A hoodlum’s job done by honest men. With us, you only kill for reasons of state.’ This is the opinion of Maurice Robert, research director of the French secret service (and later Ambassador to Gabon), as recorded by Faligot and Krop in their excellent and well-researched book. It is difficult to accept such a verdict on the DGSE (originally the BCRA, then the DGER, then the SDECE). A more accurate summing-up would be that the service has proved both ruthless and frequently incompetent, that it has known its fine romantic hours and impressive coups, but that it has depended on a low-grade and poorly educated cadre prone to tough-guy tactics, and that many of its problems derive from the political purges to which it has been subject, and the chronic distrust it arouses in all its political masters. None of the purges and shake-ups has ever been quite complete: they have always left a cave within the organisation owing loyalty to the ancien régime and not above sabotaging their new political masters in the hope that this will help bring the old lot back. Politicians, knowing this, act accordingly: in the Greenpeace affair, the Elysée first heard of the disaster in New Zealand, not from the DGSE, which comes under the Defence Ministry, but from the Interior Ministry, whose internal secret police, the DST, routinely tap the phones of the DGSE. Similarly, the Government was furious to discover that in the frogman training school whose agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, a portrait of Giscard still hung where the obligatory portrait of Mitterrand should have been. The training school has since been closed down.
Mitterrand himself was involved with the secret service as early as 1944. The BCRA (as it then was) represented a simple outgrowth of the wartime Gaullist network, and Mitterrand, then in London, worked closely with Jacques Foccart – later De Gaulle’s spy chief and bête noire of the Left – on the romantic but generally disastrous mission to parachute agents into occupied Europe ahead of the Allied armies in order to liberate French deportees from the camps. So many agents were killed to no effect that the project was suspended – though not before one agent had made a quite wonderful haul at Niederdorf: among the detainees he found the former (and future) Socialist premier Léon Blum and his wife, the former Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg, a son of the Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy, Mgr Piguet, Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma and Prince Frederick of Prussia, the entire Greek General Staff, a nephew of Molotov and a cousin of Churchill. This strange ensemble dined together in the camp that night (with champagne). Blum, though fresh out of Buchenwald, wanted, above all, to know about the latest French election results.
For a while the BCRA was mainly preoccupied with wartime sequels. Under the urgings of the Communist Minister of Industry, Ferdinand Porsche was grabbed and set to work at Renault (when the Communists left the Government Porsche was sent back to jail). A director of the Junkers aircraft firm was grabbed from Vienna, where he was staying with an Austrian actress and her little daughter, the future sex symbol Romy Schneider. He was set to work at Dassault and ultimately helped to devise the Mirage. The BCRA also found Klaus Barbie and interrogated him: finding he was already an American agent, they had to let him go. But the man the BCRA really wanted to get was Franco: plans were laid to destabilise his regime and assassinate him – until the British vetoed the idea.
In these early years, the British SIS and the American OSS effectively laid down the parameters within which the French were allowed to operate. Thanks to them, French agents got pulled into the crazy and murderous scheme to place anti-Communist guerrillas in Albania, the Ukraine and Russia. Worse, the French had to be passive partners while a similar operation was mounted by the British and Americans on French soil in 1946-47. Against all the evidence, the two Allied services had somehow convinced themselves that the Communists were plotting revolution in France: so an embryonic guerrilla movement was set afoot, with arms caches scattered throughout France (especially in Brittany, where the SAS and the British controller, Earl Jellicoe, appear to have been particularly active). Money was gathered from the Catholic Church, and ‘safe’ conservative elements recruited – which, of course, frequently meant Vichyites and extreme right-wingers. To their horror and naive surprise, the Allies then discovered that these elements were planning a Vichyite coup – the Blue Plan – which was to commence with the assassination of De Gaulle, the blame thrown onto the Communists, and the Right riding back to power on the inevitable wave of indignation, using the arms caches so helpfully supplied. The French secret service, born of the Resistance, had had to sit by as foreign secret services came close to restoring Vichy. By 1949, under similar pressures, the French were rounding up hundreds of refugee Spanish Republicans as suspected Soviet agents.
By this time the Socialists (SFIO) had taken over the SDECE (as it now was), sweeping most of the Gaullists away and installing loyal SFIO men at every level. One such was the remarkable Léon Kastenbaum, former secretary to the revolutionary socialist leader, Jules Guesde, and later director of the Tour de France. Kastenbaum maintained close relations with all the parties of the Socialist International and not a little ‘dirty money’ got passed on to sometimes quite unlikely clients – the early career of Salvador Allende appears to have been a major beneficiary.
