and the hostage crisis in Algeria.

But that cannot be achieved simply by creating a new organization. What is vital is developing a pool of highly skilled specialists in the field.

Intelligence gathering in other countries requires deployments of experts with a good command of the local language who can blend into their surroundings. If the envisioned NSC is to analyze such intelligence, effective measures must be taken to ensure the council will be staffed by people skilled at these tasks and who are free from the interests of ministries and agencies.

Efforts to bolster the government’s ability to collect and analyze intelligence inevitably raise the question of maintaining secrecy and confidentiality. No country is willing to provide sensitive information to another country that cannot keep secrets. If, however, the government stresses the importance of preserving state secrets without making serious efforts for information disclosure, it will make the public suspect that the government is only trying to cover up inconvenient truths.

Information is similar to a sharp knife.

An organization that uses it could be either good or bad for public interests depending on the way it operates. Abe should talk more clearly about his vision for the NSC.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 17

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, explains the Algeria hostage situation at his office in Tokyo on Jan. 21. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, explains the Algeria hostage situation at his office in Tokyo on Jan. 21. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, explains the Algeria hostage situation at his office in Tokyo on Jan. 21. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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