From Five to Six Eyes? France plays for high stake in seeking closer intelligence cooperation with the United States

Artur Gruszczak

ZBN Commentary

No. 5 (23) / 2017

 

18 December 2017

© 2017 Uniwersytet Jagielloński & Artur Gruszczak

 

A well-informed French commercial portal Intelligence Online announced that France sought to enhance cooperation with the United States in the area of intelligence gathering and sharing.  On the basis of the so-called SPINS agreements concluded by the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his American counterpart Ashton Carter, the US and France are determined to improve their intelligence capabilities and increase the quality and scope of exchange of intercepted communications.

Access to US intelligence assets, classified information exchange and intelligence sharing will also give France an opportunity to approach the closest US allies in the field of intelligence, already united in the so-called Five Eyes. According to Intelligence Online, one can already dub this cooperation "Five Eyes+FR". Does French accession to the informal Western intelligence community look plausible against the background of earlier fruitless efforts and limited forms of collaboration? This commentary gives an insight into a complex relationship between France and the United States in the context of intelligence cooperation.

 

French intelligence – a valuable asset for the US

Despite bitter experiences of US-French relations in the area of military security and defence in the second half of the 20th century, the rise of global terrorism and advent of transnational terrorist networks posed a common challenge and threat to security interests of both powers. Al Qaeda’s spectacular attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on 11 September 2001 was seen by the French authorities as a revival of islamist extermism in its most violent terrorist form, which had been experienced by the French state and society in the mid-1990s. Radical salafist „jihadist” groups were presumably present in France and had connections with al Qaeda. That was why the French government was keen on enhancing intelligence cooperation with the US.

In May 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States and the French foreign intelligence agency Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) launched a secret operation code-named “Camolin”[1]. In February 2003 a top-secret informal network called „Alliance Base“ established its headquarters in Paris. Directed by the DGSE but largely funded by the CIA, the network included intelligence officers from the US, France, Germany, the UK, Canada and Australia. They held regular operational meetings, backed up by a secure communications system, in order to analyze the transnational movement of terrorist suspects and develop actions to catch or spy on them. France was chosen the “head of conspiracy” due to “unique political frameworks which permit a freedom of action that is not possible elsewhere in Europe. Political oversight of the French intelligence and security services is minimal.” [2]

The best known result of that cooperation was the apprehension of  Christian Ganczarski, aka Abu Ibrahim, a Polish-born German convert to Islam involved in planning terrorist actions, including the 9/11 attack and, most of all, the explosion in April 2002 at the La Ghriba synagogue in Djerba.[3] He had been arrested in Paris in June 2003 and, following long criminal proceedings, sentenced in February 2009 to 18 years in prison.

Despite many successes in counterterrorism, the Alliance Base suffered from serious drawbacks because of limitations to access, transfer, processing and distribution of highly classified data, especially after the US introduced in 2007 an innovative web-based platform restricted to the US intelligence community and provided selected information to certain categories of stakeholders, mainly its Five Eyes partners. The quality and scope of the French intelligence input into global communication surveillance and interception conducted by Five Eyes encouraged the US National Security Agency (NSA) to take into consideration a full-fledged engagement of France’s DGSE and subsequent renaming of this informal structure „Six Eyes”.[4] However, such a plan failed because of CIA’s veto to the French demand of a bilateral no-spy agreement with the US.  In late 2011 a protocol code-named LUSTRE on the transmission of electronic data was signed between NSA and DGSE. The Snowden affair shed a new light on the scope of US-French cooperation. According to leaked documents passed to The Wall Street JournalNSA intercepted 70.3 million telephone calls and text messages in France over a 30-day period in late 2012 and early 2013.

