Baiting the French
George W. Bush may have intoned "Vive la France" to a reporter from Le Figaro and other foreign journalists just before he took off for his dismissively quick drop-in at the G-8 meeting in Évian--but it's unlikely that will be taken as a signal by his cohorts to cease peddling anti-French stories to journalists with a skepticism deficit.
A month after Colin Powell, in April, solemnly affirmed that France would be "punished" for its opposition to Bush's war, the New York Times reported that "a midlevel meeting in the White House was called to discuss ways to do so." Just by happenstance, of course, that meeting coincided with a marked ratcheting-up of nasty media stories accusing Jacques Chirac's government of being in bed with Saddam Hussein.
In an unprecedented May 15 letter to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, France's US Ambassador, denounced a "disinformation campaign aimed at sullying France's image and misleading the public." Levitte cited and refuted eight stories he called "false," all of which "rely on information from 'anonymous administration officials.'" Examples: The New York Times published a story saying high-precision switches used in nukes had been sold by France to Iraq; it turned out the sale by a private company of the switches, which were dual-use and had been requested as medical equipment, was barred by the French government when it figured out the deception. Newsweek published a blind item suggesting French Roland 2 missiles made in 2002 had been found in Iraq; it turned out that no Roland 2s were manufactured after 1993, and that France had sold no weaponry to Iraq since 1990.
But no story proved as incendiary as a May 6 report by Bill Gertz in the ultraconservative, Moonie-owned Washington Times--based on "anonymous intelligence sources"--alleging that France had provided passports to "an unknown number" of Saddam's henchmen to help them escape to Europe as the Baath regime collapsed. The frogbaiting frothers on Fox News and other nets railed about this no-names report for weeks; it became a staple of right-wing talk-radio's virulently anti-French spewing and fodder for late-night TV comics. Dennis Miller, chez Jay Leno, launched into a five-minute riff using the passport story for a broadside against the French, "who never take baths." About the only TV talking head who came to France's defense was Bill Press, who said on CNBC that the passport story and similar tales "are coming out of the same little intelligence cell at the Pentagon that told us that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and that there were tons and tons of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
The passport story sparked a call for an investigation by House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner--to which the Department of Homeland Security responded two weeks later that according to US intelligence, there was "no indication that France supplied passports to Iraqis." The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung reported May 15 that the White House, the State Department and the CIA all said they were "aware of no such intelligence information." And the story was categorically denounced as false by Dominique de Villepin, France's foreign minister.
But that didn't stop the Pentagon's leakers, who, speaking "on the condition of anonymity," fed the Washington Times a May 24 story saying that "a U.S. military intelligence team" in Iraq had "uncovered" a dozen blank French passports--where and when was never specified. In this story, Gertz went to great lengths to suggest that the passports could not have been stolen, because the "French Embassy was protected by armed guards and barbed wire...after the fall of Baghdad." (France has no formal embassy in Iraq, only an "interest section." However, a French spokesman in Washington says passports were burgled from a prefecture in France some months ago; the culprits remain unidentified.)
When I asked Gertz about his story, which was written from Washington, he admitted that no one he'd talked to had actually seen the "uncovered" blank passports, and that he was relying entirely on a Pentagon-leaked "field report," which he hadn't seen either. Not one of the hundreds of foreign journalists on the ground in Iraq has confirmed the Moonie paper's claim. If there are any passports, and if they're real and not forgeries, their serial numbers should make them easy to trace. Yet so far, the Administration has not responded to France's request, in the wake of the Washington Times story, for a look at them. Which makes Bush's declarations to the French press about how he "appreciates" the close cooperation between US and French intelligence services rather empty.
Now Chirac, France's president, is a notorious liar and crook. Last year, while voters renewed his immunity from probable indictment by re-electing him, his puppet character on the popular TV show Les Guignols was baptized Supermenteur (Superliar), a name that stuck. Yet it's hard to imagine what could have motivated Chirac's government to help senior Baathist thugs escape under French protection. Even before the passport story, the US boycott campaigns against French products were already of major concern to corporate France, Chirac's fervent supporters. And Chirac was being criticized by other elements of his conservative coalition for having gone too far in his confrontation with Washington. So why would Chirac chance making the situation worse? On its face, the story is illogical.
It's hard to prove a negative, so I asked some of Chirac's most ardent French critics what they thought of his alleged collusion with the Baghdad dictatorship; if they can't find the passport story, it probably isn't there. "For years France--under both left and right governments--was silent on Saddam's ethnic cleansing and human rights violations and had a bad reputation for it, which was deserved," says Alain Frachon, deputy editor of Le Monde, the leading daily, noted for its antipathy to Chirac. But, he said, in the past ten years France's involvement with Iraq has "continually diminished. Last year, for example, there was only $600 million in French trade with Iraq--that's small change, really." As for the passport story, "I don't believe it," Frachon said. "When Saddam's son Uday secretly sought French treatment after he was hit by thirty bullets in an assassination attempt, we knew about it right away. But we have no indication" the passport story is true.
Claude Angeli, dean of French investigative journalists and veteran editor of the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné (which has broken more Chirac scandals than the rest of the press combined), says the fact that de Villepin--Chirac's chief of staff before he became foreign minister--personally stepped up to deny the passport story tells us a lot. De Villepin, after years in Chirac's shadow, has a new-found public popularity as France's spokesman against the war and "now sees himself as a future prime minister or president," Angeli told me. De Villepin "would never have denied [the passport story] if it happened, because it would be too risky," not just for Chirac but for his own political future.
Jean Guisnel authoritatively covers military and intelligence matters for the center-right newsweekly Le Point. On the passport story, Guisnel is categorical: "My military and intelligence sources all tell me it's absolutely not true."
In his May 25 Washington Post column, that paper's ombudsman, Michael Getler, cited the French-baiting episode in his critique of major stories based on anonymous sources and politicized intelligence, concluding that "reporters aren't probing hard enough against the defenses of an administration with an effective, disciplined, and restrictive attitude toward information control." In other words, most of the US press is falling down in exposing the White House use of the Big Lie technique--or, worse, is a willing partner in it.
While Bush, when asked in an interview with France3 TV if he'd forgive France for its antiwar stance, casually responded "Sure," he was being disingenuous. As CNN White House correspondent John King put it during the Évian summit, "Bush's aides say he'll never forget." The Washington Times, favorite paper of the White House, promises another installment on the passport story "soon."