The Three Least Surprising Things U.S. Spies Learned About France

One NSA intelligence summary included information reported by the New York Times a week earlier.


Though the U.S. government aggressively classifies the reports generated by its intelligence agencies, the information they contain is often less than revelatory. Nowhere is this more clear than in the intelligence summaries of U.S. surveillance on senior French officials released by WikiLeaks late Tuesday.

The revelations that the NSA targeted a cell phone line associated with three French presidents have caused a scandal in France, but the substance of the reporting released by the transparency group doesn’t provide all that much more insight than what one would glean from open source materials — i.e., a close reading of the newspaper. While it’s impossible to assess the full gains from aggressive U.S. surveillance from this limited sample, the reports released by WikiLeaks are bound to raise questions about whether the payoff from tapping the French president’s phone is worth the crisis in French-U.S. relations.

Here are three particularly unsurprising revelations:

U.S. Spying Reveals France Upset About U.S. Spying

In 2010, the NSA intercepted communications between the then-French ambassador in Washington, Pierre Vimont, and a diplomatic advisor in Paris, Jean-David Levitte, previewing issues that then-President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to raise in a meeting with President Barack Obama. “Vimont conveyed that the French president will express his frustration that Washington has backed away from its proposed bilateral intelligence cooperation agreement, and Sarkozy intends to continue to push for closure,” the NSA summary reads. “As Vimont and Levitte understand it, the main sticking point is the U.S. desire to continue spying on France.”

If it isn’t obvious, this piece of intelligence deals with a negotiation that the United States is itself involved in. That is, the United States was at the time involved in intelligence cooperation talks with France, negotiations in which the United States refused to pledge to stop spying on France. Is it possible U.S. negotiators were unaware of the French discontent about that position? Obviously not. The only pieces of “news” that this summary contains is that Sarkozy planned to raise the issue, allowing Obama to perhaps better prepare for his summit and not be blindsided by his French counterpart.

But with U.S. officials engaged in intelligence cooperation talks, how could Obama not in some way expect Sarkozy to raise the issue?

France Upset About German Insistence On Austerity

Another WikiLeaks document reveals that President Francois Hollande in June of 2012 directed his then-prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, to perform an end-run around Merkel by setting up meetings with Germany’s Social Democrats, the opposition party. According to the NSA’s analysis, this maneuver came amid concern in Paris that Merkel was overly focused on imposing austerity measures on Greece’s struggling economy.

It’s hard to come up with a less insightful observation about the state of French-German relations. When Hollande was elected in 2012, it was with a vow to end austerity, a policy championed by Berlin. Hollande has of course not succeeded in delivering on that promise, and the back and forth between Berlin and Paris in recent years about the direction of EU budget requirements has been one of the internecine conflicts that have define European politics in recent years.

Now, that fact that Hollande directed his lieutenant to perform an end-run around Merkel is certainly interesting, but it wasn’t news. A week before the NSA circulated its summary, the New York Times reported that the French news media had been filled reports about how Ayrault had been dispatched at an earlier date — during the campaign, in fact — to meet with German Social Democrats.

Nicolas Sarkozy Thinks Nicolas Sarkozy Is Really Important

In 2008, as the global financial crisis began, the NSA had this to say about Sarkozy’s conception of his own role in solving the debacle: “He … declared that he is the only one, given France’s EU Presidency, who can step into the breach at this time. The President blamed many of the current economic problems on mistakes made by the U.S. Government, but believes that Washington is now heeding some of his advice.”

There you have it: a French leader mocked for being megalomaniacal going ahead and being megalomaniacal.


Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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