In contrast to neighboring countries, former U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair welcomes the efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reinterpret the pacifist Constitution and bolster the nation’s defense capabilities, saying Japan needs to adapt itself to the changing security landscape of the Asia-Pacific region.

Blair, who also served as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command between 1999 and 2002, said expansion of the Self-Defense Forces’ capabilities as well as Abe’s push to reinterpret the Constitution to exercise the right of collective self-defense are both prudent moves.

“I applaud his direction. . . . It’s a new era. I think the new era calls for a new interpretation of old documents,” Blair told The Japan Times during a recent interview in Tokyo.

“I’m very much in favor of allowing Japan to operate in responsible defensive manners in a coalition with the U.S. and with other countries in everything from territorial defense through peacekeeping operations, through humanitarian operations,” he said.

The government currently interprets the Constitution, which bans the use of force to settle international conflicts, as prohibiting Japan from engaging in collective defense, such as protecting U.S. naval ships in international waters.

Aiming to lift the self-imposed ban, Abe reconvened a government policy advisory panel on security issues in February for the first time since his previous short stint as prime minister nearly six years ago.

The panel of security experts reportedly plans to submit its recommendation to Abe by the end of this year, which the government is expected to act on after next spring.

“Japan has matured. (Japan is no longer a country that) simply gave authority to the United States, and let the United States do everything for it,” he said, adding that it is time for Japan to step up its game in the security alliance.

Meanwhile, Blair, who was tasked with coordinating 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in the Obama administration between January 2009 and May 2010, expressed concern about Japan’s ability to protect classified information.

“Right now, if some Japanese officials give you a classified document, there is not much penalty. . . . Japan needs to have some rules (to protect confidential information) and be able to enforce those rules,” he said.

Blair said the U.S. gauges how much intelligence information to share based on an ally’s ability to protect that information.

Although the intelligence the U.S. shares with Japan and Britain is basically the same, the disclosure levels can sometimes be different, he said.

“There are some areas in which we don’t share much information (with other countries), that is for a variety of reasons that generally have to do with whether both countries have an equal interest in that issue, whether a country’s capabilities to protect the information are as strong as they need to be,” Blair said.

Currently, under Japanese civil service law, government workers face up to a year in prison for disclosing confidential data.

The government is preparing to submit a national secrets protection bill to the extraordinary Diet session that convened Tuesday to impose much harsher punishments for leaking classified data. According to the draft bill, the maximum prison sentence will be extended to 10 years.

Blair welcomed the move, saying such strict penalties have a deterrent effect.

He said that even though no country can guarantee that insiders won’t leak information, governments can at least minimize the risk.

Asked about the damage done by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Blair said it was huge.

“I’m disappointed that people like Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who passed classified documents to WikiLeaks) and Edward Snowden are considered to be heroes by some in the United States,” Blair said. “I mean, give me a break. They are traitors.”

Snowden has made it much more difficult for Washington to monitor what’s going on in China and Russia, he said. Also, American intelligence agencies may have to curtail their activities to protect Americans from terrorists, as many citizens now believe the government is free to copy and analyze their emails for any purpose, he added.

Washington, Blair said, should have better explained its intelligence activities to soften the shock of Snowden’s revelations.

“We should have said that,” he said. “We said it now, but now it comes like a very defensive measure, seems like hiding stuff.

“I think in democratic countries like Japan and the U.S., (governments) need to be open about this . . . because the mystery and the suspicion (of people) for intelligence activities is huge,” Blair said, adding that such suspicion is fueled by popular films such as the James Bond series.

“Intelligence is not that at all,” he said. “Bunch of hard-working people who are trying to sort out what our adversaries, other countries and other groups are trying to do in order to provide good information to our decision-makers, so that they can protect the interest of the country. It’s the same thing in Japan.”

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