• French trying to determine which intelligence agency responsible for theft of state secrets
By Richard Walker
Mystery continues to surround the revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the help of a computer virus developed by Israeli intelligence, hacked into computers used by former French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s top staffers before the May 2012 election there.
Though some French officials claimed the CIA alone was to blame, there remains a possibility it could also have been Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, or a joint Mossad-CIA operation.
The CIA was singled out as the culprit by unidentified French government sources, who broke the news of the bugging to one of the country’s leading magazines, L’Express. Interestingly, those sources did not offer a motive for the crime but confirmed the targets were the computers of Sarkozy’s Chief of Staff Xavier Musca and top presidential advisers.
The exact dates when the hard drives of the computers were accessed and material extracted from them are not known. Some French officials nevertheless reckoned it had to be between the two presidential election voting days of April 26 and May 6 when there was a final run-off vote. Sarkozy was subsequently replaced by the Socialist leader Francois Hollande.
While the French government refused to comment on the bugging, staff at the French president’s Elysee Palace leaked details about it, including the fact it was a highly efficient and sophisticated operation that could only have been carried out by a foreign government with advanced cyberwar capabilities.
That was also the conclusion of investigators from ANSSI, the French national information security systems agency. The moment they learned there had been an intrusion and secrets had been stolen, they shut down the entire computer network in the Elysee Palace for days until they isolated the problem. What they found led French intelligence to suspect the CIA because the computers had been compromised by Flame, an Internet worm. It was an upgrade on the Stuxnet virus that the CIA and Mossad used in 2010 to attack, control and ultimately wreck many of the computer systems running Iran’s nuclear industry.
Kapersky Lab, the Internet company that first identified Stuxnet, believes Flame is a much more complex and dangerous cyber weapon. So too does the United Nations International Telecommunications Union. It has since issued warnings to other nations to be on the lookout for Flame.
Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano dismissed allegations the United States was behind the hacking. She said there had never been direct evidence the U.S. government was ever “linked” to the Stuxnet and Flame viruses. She appeared to ignore the fact there was plenty of indirect evidence tying the CIA to the Stuxnet virus.
Some intelligence experts in Europe are now saying privately the Elysee Palace bugging was more likely a Mossad operation although they acknowledge it could also have been jointly run by the CIA and Mossad. Its aim, they believe, was to find out the French government’s long-term Middle East strategy.
Israel has long been troubled by French policy-making. In 2011, for example, France bucked Washington and Tel Aviv by supporting what turned out to be a successful bid by the Palestinian Authority for membership in the UN’s cultural organization. The bigger questions for the Israelis have always been how far France will go in the future to back Palestinian demands for full statehood recognition and whether it will hold the line on Syria and Iran. Hollande announced recently he would support admitting Palestinians to the UN.
Though Sarkozy is now out of the picture, he will be remembered for the exchange between him and Barack Obama at the 2010 G-20 summit. Unaware a microphone had not been turned off, Sarkozy called Netanyahu a liar. He was not the first leader to make that charge. Bill Clinton once described Netanyahu as the most dishonest politician he had ever met.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.