The Complex

The U.S. Has Been Spying on France Since Before the NSA Existed

On Monday, the news broke that the National Security Agency has been actively intercepting French telephone calls and email traffic -- collecting over 70 million French calls in a single month, according to Le Monde.

Turns out this is only the latest surveillance operation in a long, long history of America spying on France. A newly declassified intelligence document reveals that the NSA and its antecedents have been intercepting French communications and breaking French codes and ciphers for more than 70 years.

Monday's Le Monde report may have generated enormous controversy in France, leading the French foreign minister to call in the U.S. ambassador and read him the riot act. But it's hardly a new development. American eavesdroppers began listening on France during World War II. They continued doing so during the Cold War. The NSA even spied on France during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A 1947 top-secret code-word NSA document, titled "The General Cryptanalytic Problems," reveals that in April 1941, eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a small U.S. Army code-breaking unit, headed by French linguist Herrick F. Bearce, began trying to solve the diplomatic codes and ciphers of the Vichy French regime headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, which had actively collaborated with Nazi Germany since the fall of France in 1940. A few months earlier, in January 1941, U.S. Army and Navy listening posts had begun intercepting Vichy diplomatic radio traffic between France and its colonies in North and West Africa, Martinique, Madagascar, Indochina, French Guiana, Djibouti, and St. Pierre et Miquelon off the Canadian coast.

Success quickly followed, indicating that the French codes and ciphers were not particularly secure. The report shows that Bearce's cryptanalysts broke their first Vichy French code, designated FBT, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in mid-December 1941. The size of Bearce's section grew by leaps and bounds as his cryptanalysts, with considerable help from their counterparts in Britain and Canada, solved several dozen Vichy encryption systems with increasing ease. The Army continued to read all of the Vichy French codes and ciphers being used until Pétain's regime collapsed following the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. Within a matter of weeks, Vichy communications traffic disappeared from the airwaves except for occasional cables to the sole French colony controlled by Vichy in French Indochina (in what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

After Pétain's Vichy government collapsed, in April 1943 the U.S. Army code breakers turned their attention to the diplomatic codes and ciphers then being used by America's nominal ally, Gen. Charles de Gaulle's Free French government in exile, which was based in London but maintained embassies in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The report shows that in October 1943, the U.S. Army's French code-breaking specialists, then headed by Maj. William F. Edgerton, solved the first of de Gaulle's most important diplomatic cipher systems, designated FMD. In the months that followed, a half dozen other Free French diplomatic ciphers were solved.

With the solutions of these systems, decrypted French diplomatic traffic became the single most important source of intelligence information being produced by the U.S. Army's code-breaking unit after Germany and Japan. By the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, the U.S. Army's code breakers had broken or were working on the solution to 60 French diplomatic or military code and cipher systems, including nearly all of the high-level encryption systems used by de Gaulle and his top ministers to communicate with French diplomats and generals around the world.

The amount of intelligence information produced from decrypted French diplomatic traffic was enormous and incredibly valuable. For example, the French FMT diplomatic code, which the U.S. Army broke in February 1945, proved to be an intelligence bonanza for the United States since the messages encrypted in the system contained all of the high-level diplomatic traffic between Paris and the French delegation at an April 1945 conference in San Francisco that led to the establishment of the United Nations. In other words, the State Department officials at the San Francisco conference knew everything about the French negotiating positions even before the conference began.

But that is not the extent of the surprises contained in the newly declassified report. Buried all the way at the back of the document is a nine-page chapter titled simply "Assistance From Espionage," which describes in some detail how the FBI and the predecessor to the CIA, then known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), stole countless foreign code books and cipher materials in order to help the Army's code breakers at their work.

It turns out that much of the success enjoyed by the Army's code breakers against the French codes and ciphers during World War II was because FBI and OSS burglars repeatedly broke into French embassies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere around the world to steal French cryptographic materials. These "black-bag jobs" proved to be enormously useful in allowing the Army to break French codes and ciphers. The report states (p. 302) that "The French Section has been the recipient of more compromised [stolen] material than any other language group [within the Army code-breaking organization]," with the document showing that FBI and OSS burglars surreptitiously copied at least nine French codes and ciphers between 1941 and 1945.

But this is only the beginning of a story that has yet to be told. It might surprise people to learn that the NSA and its partners in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have never stopped intercepting French diplomatic and military communications, or trying to break French codes and ciphers, since the day Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. The NSA's intercept operators monitored French military communications in Indochina in the 1950s, as well as French military and diplomatic traffic during the Algerian insurgency in the 1960s. Much of what the U.S. intelligence community knew about the Israeli nuclear weapons program in the late 1950s and early 1960s came from intercepted French communications. And when the French government led the fight in the United Nations against the U.S. government's plans to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the NSA was listening then as well.

France may be a friend and ally of the United States, but that means very little in the U.S. intelligence community, where spying on America's friends is as much a fact of life as spying on America's enemies. As senior U.S. intelligence officials are fond of saying, "We have no friends, only targets."

Matthew M. Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency.

DocsPt1 by Noah Shachtman

DocsPt2 by Noah Shachtman

AFP/Getty Images

The Complex

The Mysterious Disappearance of @NatSecWonk and Why We'll Remember Him or Her

Update 10/23/13: @NatSecWonk has been revealed to be a White House staffer on the verge of a leading job at the Pentagon. He has now been fired for his tweets, and is under investigation for possible security breaches. 

@NatSecWonk, the indomitably -- and, in some circles, infamously -- snarky Twitter voice on all things national security, has disappeared from the Twitterverse.

