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Help From France Key In Covert Operations

The steady, daily flow of encrypted messages increased. "We saw a quantitative and qualitative difference in the degree of detail in the information," said Alejandro Wolff, the second-in-charge at the U.S. Embassy here, whose portfolio includes fighting terrorism.

One CIA veteran with knowledge of the U.S.-French intelligence work estimates that the French have detained about 60 suspects since the end of 2001, some with the help of the CIA. "They do as much for us as the British and in some ways more -- if you ask them," said a recently retired senior intelligence official who worked closely with France and other European countries.

France was also an early and willing collaborator in other parts of the world, allowing the CIA to fly its top-secret, armed Predator drone, still controversial inside the Pentagon, from France's air base in the former French colony of Djibouti. Its mission was to kill al Qaeda figures on a classified CIA list of "high-value targets." On Nov. 3, 2002, CIA officers operating remote controls from the air base took their first shot, killing Abu Ali al-Harithi, the mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole, and six others, including Ahmed Hijazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, in a Yemeni desert.

The broader cooperation between the United States and France plays to the strengths of each side, according to current and former French and U.S. officials. The CIA brings money from its classified and ever-growing "foreign liaison" account -- it has paid to transport some of France's suspects from abroad into Paris for legal imprisonment -- and its global eavesdropping capabilities and worldwide intelligence service ties. France brings its harsh laws, surveillance of radical Muslim groups and their networks in Arab states, and its intelligence links to its former colonies.

"There's an easy exchange of information," said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of France's domestic CIA, the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, who declined to comment on specifics of the relationship. "The cooperation between my service and the American service is candid, loyal and certainly effective."

France's willingness to share its dossiers on terrorists has helped the United States make some of its most significant convictions, including those of Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped at the Canadian border on his way to attempt to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, and Zacarias Moussaoui, a Moroccan who once lived in France and is the only person in the United States to have pleaded guilty in the Sept. 11 hijacking plot.

Tension Over Iraq

In the run-up to the Iraq war, the White House drew the battle lines between countries that were tough on terrorists -- the administration included Iraq in the mix -- and those that were not. France's government believed U.N. inspections had successfully contained Saddam Hussein's development of weapons programs, and Bruguiere saw no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. At the Defense Department, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, many cast France's opposition to war as evidence it was a slacker when it came to fighting terrorism.

French fries became "freedom fries" on Air Force One and in congressional cafeterias. Rumsfeld prohibited general officers from telephoning their French counterparts, grounded U.S. planes at the Paris Air Show and disinvited the French from Red Flag, a major U.S. military exercise in which they had participated for decades.

Three months into the dispute, the State Department and the CIA made a case for France, citing its intelligence cooperation. Bush eventually told Rumsfeld to desist, according to two former State Department officials. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote a memo saying that punishing the French was not U.S. policy. A. Elizabeth Jones, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, kept it on top of her desk. "I frequently needed to be able to pull it out and quote it to my Pentagon colleagues," Jones said.

But Rumsfeld persisted a year later, excluding the French Air Force from the Red Flag exercise in 2004.

Rumsfeld's symbolic jabs baffled some officials inside the Bush administration. "Most things the secretary of defense did I could understand, even if I disagreed with him," said Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Powell. "On this one, it was totally irrational, even dumb."

The intelligence services tried to insulate themselves from the public fray.


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