Thursday, March 26, 2009

Old Rules No Longer Applicable to “Government Sources” in Yet Another Stage in Tectonic Shift

A couple of weeks ago, media reports told us that a “government source” thought that it was unlikely that no arrests would be forthcoming on the LDP side in the Nishimatsu scandal. According to the mainstream media, “government source” is their code word for Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretaries and the Prime Minister’s Secretaries speaking under condition of non-attribution. Given the widespread reports in this case, it was obvious that this was not a single-outlet leak but comments during one of those informal kisha club briefings outside the confines of regular, on-the-record press conferences*. Moreover, the nature and content of the source’s speculation pointed to someone who could bring authority and/or experience to the issue. The properly incensed DPJ connected the dots, fingered Iwao Uruma, the former top cop handpicked against recent precedent by Prime Minister Aso as the Administrative DCCS—to serve in tandem with two Parliamentary DCCSs under the Chief Cabinet Secretary—as the culprit, and decided to grill the top bureaucrat in the Diet. Asahi got wind of this—it is not difficult to get information on who is being summoned to Diet committees—and decided to report on the upcoming grilling, effectively scooping the other media outlets on the identity of the “government source”. The Aso administration quickly capitulated to circumstances and fed Uruma’s identity to the wolves. Now, it is difficult to claim Asahi actually had a hand in outing the loquacious A-DCCS Uruma—after all, the story would have been in the next day’s media outlets anyway—but it certainly did link the “government source” to a real name before anyone outside this code of omerta was able to the media an open excuse to do so. In the event, the A-DCCS gave an account that happened to be at odds with notes taken by the media and, perhaps not coincidentally, tilted to slide responsibility off of his shoulders and on to an uncomprehending media, further compounding his predicament.

Fast forward to another “government source”, this time telling the world that it would be futile to try to intercept the North Korean ballistic projectile—launch pending—with the AEGIS and Patriot missile defense systems that are eating up huge chunks of our defense procurement budget (see Yomiuri report translated below**). Given the outdated assessment—the state-of-the-art has progressed since such skepticism was widely expressed, though how the systems will perform in a real-life situation, perhaps lucky for us, remains to be seen—and, more revealingly, the tone-deaf nature of the comment—it cast doubt on Japan’s main defense system just as one of the surely few instances during which it would be invoked in earnest was about to arrive—it had the feel of an outburst from a not-too-bright political appointee; and not the speculations of a seasoned bureaucrat who understood the potential as well as the risks involved in tying our national security interests to a technology that is still unproven under combat conditions. This time, Socialist leader Mizuho Fukushima made yet another educated guess today and took the occasion of question time in the Upper House Budget Committee to squeeze out a confession from Yoshitada Konoike, one of the two P-DCCSs, that he “[thinks] that it is quite difficult to hit a bullet with another bullet”—echoing the very words of and all but (but not quite) confessing that he was that “government source”. So why was the A-DCCS so poorly briefed on the upcoming North Korean missile launch and the Japanese response? (For that matter, why was Konoike allowed to keep his fig leaf while Uruma was stripped and forced to brave the elements on his own?)

What is evident here is a huge disconnect between the Prime Minister’s immediate environs and the rest of the Japanese bureaucracy. Prime Minster Aso’s attempts at what he may have thought would be relatively minor attempts to shake up the support staff—imposing a senior Ministry of Internal Affairs (and Communications) official on what had been a four-man MOF/NPA/MOFA/METI team of Prime Minister’s Secretaries and going against precedent to appoint a police official as A-DCCS—have backfired. Now this could be dismissed as mere coincidence and a display of the Prime Minister’s personal lack of judgment. But I feel that it is yet another step in the deterioration of the relationship between the political and the administrative that began in the Abe administration, the consequences of which were revealed on a massive, institutional scale in the unimaginative and disastrous rollout of the Late-Term Elderly Medical Care Insurance Program during the Fukuda administration.

I’ve talked before about the institutional fatigue on the political side with regard to the successive misfortunes of the increasingly vulnerable LDP regime under the Abe, Fukuda and Aso administrations. The rot appears to go beyond the merely political, the system is showing its age, the moment is there to be seized. It is then the greatest of ironies that the one—as of this moment, if not for long—most advantageously positioned to avail himself of this opportunity is the one DPJ leader most closely associated with this homegrown ancien régime that appears to be in slow but inevitable decline.

Conventional Wisdom Watch to come.

* Some ministries and agencies now routinely post on their websites.

** Government Source Sez “No Way” Intercept of North Korean Missile “Will Score a Hit”
Regarding the [Japanese] government’s intent to use the missile defense (MD) system to intercept a ballistic missile if North Korea launches it under the guise of an “artificial satellite”, a government source on the 23rd expressed his understanding that interception would be difficult, stating that “The other side shoots a pistol and we shoot a pistol, and there’s no way that [the two] will hit each other.” He also said, “There’s no time for Defense Minister Hamada to report to Prime Minister Aso after the missile has been launched [to seek his permission to launch the MD missiles]. They’re probably preparing beforehand.

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