"Frenchelon": France's Alleged Global Surveillance Network And its Implications on International Intelligence Cooperation

Kenneth Neil Cukier
Communications Week International
orginally reprinted on http://kai.iks-jena.de/miniwahr/frenchechelon.html


"In Europe, we talk about the four freedoms of the Union -- freedom for the flow of information, of the mobility of people, freedom of goods and freedom of services -- but there is a fifth freedom: Intelligence. Nations want to retain the freedom to spy." -- A European Commission official, October 1998.

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While ECHELON, the United States- and United Kingdom-led global surveillance program gains widespread notoriety, there is evidence that European countries are also carrying out international surveillance activities.

France reportedly has developed its own "Frenchelon" -- a worldwide network of spy satellites and listening stations that systematically eavesdrop on communications in the United States and elsewhere. Monitoring stations are said to exist in French Guiana, in the city of Domme in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, in New Caledonia, and in the United Arab Emirates.

Station DGSE de Domme, Dordogne, l'une des bases d'interceptions HF du renseignement français (Zdnet UK, Duncan Campbell, juillet 2000)
Station DGSE de Domme, Dordogne, l'une des bases d'interceptions HF du renseignement français (Zdnet UK, Duncan Campbell, juillet 2000)

The information gleaned is reportedly used for both political and commercial ends. Additionally, some speculate that the French project may mark the first step in a pan-European effort to counterbalance the U.S.'s global spying capabilities. Germany is said to partially fund France's initiative in return for access to the information it collects.

The French project is said to be run under the Direction GenŽéralŽé de la SŽécuritŽé ExtŽérieure, an organization similar to the U.S.'s Central Intelligence Agency, and that commercial information is sent directly to the presidents of large French companies as well as government officials.

II. French Global Surveillance

The existence of French global surveillance, first published in June 1998 by Jean Guisnel of the French newsweekly Le Point, has not been officially confirmed or denied by the French government. The lack of a denial has led observers to speculate that such a program may exist.

Unlike the ECHELON project -- which has been publicly documented by the U.K.-based human rights organization Omega Foundation in a report for the European Parliament's Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) unit in January 1998 -- there is no official evidence that France or any other European nation practices systematic surveillance of international civilian communications.

However, a French official familiar with France's system stated privately that such a program indeed exists, but at a "vastly smaller scale" than ECHELON. The person claimed that ECHELON intercepts around 3 million messages per minute, while the French system intercepts roughly 2 million messages per month.

France has acknowledged that it does have international surveillance capabilities. FranŽçois Roussely, the chief of staff at the French Ministry of Defense, was quoted in Le Point (20 June 1998), that the system is used for French international military matters, combating terrorism, and preventing the spread of non-conventional weapons. The issues of French intelligence ties with other European nations was not mentioned.

Interception of communications by the DGSE does not fall under the legal constraints imposed by French wiretapping law which requires that tapped individuals are criminal suspects, according to France's Commission Nationale de ContrŽôle des Interceptions de SŽécuritŽé, in its annual report of 1991-2. The goal of surveillance may be broader; as the CNCIS notes: "[C]ertain telephone wiretaps, in particular those practiced by the Direction GenŽéralŽé de la SŽécuritŽé ExtŽérieure, are not directly linked to the objective of preventing penal crimes" (page 105).

According to the Le Point report, France targets the Intelsat and Inmarsat civilian communications satellites. One of the satellites used in the French surveillance project is the country's HŽélios 1-A, in a program called Euracom. However, the satellite is said to have poor technical capacity for interception and re-transmission. As a result, in August 1995 the French reportedly began an experimental initiative called "Cerise" to intercept satellite communications. However, a larger follow-on project named Zenon had to be abandoned on budgetary grounds.

The French monitoring stations are each manned by around 6 officials, Le Point reports. Stations in New Caledonia, and the United Arab Emirates are used to capture satellite transmissions in space, as well as cover Asia and the Middle East. Listening posts in the Caribbean are used to intercept conversations in the United States. The monitoring station in French Guiana is likely used for launching the satellites, since the French space company Ariane has a launch base there.

Although the alleged existence of the French surveillance program has been reported, there is no information concerning the regularity of possible interceptions, specific targets, or the volume of traffic other than in terms of the number of "messages."

III. French Ties with Germany

France's DGSE has reportedly entered into an agreement with Germany's foreign intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) to share the information obtained in return for partial funding of the project.

The financial constraints may have been the reason France has sought to broaden the project with other European allies, noted Joseph Fitchett of The International Herald Tribune in June 1998: "[It] would help explain why the Clinton administration has been unsuccessful, despite considerable efforts over the last three years, in inducing Bonn to shun French military satellites and accept U.S. help to build Germany's capabilities."

Formal cooperation between French and German intelligence agencies for global surveillance by satellite apparently exists, according to one published account, in the Journal Officiel de la RŽépublique FranŽçaise, the government's daily legislative and regulatory record. In a question to the prime minister's office on 18 July 1996 concerning intelligence operations, Nicolas About, a French senator, said: "[W]e congratulate the resources it [the government] has committed under the law covering military operations for the recruitment in this service [of intelligence], and their operational ability with the Franco-German program of satellite observation, the Horus and HŽélios 2." (Journal Officiel, 31 October 1996).