Even by the late Forties, however, the focus of SDECE attention had shifted to the colonies. It was here, especially in Indochina, Black Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, that the SDECE found its true focus and built up formidable networks. Nonetheless, there were a fair number of Clouseau-like disasters. In 1949 it was learnt with horror that the Communist Vietminh radio was broadcasting verbatim the secret report of the French chief of staff on the Indochina situation within weeks of its being written. The trail of leaks traced proved so embarrassing to both the military and the government that the only solution seemed to be to declassify the report, thereby obviating the necessity of bringing anyone to trial (though the chief of staff was quietly sacked).
Similarly, in 1952 an SDECE agent in Vietnam discovered simultaneously that the Director of the Franco-Chinese Bank was actually the Vietminh’s treasurer, and that there was a secret arms ring supplying the Vietminh’s needs via crooked French merchants and Haiphong port officials. When the agent reported, he was ignored; when he insisted, he was sacked and threatened. He fled to France and revealed all in a book. A commission of inquiry was set up by a scandalised parliament but the Ministry of Finance refused all co-operation with the inquiry. Even so, the commission was able to discover that large sums were flowing through the accounts in question to de Gaulle’s RPF party. Like most French scandals, this one was never properly cleared up. No doubt it afforded Ho Chi Minh considerable amusement.
The beginning of the Algerian war in 1954, and the rise of Nasser, brought the SDECE into collaboration with Israel’s Mossad as well as with MI6. At one point the SDECE and Mossad decided to assassinate the Algerian leader Ben Bella, and explosives were delivered to the French Embassy in Cairo by agents operating (presumably with British cognizance) out of Cyprus. At the same time Franco-British plans were afoot to assassinate Nasser. But Nasser acted too quickly, nationalising the Suez Canal: war ensued and diplomatic relations were broken off. It was not until 1963 that relations were restored and the SDECE was able to retrieve its explosives from the Embassy building in Cairo. Meanwhile the traditionally bad relations between the French and British services had not been improved by the discovery by Service 7 (the SDECE’s section specialising in the opening of diplomatic mail) that Egyptian agents in Britain were opening all French diplomatic mail. No doubt the question of how Nasser always managed to be one step ahead was further discussed in the light of this discovery.
Meanwhile, thanks largely to the remarkable Jean Violet – an international lawyer with strong Swiss and Catholic connections and a close friend of Antoine Pinay – the SDECE had become heavily involved in the Vatican’s own holy war against Communism. Embroiled with the OSS (later the CIA) during the war, in the immediate post-war period the Vatican had three separate institutes training agents for missions behind the Iron Curtain. At the Papal Russian College, the Russicum, for example, ‘missionaries’ were trained in Russian language and history, hand-to-hand combat, fire-arms, and various chemical and machine-based intelligence techniques, before being parachuted behind the lines. The SDECE, through Violet, had close links with the Vatican’s services (and the support of a good number of cardinals in the know) and was able to use these connections for a variety of purposes: thus the Vatican delegation at the UN moved to divert Afro-Asian pressure over Algeria, and Church circles in Switzerland helped to secure the first foreign sales of the Mirage fighter. The trouble was that the French weren’t alone: when the French lost a helicopter order in Lebanon to the American Bell Company, they angrily pointed out that the Papal Nuncio in Beirut was on the Bell payroll.
While the Vatican seems to have been happily promiscuous in its links, the Swiss were to get fed up with the way the SDECE used them as a sort of off-shore dirty-tricks facility, penetrating the Red Cross and the Government itself. Sometimes the French just had bad luck: when they decided to poison the Camerounian nationalist Félix Moumié in Geneva, the idea was to slip him a slow-working poison so that he would be back in exile in Guinea before he died, and his death could be blamed on Sekou Touré. The agent slipped Moumié one poisoned drink, but Moumié neglected to drink it. He was slipped another – and then drank both together, dying almost immediately, and scandalously. The Swiss then discovered that their own secret service, the BUPO, had been deeply penetrated by the French, who had a whole network of phone-taps in Switzerland. When a BUPO double agent was arrested, it emerged that René Dubois, the Swiss Procurator-General, was also a French agent, and had furnished the SDECE with hundreds of documents and even expelled Algerian nationalists into France at the command of the SDECE. Hearing that the balloon had gone up, Dubois blew his own brains out. The Swiss were much vexed and, for a while, Switzerland ceased to be such friendly territory for the SDECE.