The eponymously named @NatSecWonk handle -- the mask for an anonymous individual who challenged the Twitterati with his or her views about policy, operations, and politics -- was abandoned within the last several days. Searches came up empty starting late last week: "Sorry, we couldn't retrieve user," came the response from TweetDeck. There was no reason given for the demise of NatSecWonk, who sniped at government officials and reporters -- and even complained about typos in think-tank event notices. Some might say the demise was premature. Others were happy to see him or her go.

One official, who insisted on anonymity if he could be described as "NatSecFlak" said NatSecWonk would not be missed. This official described NatSecWonk as one might talk about an abusive parent who had finally met a sorry end.

"NatSecWonk was an acerbic Twitter pundit that relished taking anonymous shots at senior leaders who are doing their very best for this country," NatSecFlak told Foreign Policy in an email. "The rants seemed pathological and personal. I hope whoever was behind the feed will get better soon. Their hate, rebranded as 'snark,' will not be missed."

NatSecWonk described him/herself as someone who "unapologetically says what everyone else only thinks. A keen observer of the foreign policy and national security scene. I'm abrasive and bring the snark." Like a sniper in his hide, NatSecWonk delivered blows from his or her darkened perch. Anyone in the media, government, or think-tank world was fair game. But within the Beltway, NatSecWonk was considered a valuable source of information. This summer, for example, the Atlantic's Steve Clemons wrote that he called the White House about President Barack Obama's approach to the G-20 summit based on a NatSecWonk tweet. And if NatSecWonk liked what he or she saw, it was considered high praise.

But it was the snark for which NatSecWonk was known. Proud of the fact that s/he wrote only what others were thinking but wouldn't say, he or she enjoyed every opportunity to point out a mistake in a story, a mark missed, or a display of what to him or her was sheer idiocy. "That Obama only called Kerry/Hagel AFTER he made decision with his WH aides on going to Hill underscores how all foreign policy is WH-based," NatSecWonk tweeted after Obama opted to ask Congress for authorization for military force in Syria.

Other tweets were more personal -- and brutal. "Geez, can't Doug Frantz stay in a job longer than two years at a time?" NatSecWonk tweeted after Frantz, a former journalist-turned-Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer-turned-journalist accepted yet a new job at the State Department. After an op-ed by White House strategic communications director Ben Rhodes ran in USA Today, NatSecWonk did a drive-by on Rhodes: "For today's USA Today op-ed, Tony Blinken wasn't available? Bill Burns? Jim Miller? All far better choices than @rhodes44." And another: "I love how @richardhaass talks a big game when he accomplished zilch as Colin Powell's feckless and overwhelmed Policy Planning chief." And then, summing up staffing issues within Obama's second term: "Growing problem for the Administration -- too many 1st term holdovers not getting the hint that it's time to move on and get the fuck out."

Other times s/he could be downright nasty. After former high-level officials at the State Department and Pentagon created Beacon Global Strategies, a consulting group, and hired Michael Allen, the former staff director for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, NatSecWonk posted: "Yo bitches, I called this back in April. Give credit where credit is due, but I missed blonde bimbo J. Michael Allen."

And NatSecWonk seemed to disdain the self-promotional culture that is today's journalism, berating Glenn Thrush at Politico at one point for posting his stories on social media. Another time he or she smacked the New Republic's Noam Scheiber: "Enough with the RTs of praise!" to which Scheiber, apparently shamed, replied: "I deserve that."

But no irony, no spelling mistake, no incorrect military or diplomacy reference went unnoticed.

The social media writer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote sheepishly after being called out for what appeared to be a typo: "@NatSecWonk And to think we were deliberating btwn "peek at" vs. "peek of". We noticed just after sending. Thx for keeping us on our toes," the social media guru at CSIS RTed. And another Tweet, after an event at Brookings: "Anyone else notice the irony of @BrookingsInst holding a roundtable this weekend on Global Poverty in Aspen, CO? Good grief."

But NatSecWonk seemed more than just an observer of foreign affairs and national security policy in Washington. After the Pentagon's No. 2, Ash Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, announced he was leaving, speculation quickly leapt to whether Michèle Flournoy, the Pentagon's former policy chief, would replace Carter come Dec. 4, when he leaves. But NatSecWonk didn't like that rumor and hinted at the insidery-ness that was his or her signature. "Everyone, just stop with the stupid speculation on Flournoy or even worse, a Senator, for Carter's job. So ill-informed."

After the furloughs from the government shutdown began Oct. 1 and someone noted the high number of federal workers drinking on 14th Street in Washington, @NatSecWonk RTed: "Are there droves of overweight men in short sleeved shirts?"

But he or she could clearly touch a nerve. FP's own David Rothkopf replied to a snarky tweet thusly: "Oy vey. It's late at night (for me) and I'm tweeting in the back seat of a car. Cut me some slack."

At one point, the Daily Beast's Eli Lake, sounding frustrated with @NatSecWonk's anonymous swipes, tweeted simply: "@NatSecWonk these tweets would be funnier if you used your own name."

Indeed armchair tweeters occasionally thought out loud about who was behind the handle, which indicated it was someone with institutional knowledge of the State Department but with a solid grounding in Defense Department affairs. Or was it the other way around?

"Only thing I'd note is that it always seemed pretty clear it wasn't someone at DOD -- they didn't use Pentagon acronyms or jargon," one defense official told FP.

But now @NatSecWonk is gone. And s/he make take the secret of the Wonk's identity to the digital grave -- unless of course he or she sees something in a story about him or her that makes him or her rise from that digital grave. Perhaps it's just a Halloween prank.

Tim Denison