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The Realities of Intelligence: The French View

November 2, 2013

Over the last week the German hysteria over allegations regarding the U.S. National Security Agency has reached genuine fever pitch. While the tabloid press rallies against the “NSA Monster,” even respectable outlets have joined the campaign, which leaves average Germans with the wholly false impression that NSA cares one whit about them. Although the German intelligence services know the real story is quite different, as I’ve previously reported, the public debate in Germany has taken on a life of its own, one which has little to do with the real world of intelligence.

It’s different in France, where allegations of NSA espionage also have been a media fixture. Like Berlin, Paris has a decades-old relationship with American intelligence that includes much exchange of information and best practices, though not quite at the “Five Eyes” level that exists among the Anglosphere. Recent days have seen several important revelations in the French media about the complexities of the actual relationship between close allies and intelligence partners.

In an interview with the Parisian daily Le Monde, Phillippe Hayez, a former assistant director of DGSE, France’s foreign intelligence agency (equivalent to NSA and CIA combined), explained just how unshocking these vaunted revelations are to anyone who knows how espionage actually works.  Allowing that the present public uproar represents “more like climate change than a mere passing cloud,” Hayez added that, diplomatically speaking, this is but “a mere episode in the cascade of ‘revelations’ about intelligence unleashed by Edward Snowden.”

Hayez similarly expressed concern that the international media campaign against NSA was fundamentally distorting the necessary public debate about intelligence, which “must not lead anyone to conclude that the primary purpose of [intelligence] services in a democracy is targeting your allies. The primary target is the enemies of democracy.”

Considerable more detail was added in a report in the Parisian daily L’Opinion, which was based on interviews with numerous French officials. Here the complexities of the relationship, in which DGSE collaborates daily with American partners yet spies on them, and is spied on by them in return, are elaborated, while being met with an impressive Gallic shrug.

One former DGSE officer boasted that, while his service was not quite as capable as NSA, technically speaking, it is still one of the five best SIGINT agencies in the world, adding that it listens in on many world leaders: “I had telephone tap transcripts in my hands of President George W. Bush that we carried out,” he admitted. Is the current public fuss caused by Snowden’s relevations “populism or crass ignorance?” he wondered, “because we obviously send our reports to [our] political authorities.”

The report adds that during the recent French campaign in Mali, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister, used “[SIGINT reports from] NSA which were passed on to the French, which made it possible to locate and then destroy the armed jihadist groups. And no one in the armed forces or the intelligence services wants this flow of information to stop; much to the contrary.”

While France, like Germany, is not part of the Five Eyes SIGINT alliance, it shares a great deal of information with NSA regularly and in 2010, according to the report, Paris came close to joining the alliance but the Obama White House scuttled the deal in the end. There is also a tight intelligence sharing relationship between DGSE and the BND, its German equivalent, and it’s evident that French spies are more than a tad displeased with all the public fuss in Germany about matters that are best left out of the public’s eye, in France’s view. That Chancellor Merkel is exploiting the Snowden crisis to get her country fully into the Five Eyes system is the common perception among French officials.

Furthermore, while French diplomats believe that the NSA scandal has complicated relationships, this, too, shall pass and there will be no fundamental changes to intelligence partnerships except on a bilateral basis, i.e. between Washington, DC, and Paris. The notion of a European Union united front against NSA is dismissed out of hand by French diplomats as a pipe dream. Furthermore, it is significant that, even while expressing his displeasure about the NSA allegations, President Hollande never alleged “violations of sovereignty,” unlike some leaders. France is eager to get past this crisis.

Moreover, French diplomats seem dismissive of German complaints. As one top diplomat stated, “You cannot say just anything on just any network!” For this reason the Foreign Ministry has nearly 200 encrypted cell phones. Paris has invested heavily in secure telephone and computer communications for its ministries in recent years, and French intelligence believes that France’s sensitive diplomatic communications remain safe from foreign decryption or intrusion.

In all, this is exactly the mature, nuanced view of intelligence that one would expect from France, a country with excellent espionage services that form a key part of the Western intelligence alliance against common enemies and threats. I wish America had more such friends.

12 Comments
  1. Tres bien !

  2. ocnus permalink

    I have enjoyed your coverage of the NSA nonsense. What puzzles me is why people assume that the information being gathered is true. Just because it was obtained covertly doesn’t make it true. When the Russians learned of the Berlin listening tunnel they kept it going for months in an effort to feed “desinformatsiya” into the system. The US and many other nations have PsychOps batallions doing everything they can to feed false or misleading information into the system. That’s whyt we pay them. It works better when the recipient feels the information was received covertly. Can the politicians and the press be so naive to think that the information obtained covertly does not have to be evaluated as to the reliability of the source, his access to the information, and the other considerations needed to make a judgement? It is a mystery to me how childish the discussions have become.

  3. michael r denman permalink

    I’ve read with utmost fascination your articles on counter-intelligence and espionage. As a James Bond aficianado, and no I’m not reducing your work to the level of movie studios, I find it interesting that as long as we and other countries have been at this game, centuries in fact, there seems to be no plan in place to control the privitization of Homeland Security from the intelligence communities. This is how Snowden was able to get his info and take it out of the building, as a private contractor. Where are the controls, and how do you feel as an insider about this privatization plan? It seems ripe for abuse to me and dangerous for our country to rely on the profit motive for what are essentially patriotic duties.