These satellites are used for imagery reconnaissance, and the photographs are shared with intelligence agencies in Germany, Spain and Italy, according to Mr. Guisnel, in his book "Les pires amis du monde." It is not clear whether the satellites can also be used for communications interception.

IV. Europeans Accused of Surveillance

Many sources in Europe and the United States in government and industry say "friendly spying" for both political and economic ends is widespread among Western allies. The European Parliament's STOA report details U.S. surveillance operations, yet the U.S. has also publicly charged other nations with global intelligence gathering, including activities aimed at U.S. citizens and companies.

In its "Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage" in July 1995, the U.S. National Counterintelligence Center (NACIC) identified "foreign governments conducting ... industrial espionage," as a real and major concern, yet the specific countries were only named in the classified version of the report.

"A number of foreign countries pose various levels and types of threats to US economic and technological information. Some [countries] are either longtime allies of the United States or have traditionally been neutral. These countries target US economic and technological information despite their friendly relations with the United States," the report states (section IV.a).

One key method of intelligence gathering is "telecommunications targeting and intercept, and private-sector encryption weaknesses. These activities account for the largest portion of economic and industrial information lost by US corporations," says the NACIC.

The report warns that "government-owned telephone companies" are a traditional source of espionage, targeting "bulk computer data transmission and electronic mail" as well as fax traffic. "Because they are so easily accessed and intercepted, corporate telecommunications -- particularly international telecommunications -- provide a highly vulnerable and lucrative source" of information.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, a number of countries practice economic espionage against U.S. firms, including France, Germany, Israel, China, Russia and South Korea. The revelation, uncharacteristic for the bureau, was made by Edwin Fraumann, a New York-based FBI agent in an academic article in Public Administration Review, published by the American Society for Public Administration in January 1998.

Mr. Fraumann stated that French intelligence agents wiretap U.S. businessmen flying on the state carrier Air France, as well as intercept telephone conversations and fax communications in France. The article also accused Germany of operating a surveillance post outside of Frankfurt that monitors U.S. phone conversations and attempts to penetrate American computer systems.

The head of Germany's intelligence agency, Bernd Schmidbauer, denied the FBI's accusations in an article in The Frankfurter Allgemeine published 14 February 1998. Yet he stated that foreign espionage against German firms was a serious and costly problem.

V. Europe Seeks to Counterbalance U.S. Surveillance

France, as well as the European Parliament, has criticized U.S. global surveillance operations, and shown deep reluctance to cooperate in cross-boarder intelligence operations with the United States fearing that it may entail a loss of privacy for citizens and espionage against European companies.

Numerous French government officials have said that the country decided to liberalized its cryptography policy in January 1999 and encourage the use of encryption partly due to the existence of U.S. interception capabilities.

French Foreign Minister Hubert VŽédrine said in November 1998 that counterbalancing the threat posed by ECHELON is a "preoccupation" for the French government, according to the French daily newspaper Le Monde.

France and the U.S. have long mistrusted each other on intelligence matters, dating from the Cold War period where France forged a "Third Way" policy of rapprochement with the USSR. In the early 1990s, France rejected an initiative by the FBI to develop an international database on terrorists, since the program was U.S.-dominated in its approach, according to a French official.

There have been recent incidents of "friendly spying" that has led to tensions between Europe and the U.S. In December 1995 at least five U.S. Embassy personnel were evicted from France under accusations of being agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The uncharacteristically public incident, during the French presidential election campaign, led a U.S. intelligence official to state (to The Washington Post) that it damaged U.S.-French intelligence cooperation. Separately, a U.S. citizen was evicted from Germany in March 1997 for attempting to bribe an official at Germany's Ministry of Economics.

There are also internal tensions in Europe to alleged European-U.S. surveillance cooperation. Some officials at the European Parliament and the European Commission say they are reluctant to accept an accord among European police agencies for cooperation in interception activities, which some officials and the U.K.-based civil liberties organization Statewatch say was developed with input from the FBI.

Some Commission officials, however, state the FBI was not involved in the drafting of the plan -- the European Council of Minister's "Resolution on the Legal Interception of Telecommunications in the Framework of New Technologies" (ENFOPOL 98 revision 2) -- but that it is possible the FBI participated in an "expert group" concerning the technical requirements for interception (as Statewatch has documented).

It is uncertain whether ENFOPOL 98 is intended only for law enforcement purposes, as some European officials claim, or if the requirements for access to communications could also be used by intelligence agencies, as privacy advocates fear. Yet Council resolutions have no legal standing, and many of these concerns will be aired publicly, for the first time, when the European Parliament issues a formal "opinion" on ENFOPOL 98 rev 2, expected in April 1999.

