Only a new intelligence agency can cure Tokyo's blindness on world stage

The Japanese government not only could not protect its citizens from recent terrorist attacks, but it also did not even know what was going on.

Japan is not the only country to experience the ordeal of having its citizens captured by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organisation, and then watch impotently the barbarous videos of their beheadings; other nations have found themselves in a similar predicament.

But the impact on Japan from the recent murders of Mr Haruna Yukawa and Mr Kenji Goto will be more significant, as it may have provided the final justification for the creation of a Japanese foreign intelligence service. Establishing such an agency won't be easy, but it now looks almost inevitable and, when it happens, it will add another layer of complications to Asia's security map.

This was not Japan's first encounter with terrorism. The country faced violent terrorist groups such as the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s and the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect, which staged a chemical attack on Tokyo's underground railway system in 1995, the first example of such a terrorist attack in the world and still the biggest atrocity in Japan since World War II. Japan even exported terrorists: Japanese Red Army members attacked Israel's Tel Aviv airport in 1972, killing 26 people and injuring 80.

Still, two recent encounters with international terrorism - almost exactly two years apart - have shaken the Japanese to the core. The first took place in January 2013 in Amenas, a remote natural gas facility in Algeria's desert which was attacked by armed Islamic fundamentalists.

Japan found to its astonishment that its nationals made up the biggest number of hostages in this crisis; the episode ended with 39 hostages dead, out of which a third were Japanese. And then, this January, came the calamity of ISIS in the Middle East.

On both occasions, the Japanese government not only had zero ability to do anything to protect its citizens, but it also didn't even know what was going on, and often had to rely on just the media for information. No prime minister of any country likes to admit he is clueless about the fate of his people, and most certainly not the prime minister of what is still the world's third-largest economy. But that was - and still is - the fact, for since World War II and largely as a result of it, Japan has no intelligence agency able to spy on other countries or international developments.

That does not, of course, mean that Japan has no spying capabilities. The country operates a satellite intelligence centre, able to monitor regional developments and intercept electronic communications. It also uses some of its attaches at various Japanese embassies around the world to collect specific information.

Furthermore, it has the Public Security Bureau operated by the Tokyo police force and the Intelligence and Analysis Service which is answerable to the Ministry of Justice; both are domestic intelligence agencies, but both process a certain amount of foreign intelligence, especially when this relates to threats to the Japanese mainland. Finally, there is the so-called Third Foreign Affairs Division within the Tokyo Metropolitan Police whose job is specifically that of tracking down Islamic extremists with links to Japan.

But not only does none of these agencies provide a clear picture of global threats, but each one of them is also dysfunctional in itself, and far keener to fight for its privileges and powers rather than cooperate with other branches of government. The result is - astonishingly for a country with a tradition of efficient governance - an intelligence mess.

Japanese civil servants leak material all the time; government leaks to "friendly" journalists are an almost routine method of briefing the media in Japan. The agencies are occasionally careless in handling their databases: in October 2010, files from the Public Security Bureau, on investigations into international terrorism, were leaked on the Internet and these included information about Muslims in Japan who had cooperated with police investigations, just about the most damaging of all security breaches.

To make matters worse, the material collected from overseas is never processed in a systematic way: there is no centralised body which collects and analyses the information. Nor is it clear who should use this material - the Japanese Cabinet as a whole, the prime minister alone or a restricted number of ministers. And, if this was not enough, until recently Japan had no official secrets Act governing the status of confidential documents: no official was ever successfully prosecuted for the unauthorised disclosure of state documents.

Much of this information mayhem is over. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has established a National Security Council which provides a more structured approach to the intelligence debate. A new official secrets Act is in place. But a foreign intelligence service is still a pipe dream for, as the Japanese were forced to learn recently, that's not something which can be created overnight.

The Japanese initially thought that they could hasten the process of creating their agency by signing cooperation agreements with key intelligence services around the world, particularly those of the US, Britain and Australia which they hold in high regard.

Every time Mr Abe meets leaders of these countries, this topic is raised privately. Japanese security officials frequently suggest a future division-of-labour arrangement, by which Japan would offer its intelligence expertise on Asia in return for getting intelligence material from the Americans and the British about the Middle East and other parts of the world in which the Japanese are under-represented.

Some officials in Tokyo even went as far as to suggest that Japan could become a member of the so-called Five Eyes - the intelligence-sharing arrangement between the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

But all these suggestions were basically spurned, for a variety of reasons. First, the Japanese currently have little to offer as part of a partnership: Tokyo's analysing capabilities about China are poorer than those possessed by the US and Britain, so there is no reason why Western intelligence services should enter into a sharing deal.

There are also worries in Western capitals that Japan's present way of collecting information through a handful of badly disguised diplomats is not only inefficient but also dangerous, as it is a vulnerability which can be exploited by others to plant their own intelligence agents inside the Japanese government. In effect, the Japanese have been told that there is no way to short-cut the process: they have to establish their own external intelligence agency, and only then would they be able to enter into durable partnerships with potential allies.

The Japanese have made some progress. At the end of last year, they concluded a deal with the US and South Korea to exchange intelligence material over developments in North Korea; to accommodate South Korea's historic sensitivities, the deal is confined to this issue, and all intelligence information goes via Washington, rather than being exchanged directly between Seoul and Tokyo. But that's largely window dressing for, in practice, the intelligence cooperation between Japan and South Korea is far closer than either side would care to admit publicly.

The British, who were also notoriously unresponsive to Japan's intelligence demands, are also relenting, by providing some information on the Middle East and global terrorist networks. And then, there is the problem of Internet security and cyber operations, where the cooperation of Japan is much more appreciated in Washington.

Still, the Japanese will remain "blind" on the global stage until they have their own intelligence service, a point which Mr Abe acknowledged when he told Parliament immediately after the murder of his citizens in the Middle East that "it's critically important for Japan to gather internal information on the countries and organisations it considers a danger".

It will take the Japanese some time to acquire this foreign intelligence capability. And the biggest job may not be technical, but psychological: Japanese leaders will have to learn to think strategically, to use intelligence material in order to reach security policy decisions, not something most of the current generation of Japanese politicians are familiar with.

However, the process is now unstoppable and when it concludes, it will boost the already-frothy landscape of intelligence activities in Asia. For, although Mr Abe has used the terrorist threat to justify his moves on boosting his country's intelligence capabilities, it's obvious that the main target of Japan's future external spying agency will be China.

Still, a spying service can also have a sobering effect on a government: Arguably, Japan could become less jumpy about China if it has a more "granular", more detailed and three-dimensional intelligence view of the Chinese and their limitations, rather than just their strengths. Good intelligence does not necessarily make a country more intelligent. But it may make it more thoughtful.


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