    Thanks for your writing and providing another perspective instead of the steady stream of bull and hype from the press.

    • Thanks for your comments. Clearly some clawback of IC privatization is overdue, along with a serious recharge of counterintelligence. Good start, that.

  4. A Long Time Reader permalink

    Dr. Schindler, this is another very good post on some of the less important fallout from the Snowden revelations. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with you about the realities of allies spying on allies, etc.

    When I first started reading your site, I was impressed by a number of things, but particularly your willingness to address some of the less flattering issues facing your profession. Your post “Shamrock 2.0?” is particularly good– in it you wrote the following:

    “But Bill Binney was different. One of the finest Agency crypto-mathematicians of his generation – these being the scarily brilliant geeks who develop the code-cracking algorithims that allow NSA to protect you, dear citizen, while you sleep – Bill resigned in 2001 in disgust over what he believed to be the Agency’s misuse of his pet project, THINTHREAD, to spy domestically.

    Bill has kept chugging along, explaining repeatedly that domestic espionage is out of control, and now he’s stated that NSA is collecting information on practically every American. Mincing words, not so much:

    “They’re pulling together all the data about virtually every U.S. citizen in the country … and assembling that information,” Binney explained. “So government is accumulating that kind of information about every individual person and it’s a very dangerous process.” He estimated that something like 1.6 billion logs have been processed since 2001.

    I simply don’t know if this is true. And if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it openly on a blog anyway. But I will say is that this statement, if accurate, runs deeply contrary to the training about privacy protection which I had rammed into me received as a larval intelligence analyst some years ago. Moreover, Bill Binney is not a crank, a weirdo, or a charlatan. He is a very gifted man and a patriot who believes NSA, presumably on orders from “the top,” is misusing its enormous technological prowess. Certainly some public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age – something which of course NSA and the Intelligence Community but also very much the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided at every turn – seems overdue.”

    So I’ve been a little disappointed reading your blog of late, because while you devote a lot of time and energy to Snowden’s motivations and what you see as the realpolitik of espionage, you’ve not addressed “public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age” that Snowden’s actions have unleashed. Even if Snowden is a Chinese/Russian/Wikileaks agent who hates the USA and is a dropout, he has kick-started the debate you called for in the quote above.

    Once more, Bill Binney supports Snowden’s actions. Bill Binney supports Snowden breaking his vow of secrecy in order to get the talk going, a talk that’s more important than the Bruderschaft of any one agency. So if Binney can see some good here, maybe there’s something to it.

    Are you ever going to look at the good that’s come out of Snowden’s revelations? That would probably shut up any reasonable person who calls you a shill for the NSA.

    • “Too soon to tell.” My open letter to NSA explains what I think is wrong with the Agency that needs immediate repair. Not something a shill does, IMHO.

  5. A Long Time Reader permalink

    Well, your open letter praises with faint damnation. Your letter is the equivalent of an interviewee answering “What are your weaknesses?” by saying “I care too much”.

    In your letter you suggest that the NSA needs to tell the public more about what it does, the obvious assumption is that Binney’s and Snowden’s concerns about abuse are unfounded, and that we’d all know how great the NSA is if we knew the full story. I’m not sure why you assert this, seeing as July ’12 you said in reference to Binney’s revelations: “I simply don’t know if this is true.”

    Its obvious from your writing that you are a very intelligent man, at least as intelligent as Binney, but you seem to have a blind spot toward this one possibility: the NSA may be destroying American freedoms in its haste to protect them.

    The reading public needs people like you, with real-world CI experience, to address how we protect privacy, how we establish working channels for whistle-blowing, because, even if it turns out that EVERYTHING Binney and Snowden says is unfounded, the NSA will face these ethical problems in the future. Your ability and expertise makes these issues your cross to bear. Please address them.

  6. michael r denman permalink

    The more I read about Snowden and the revelations he’s exposed us to, the more it sounds like a psyops operation designed to shake the tree and see what falls out with countries now scrambling for a way around the NSA net. It’s just too convenient: the trip to Hong Kong, the sudden mysterious stay in an airport room for a month? and now he’s a regular guy in Russia with a job, an apartment and an escort of course. I don’t have any facts at my disposal, but I do have a good BS detector and it’s ringing off the hook. You seem to feel that he’s a Russian agent (defector). Could it be (rhetorical question) a campaign to see what new technologies or methods could be used to get around the NSA?

    Maybe I’m just a skeptic. But, has anyone else detected some serious BS from the stories about Snowden? Are we supposed to believe he just waltzed out of a secure facility with top national secrets? And then did some globe trotting? And that Glen Greenwald and partners are some magical insiders with the scoop on the NSA? I don’t buy any of it. But if it’s true about Snowden, then we have a huge hole to fill here concerning leaks, contractors and privatization. It just seems implausible and like an ops campaign complete with all the details required to make it work. it also seems beneficial to let the population know that they’re being watched at every turn from an intelligence standpoint. It’s sounds counter-intuitive, but the revelation makes people nervous, and nervous people make mistakes, expose loopholes, divulge data unwittingly, and in their retreat leave a trail to be found and interpreted. . Mistakes that the NSA is waiting to pick up on.

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