The French swing

Despite heavy public criticism of the French government for assisting Washington in its global surveillance programme, cooperation in the area of intelligence did not cease for several reasons. Firstly,  France has played an active military role in a global coalition against the Islamic State formed by the United States in September 2014. Secondly, another global coalition, that against terrorism established in the aftermath of 9/11, became increasingly engaged in countering new sources of terrorism and violent radicalism. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, Al  Qaeda underwent important transformation. Its spin-offs became mortally dangerous not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in the African regions of Maghreb and Sahel, underminig traditional strategic economic and political interests of France. Active engagement of French forces in fighting various terrorist and radical armed groups in such countries as Mali, Chad, the Central African Republic or Niger won US support in the form of airlift capabilities, air-to-air refueling and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) support. Thirdly, following deadly terrorist attack in Paris on 13 November 2015, the Obama administration declared its readiness to streamline the sharing of intelligence and operational military information with French authorities in order to transmit relevant information and intelligence more quickly. The French domestic intelligence agency,  General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), in December 2016 after months of tough negotiations bought from a US company Palantir (which was crucial to localize Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011) a dedicated software to massively intercept, gather and process communication data to detect potential terrorist activities.

In June 2016 France and the United States adopted so-called SPINS agreements on the reinforcement of information sharing between the US and French intelligence services, mostly in the military arena. In November 2016 Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signed two documents concerning development of military cooperation between both countries. The first document was the Joint Statement of Intent – a declaration highlighting the importance of mutually beneficial cooperation in the face of similar security challenges that must be confronted together in the spirit of solidarity. Ashton and Le Drian also signed a new military space cooperation agreement building on the space situational awareness agreement concluded between the French Ministry of Defense  and US Strategic Command in January 2014 providing for a better information sharing on space objects. Although no details were revealed with regard to operational aspects of US-French collaboration, one can assume that the set of accords concluded in the years 2012-2016 in the area of military cooperation, space situational awareness, criminal justice and counterterrorism enables a relatively wide transfer of data and intelligence for the purpose of a better strategic awareness and situational intelligence.

French and American: Cousins Be?

The rapproachment between the US and France in the area of security and defence can be interpreted as a sign of mutual interest in reinforcing  proactive approach to major security threats and making a better use of available sensitive information and intelligence. France is perceived as a valuable asset by the US intelligence community, having considerable diplomatic and military impact on the Middle East affairs, especially on the war in Syria, as well as good contacts with the Iranian government. Moreover, French engagement in the combating of radical islamist and jihadist movements and groups in Africa has been applauded by the US administration. In addition, French surveillance and communications interception capacities built on stations located in different parts of the world (Saint-Barthélemy in the Caribben, French Guyana, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Réunion in the Indian Ocean, New Caledonia) show considerable potential for effective intelligence building for the purpose of anticipation, prevention and combating of the most serious threats to national security of  the US and its allies. Good ‘bromantic’ relations between  presidents Trump and Macron demonstrated during Trump’s stay in Paris in July 2017 and Macron’s visit in New York in September 2017 can enhance bilateral intelligence and defence cooperation although disagreements over climate change may cool down these cordial relations.

Undoubtedly, France under Macron has played an increasingly active role in the area of security and defence not only in Europe but also in the global arena. The presumed alliance with the exclusive Five Eyes intelligence partnership marks an important step on the road to restore France’s status as a global power.

 

Photo credit: Getty Images at https://www.thoughtco.com/overview-of-us-relations-with-france-3310264

 


[1] More on the operation Camolin in: A. Gruszczak, P. Rakowski, “The external dimension of EU intelligence cooperation: In search of Euro-Atlantic synergies” Internal Security, 2012, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 19-20.

[2] R. J. Aldrich US–European Intelligence Co-operation on Counter-Terrorism: Low Politics and Compulsion, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2009, 11 (1), pp. 130-31.

[3] E. Vermaat, Homegrown terrorism in Germany: The case of Christian Ganczarski, Militant Islam Monitor, 8 October 2007, http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/3204, accessed September 19, 2008.

[4] F. Tréguer, Intelligence Reform and the Snowden Paradox: The Case of France, Media and Communication, 2017, vol. 5, no. 1, p. 3.