The XX Committee

The Realities of Intelligence: The French View

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.

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