There have been calls in Europe for European intelligence cooperation. Jacques Baumel wrote in a working document of the West European Union, Europe's military alliance, in 1996 that: "Intelligence was for a longtime an essentially military matter, depending on humans [supplying the] information. Today, it is a means to aid decisions which naturally include military ones, but now to a large degree also involves new threats and confrontations in the economic, political or religious realms."

VI. Trends in European and U.S. Surveillance

To focus attention on possible European and U.S. surveillance cooperation is to miss a vital nuance and significant undercurrent: European governments themselves are wary of U.S. surveillance capabilities. This will make any trans-Atlantic intelligence cooperation more difficult to forge.

The political and economic unity witnessed in 1999 by the creation of a single currency, the euro, may be extended to other areas, such as a joint European approach to surveillance technologies, which France may seek to spearhead.

As a result, rather than the creation of a single global surveillance system by Europe and the U.S., Europe may prefer to establish its own independent project to "compete" with the U.S. Although such an outcome will not make privacy advocates more comfortable that civil liberties will be protected -- by foregoing a single surveillance system for two separate ones -- this possibility nevertheless reflects more accurately the divergent interests influencing policies.

It is apparent that France likely has some form of global surveillance technology, and that it may serve as the start of a wider pan-European initiative for intelligence gathering. This will likely exist outside traditional national laws that protect privacy.

A large motivation for Europe's drive to develop surveillance technology is to counterbalance the U.S.'s alleged capabilities. Europe is also preparing to strengthen its information security, such as with encryption technology, to protect against possible U.S. interception of communications.

Additionally, some factions in European institutions are attempting to thwart accords between European and U.S. police and intelligence agencies, fearing that such a program may lead to civil liberty abuses, specifically by the U.S.

Broadly, the effect of this sentiment, and activity, is that Europe is reluctant to cooperate with the U.S. in intelligence areas because it feels vulnerable to U.S. surveillance. Ironically, it comes alongside a trend towards inter-governmental cooperation on law enforcement matters, such as efforts by the Group of Eight's "Lyon Group" to combat high-tech crime, or the Wassenaar Agreement to control the export of encryption technology.

While these international discussions continue, so too may the surveillance activities, which could be aimed against citizens and companies of allied nations for purposes outside of traditional national security, such as for economic espionage.




Associated Press; "[Germany's spy chief denies economic spying on U.S.]" (Article title varies by publication). 15 February 1998, Dateline: Frankfurt.

Jacques Baumel, "Une politique europŽéen de renseignement." Assemmbly of the West European Union; document 1517; Paris; 13 May 1996; p. 11. (As quoted in Guisnel "pires amis" op cite.)

Commission nationale de contrŽôle des interceptions de sŽécuritŽé, "PremiŽère rapport d'activitŽé, 1991-2." La documentation FranŽçaise; 1993. Paris.

Commission nationale de contrŽôle des interceptions de sŽécuritŽé, "CinqiŽème rapport d'activitŽé, 1996." La documentation FranŽçaise; Spring 1997. Paris.

Commission nationale de contrŽôle des interceptions de sŽécuritŽé, "SixiŽème rapport d'activitŽé, 1997." La documentation FranŽçaise; May 1998. Paris.

Kenneth Neil Cukier, "Information War." Communications Week International; 2 November 1998. London.

Kenneth Neil Cukier, "France heralds fall of its crypto 'Maginot Line'." Communications Week International; 1 February 1999. London.

Joseph Fitchett, "Eavesdropping By the French Is Worldwide, Magazine Says." The International Herald Tribune; 9 June 1998. Paris.

Jean Guisnel, "Espionnage: Les FranŽçais aussi Žécoutent leurs alliŽés." Le Point; 6 June 1998. Paris.

Jean Guisnel, "Les pires amis dans le monde." Editions Stock; February 1999. Paris.

Erich Inciyan, "L'espionnage Žélectronique, prioritŽé de la sŽécuritŽé informatique." Le Monde, 21 Janaury 1999; Paris.

Journal Officiel de la RŽépublique FranŽçaise. (Citiations used in this paper were based on re-published versions in the annual reports of the Commission nationale de contrŽôle des interceptions de sŽécuritŽé, referenced above.)

Jack Nelson, "FBI Warns Companies To Beware of Espionage." The International Herald Tribune (originally published in The Los Angeles Times). 13 January 1998; Paris.

Statewatch report, "European Union and FBI Launch Global Surveillance System." Statewatch; London, 24 February 1997.

U.S. National Counterintelligence Center, "Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage" (Declassified version). July 1995; Washington DC.


The author thanks numerous sources worldwide from governmental and private sectors, who have discussed these themes usually on a non-attributable basis due to the sensitivity of the topic. That said, the author underlines that nearly all of the information contained in this paper comes from material freely available in the public realm, most notably from Mr. Guisnel's reportage.


Kenneth Neil Cukier is a senior editor and Paris correspondent for Communications Week International, covering the technology, economics and public policy of the Internet. His articles on cryptography have been entered into U.S. Congressional testimony and used by a Presidential Commission studying export issues. From 1992 to 1996 he worked at The International Herald Tribune in Paris.

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