On coming to power, de Gaulle took a directly personal interest in the SDECE – and asked them what they could tell him about the Russians. He was ‘ulcerated at the banality’ of what followed, for the fact was that the service was far too embroiled in North African affairs to bother much about the USSR. True, the SDECE had combined with the Chinese intelligence service to frustrate a CIA coup against Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia in 1958, but this was more to do with neo-colonial instinct than, as de Gaulle saw it, a more commendable wish to face up to the great powers. De Gaulle preached the notion that France should have ‘a great intelligence service – like the British’. Nonetheless, though he placed his own men in the SDECE, he seems to have remained largely preoccupied with arranging coups and counter-coups in Black Africa, through the services of Jacques Foccart. (Foccart had a twenty-minute audience with de Gaulle every day – no mere cabinet minister ever dreamt of such access.) Michel Debré, de Gaulle’s prime minister, played an equally active part in running the SDECE. For all Foccart’s notoriety, the fact is that de Gaulle and Debré – like not a few politicians before and since – found the world of intelligence and secret coups de main too fascinating to leave alone. Great as Foccart’s power was, he was also, in some sense, a fall-guy: de Gaulle and Debré’s responsibility for the ‘dirty tricks’ of the period was quite equal to his.
Inevitably, North Africa continued to be of dominating importance, but the situation was now heavily complicated by de Gaulle’s bitter resentment at the almost neo-colonial nature of the Anglo-American relationship with France during the war and over the immediate post-war period – and his determination that this should never recur. The result was a fierce if undeclared war between the CIA and SDECE throughout the Third World. The CIA, furious at the way the French had tipped Sihanouk off about their impending coup, reciprocated in 1959 (together with the West German BND) by tipping Bourguiba off about the extensive ‘Magenta’ network through which the French had sought to maintain control in Tunisia ever since independence. Not only had the French placed agents in the Red Cross throughout the Middle East but they were actually listening in to Bourguiba’s private telephone. The Tunisian secret service pounced. A key French agent ‘fell’ from the fourth floor of the building where they were interrogating him; the whole network was rolled up; and French agents scattered in confusion and panic. One of those who fled was Armand Belvisi. Joining the OAS, he blew up the left-wing Maspero bookshop in Paris and then organised the 1961 assassination attempt on de Gaulle at Pont-sur-Seine. Belvisi was the real-life ‘Jackal’.
The OAS could clearly count on the sympathies of some SDECE agents, so de Gaulle purged the organisation and then employed it pitilessly against the OAS. In 1966, however, came the Ben Barka affair, with the Moroccan nationalist leader kidnapped in Paris in broad daylight, never to be seen again. De Gaulle was livid, for it seemed clear that SDECE agents had been involved. Even de Gaulle, it was now clear, had failed to master the piscine (SDECE headquarters are next to a swimming-pool). The General blamed Pompidou – for whereas Debré had enjoyed playing spies, Pompidou, his successor as prime minister, felt the revulsion of the true Enarque for the poorly-educated tough-guys, bagmen and barbouzes of the SDECE. Although the SDECE was the responsibility of his office, Pompidou wanted to know as little as possible about it all. Realising that the SDECE mice could give trouble even to a watchful cat, de Gaulle removed the SDECE from the premier’s charge and handed it over to the Defence Ministry. Pompidou had been badly burnt, and, on becoming President, appointed the formidable Alexandre de Marenches as his SDECE chief with firm instructions to take the organisation in hand – and clear it out of ‘anti-American’ ultra-Gaullists. Under de Marenches, the SDECE strengthened its already powerful position in the Middle East, to the point where it alone knew in advance of the precise date of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war – information which it carefully avoided passing on to the Israelis. The close relations with the intelligence services of South Africa, Japan, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Denmark, begun under de Gaulle, continued, so that some agents became a little uncomfortable about the reactionary company they were keeping. With Franco still in power in Spain, the Colonels in Greece and BOSS in the hands of Vorster and Van Den Berg (both of whom had been imprisoned for Nazi sympathies during the war), almost half their contacts seemed to be fascists.
