At the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff condemned the surveillance of electronic communications around the globe by the U.S. National Security Agency as a breach of individual rights and national sovereignty. Her comments echo the heated reaction in Germany, where the spying program was an issue in this month’s elections; in Britain, where the Guardian newspaper broke many of the major stories; and at the European Parliament, which has held a series of hearings on the matter.
One nation, however, has been conspicuous for its almost total silence: France.
The uproar in Paris has been limited to an off-the-cuff remark by President Francois Hollande in July about how spying on partners and allies was “unacceptable.” In late August, the prime minister’s office quietly circulated a memo reminding top officials that they shouldn’t use personal smartphones for official business.
This muted reaction can be chalked up to a mixture of embarrassment, experience and perhaps even a touch of envy.
The French are expressing little surprise or outrage because their government is no slouch at official surveillance, legal or otherwise. There’s a long tradition of Gallic snooping, starting with the word espionage itself, which comes from the medieval French “espier.” Louis XIV famously created a ruthlessly efficient secret police force, and the terror methods developed by some French revolutionaries in the late 18th century were later deliberately copied by the Soviet Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB.
More recently, during President Francois Mitterrand’s first term in the 1980s, the phones of dozens of private citizens, including some well-known journalists and, inexplicably, the actress Carole Bouquet, were tapped; seven officials in Mitterrand’s administration were tried and convicted for the intrusions.
Intelligence officials everywhere are tight-lipped about their activities, but France’s top spooks have dropped occasional clues, especially during and after a revamp of the intelligence agencies’ organization in 2008. The picture that emerges is of a security apparatus equipped with advanced cybersurveillance tools, but which nonetheless sees itself as playing catch-up with the United States and Britain.
A reckoning arrived five years ago with the publication of a “white paper,” a government strategy document on defense and intelligence, which highlighted a gap in France’s technological ability to carry out comprehensive surveillance. While the United States and some other countries had invested heavily in advanced signal intelligence, France’s “services have not benefited on the same scale,” the report said. What was needed was “a qualitative and quantitative leap” that would allow French agencies to maintain a high standard and “be able to dialogue with the few countries who are our principal intelligence partners.”
Early this year, Erard Courbin de Mangoux, the director of the main external intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure, reported to a parliamentary commission that France had caught up.
“We have been able to develop an important capacity to intercept Internet traffic,” Courbin de Mangoux said. “We are also working heavily on imaging.”