Why the French Expelled Those Five Americans

AT a recent news conference, President Clinton would not discuss the controversy over five Americans that France told to get out because of economic espionage. Actually, had he chosen to, the president could have told a story of one of the CIA's more spectacular successes.

When word was leaked to the Paris newspaper Le Monde about Americans caught spying on a friendly country, the assumption was that Premier Edouard Balladur, whose campaign for president has run into trouble, was trying to distract attention from a wiretap scandal he was part of. That was probably true; but it was not all. A deeper grievance against the American cloak-and-dagger community was that its prying cost France several billion dollars in contracts.

James Woolsey was forced out as CIA director last December in part for being too lenient with officials who blew the investigation of Russian spy Aldrich Ames. But it was also due to a perception in Congress that he failed to articulate a new mission for the CIA after the cold war. I should say that while Mr. Woolsey is a friend with whom I've shared many seminars, I have not talked to him in preparing this column.

Testifying before congressional intelligence committees about new roles for the CIA, Woolsey said economic intelligence was needed to help keep America competitive. When senators expressed concern about favoring one US company over another, Woolsey emphasized that the agency would concentrate on foreign governments and companies to dig out unfair competitive practices.

Woolsey cited a theoretical case: Foreign company X is trying to bribe its way into a contract in the Middle East. The CIA will try to find out about it, enabling the secretary of commerce to tell the head of the country, ``Your minister is on the take,'' and try to get the contract switched to a US bidder. As it turned out, the example was far from theoretical.

Thanks to the French leak, we now know how successful the CIA was in ferreting out corrupt French practices. In January of last year, the French, penetrating a market long considered an American preserve, were ready to sign a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia for warships, missiles, and other military hardware. When the CIA learned of large-scale French bribery to get the contract, President Clinton personally called King Fahd to tell him of it. In the end, Saudi Arabia canceled the French contract and purchased from Boeing and McDonnell Douglas.

This case was repeated with Brazil. The CIA learned of French bribes to Brazilian officials to get a $1.4 billion contract for a radar system covering the Amazon Basin. It even learned the financing terms the French offered. As a result, Brazilian officials broke off negotiations with the French and gave the contract to the Raytheon Corporation.

French counterintelligence went into a crash program to find out how the Americans did it. Sting operations were set up to catch the agents. The French caught Americans paying French officials for information about French selling practices. Ironically, the Americans were using bribery to find out about bribery. That was when the French government decided that the American agents, most of them under diplomatic cover, had overstayed their welcome.

Woolsey told of CIA successes in economic espionage in a report to Congress before resigning. It didn't save his job. Intelligence failures are trumpeted to the world. Successes go largely untold. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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