Under Giscard, this trend continued, especially after his top-secret ‘Safari Club’ was formed, linking the SDECE to the Egyptian, Moroccan and Saudi Arabian services, as also to the Shah’s SAVAK, in a great crusade against left-wing regimes in Africa. But, as often happens, the greatest problems arose with friendly regimes, particularly those of Tombalbaye in Chad and Bokassa in the Central African ‘Empire’. Tombalbaye owed his downfall to his confiding in two Parisian prostitutes. The SDECE maintains close links with the luxury brothels for which Paris is famous and not a few of the girls are on the payroll, for their clients include many visiting politicians and diplomats. While visiting one of these houses in early 1975, Tombalbaye let slip that he was planning a great coup in the gold market. The SDECE were much interested, and told the girls that they wanted to know where on earth the permanently bankrupt state of Chad was going to find the money for this. The answer, it emerged, was that Tombalbaye was on the point of selling off his country’s oil and gas exploration rights to American oil companies. This was clearly out of order and a few months later the SDECE arranged a mutiny in Chad in which Tombalbaye was killed.
Bokassa became an embarrassment largely because of Giscard’s close relations with him and his penchant for big-game hunting in Chad. Bokassa’s Amin-like lunacies could be tolerated, but when he started massacring schoolchildren Giscard’s own image began to suffer by association. In 1979, after a second massacre of schoolchildren, it was decided that Bokassa had to go – but Bokassa then let it be known that, if threatened, he would release documents concerning the lavish gifts he had made to French politicians, including Giscard. In the subsequent SDECE-organised coup a special team of paratroopers were sent in to cart off the Chad archives wholesale to Paris. But, France being France, SDECE agents grumbled that they were being used in the private service of an individual and incriminating papers were allowed to leak out.
The coming to power of the Left in 1981 represented a crisis in two senses. The SDECE feared the worst and there was a great deal of burning of documents relating to its spying activities on French political parties and trade unions. On the other hand, the Common Program signed by the Socialists and Communists in 1972 had committed them to the simple abolition of the SDECE. Appalled, a number of SDECE officials had made contact in the mid-Seventies with the Socialists’ Defence spokesman, Charles Hernu. Hernu became a strong advocate of the service (as he was of all the other military services), and prevailed on his old friend Mitterrand to come along to a series of regular meetings with SDECE officials, from which emerged a plan for a ‘reformed’ service. In 1981 Mitterrand carefully omitted the abolition pledge from his Presidential platform and even tried, after the election, to persuade de Marenches to stay on – without success.
Like de Gaulle before him, Mitterrand was appalled to find that the SDECE’s intelligence about the Eastern bloc was abysmal to non-existent and ordered a sweeping re-orientation of effort in that direction. The service was to be re-formed into the DGSE and strictly forbidden to operate inside France (as the SDECE had been – though that had never stopped it). There was to be a sweeping purge of ‘unhealthy elements’; the service’s office in South Africa was to be shut down; and, not least, the DGSE was to be computerised – a full twenty years and more after the CIA and MI6.
All of which sounded promising – but problems soon arose. The purge of ‘unhealthy elements’ was, inevitably, incomplete. Mitterrand’s replacement for Foccart (as intelligence specialist for African affairs attached directly to the Elysée) was the shadowy Guy Penne – and he, like the new DGSE boss, Pierre Marion, Hernu himself, and a number of the other top military and intelligence officials, were all exceptionally devoted Freemasons. Hernu was anyway a soft touch for anything military and had no need of this extra Masonic loyalty to those whose boss he was supposed to be. When Mitterrand became discontented with Marion because of his utter failure over terrorism, and, perhaps even more, because of the long and boring lectures he was prone to inflict on the President, Hernu tried desperately to save his fellow Mason – though in vain. Meanwhile the DGSE had slipped back into its old ways, collaborating with the Moroccans and South Africans in support of UNITA in Angola, and, after Régis Debray’s trip to Afghanistan, with the CIA in support of the Afghan guerrillas.
Against this background it is difficult to feel too surprised by the Greenpeace affair. The main facts are well enough known – of the books under review Dyson is by far the surer, better-written guide – and they suggest that little has really changed. The DGSE and its predecessors have never, after all, had principled objections to committing acts of violence in other people’s countries. Once again, the Minister of Defence seemed to be under the control of the DGSE instead of the other way round. The ludicrous incompetence and braggadocio of Dominique Prieur, Alain Mafart (both of whom are still in a New Zealand jail) and the other French agents suggests that the era of the barbouze is far from over. Once again the service contained a sufficient cave of opponents of the Government to ensure that some highly embarrassing facts leaked out. But once again the collective hush-up has been good enough to leave many key questions unanswered.
One of these is what role, if any, the British played in the affair. Clearly, the suggestion in the ill-fated Tricot Report that the French SD DGSE might have been the helpless victim of a British frame-up is nonsense. And it also seems possible that the decision to buy the dinghy used in the expedition against the Rainbow Warrior in London was an attempt to lead a false trail back to Britain. Thereafter, one is less sure. The DGSE has always hated being unfavourably compared to MI6 and relations between the two services have long been such that either would be far happier striking a deal with the KGB than with the other. The British have always regarded the DGSE, perhaps not too unfairly, as exemplifying a peculiar combination of national and personal egoism and therefore not to be trusted with any secrets. This distrust, however well merited, was deeply resented by the French even before Gaullism erected such méfiance into a national ideology. In a variety of Third World situations – such as the Biafran war – MI6 found itself in a virtual war with the French service.
This history has left both services with an almost overpowering wish to tweak the other’s tail. Shortly after the Brighton bomb attempt on Mrs Thatcher agents accompanying Mitterrand on a trip to the UK smuggled explosives in with them in order to jeer at the laxness of British security. The explosives were found and a DGSE agent expelled. The fact that MI5 had been so distrustful of the French as to check for explosives, let alone the decision to make the expulsion so humiliatingly public, greatly wounded French amour propre – and left the British feeling, once again, that the French were impossible. Then, according to Shears and Gidley, a disaffected Gaullist DGSE agent leaked advance notice of the Greenpeace plan to a Western agent in Paris. As a result, the matter was brought up at the weekly UKUSA meeting (involving the US, UK, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand intelligence services) in Whitehall a whole two months before the fateful attack on the Rainbow Warrior. According to Shears and Gidley, the news failed, for essentially bureaucratic reasons, to reach the New Zealand Police. This may or may not be true. Either way, no doubt MI6 enjoyed the discomfiture of the French and the French, knowing they were being laughed at, hated it.
As a consequence of the Greenpeace affair, the DGSE now has its fourth different director since 1981 and yet another purge – no doubt, once again, incomplete – has been taking place. It seems certain that the new Chirac government will want to make yet more changes, putting in its own men, probably including yet another new director, and will then want to purge the Mitterrandistes. But with a Socialist President still in office and quite capable of winning the Presidential election in 1988, the situation will remain fluid.
In the end, though, the DGSE’s best protection is a national public opinion which finds it normal that their government should display a ruthless egoism in the furthering of their interests abroad, that it should have a ‘dirty tricks’ department to assist in that, and that the exposure or punishment of such activities by indignant foreigners is an unforgivable wound to the national amour propre. During the recent election campaign, the Front National leader, Le Pen, offered a place on his FN list to Dominique Prieur. From her Auckland cell she politely declined: but the offer reflected the French mood. Prieur and Mafart are now seen as martyrs, as political prisoners for France in a foreign land, and Hernu, who sent them on their mission, has just achieved a major electoral triumph as his reward. He is undeniably popular and more than one Le Pen voter can be heard voicing admiration for this Socialist. New Zealand meat imports to France have hit a damaging but invisible brick wall and their wool imports are being examined bale by bale before being allowed in: all this to force New Zealand to act ‘properly’ by breaking its own laws and letting Prieur and Mafart go. Mere elections will not change this.
Indeed, as soon as the new parliament met in April a fresh hue and cry over the Greenpeace affair broke out, with Le Pen demanding the creation of ‘a parliamentary inter-party group for the liberation of Prieur and Mafart’ and Chirac’s new Defence Minister asserting that he had seen the Greenpeace dossier and could only say that such missions were ‘quite routinely’ discussed with the President. Chirac himself has not forgotten that when he served as Giscard’s prime minister in 1974-76 Giscard had had bugs planted in his premier’s office. A grand sweep against bugs planted by Mitterrand’s agents has been carried out in all the ministries, including Chirac’s own office; and the head of the internal security service, the DST, has already been replaced by Chirac’s own men. Even more tellingly, not only Maurice Robert but the legendary Foccart himself have been recalled to service. Plus ça change ...