So they capped the leaking oil well in the end. What about the other one? Not so much.
Back before the summer break, we’d just had the eruption of the “microparties”, and Nicolas Sarkozy had discovered that it was suddenly imperative to lock up gypsies. Everyone knew very well that the scandal would take the summer off, getting out of Paris to the sea as if it was itself a character in the story. And now, it’s back. There’s been a certain amount of fallout about the Roma, by the way; this week’s leak reveals that Brice Hortefeux’s original circular to all prefects did indeed mention them by name as an ethnic group, which isn’t meant to be something that the Republic believes in. In fact, that’s precisely what Immigration Minister Eric Besson has been saying in public – so he’s been left to protest that he didn’t get the e-mail.
This is, however, now a side issue, one with the passing summer, even though the European Commission is officially displeased. As August came to an end, a few new tarballs began to wash up on the beaches. Eric Woerth turned out to have intervened to get Patrice de Maistre, Liliane Bettencourt’s financial adviser and his wife’s employer, a LÃ©gion d’Honneur. He’d initially denied this. Then, Le Canard EnchainÃ© ran a slightly gnomic story mentioning that one David SÃ©nat, an official on Justice Minister MichÃ©le Alliot-Marie’s staff, had been forced to resign.
The significance of this has just become more obvious than it perhaps was.
Le Monde opened this week by announcing on the front page that the newspaper was about to bring criminal charges alleging that persons unknown had been spying on communications between one of its reporters and a source. Communications between journalists and their sources are legally privileged in France under a measure introduced by Nicolas Sarkozy. The source, it turns out, is none other than David SÃ©nat, and in practice, the persons unknown can only have been agents of the state.
Wham! It’s a gusher!
The UMP, through its general secretary Xavier Bertrand, responded immediately:
Pourquoi un journal comme Le Monde se permet d’accuser sans preuve, pourquoi une telle agressivitÃ© du journal Le Monde?
He also blamed the Socialists and the Communists and claimed there was no proof of anything in the story. This may not have been the best decision ever, as within the day, the Director General of the National Police confirmed in an interview with the same newspaper that the DCRI – Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, the reorganised counter-intelligence agency – had indeed carried out an investigation into leaks to the press in which they had monitored SÃ©nat’s office phone. To sum up: Le Monde alleged that the DCRI had been ordered to find out who was communicating with the press, had “examined” SÃ©nat’s phone, had demanded communications data from a mobile operator, and had identified SÃ©nat. Bertrand denied all this.
The DGPN Director then confirmed that the DCRI had been ordered to find out who was communicating with the press, had examined the phone, had demanded data from the operator, and had identified SÃ©nat. Xavier Bertrand would therefore appear to be in a certain amount of trouble.
The only difference in their accounts is that the DGPN Director denies that they intercepted SÃ©nat’s phone calls, only that they retrieved the call-detail records showing who he had been telephoning, when, and for how long (and also possibly from where and under which billing codes). He seems to be relying on this distinction to claim that this exercise was legal. Le Monde‘s sources, whose PGP keys are presumably getting a workout, claim that they also obtained geolocation data.
Keen and agile minds will recall that this is precisely the argument the US National Security Agency asserted in the case of STELLAR WIND, its mammoth and illegal Bush-era surveillance operation which also relied on the analysis of CDRs rather than on the interception of calls. It is a telecomms industry truth that the real business is all about signalling and billing and operations support – telephony itself is a relatively small part of the machine. This is never more true than in surveillance cases.
It does not seem to be the strongest argument ever that journalistic sources are protected as to the content of their communications but not as to the fact of being a source, but that’s a matter for the courts. The police have also claimed that they ran the idea by the national commission for the supervision of surveillance, which unfortunately denies this as well, and it seems to be confirmed that the leaks in question were ones about the Woerth-Bettencourt affair.
Who is David SÃ©nat, anyway? A judge by training, he’s been working for MAM for years, at the ministries of Defence, the Interior, and now Justice, and also in her capacity as head of the RPR in its shadow existence as part of the UMP.
MAM considered running for president in 2007, during the period when it appeared that the traditional Gaullist wing of politics and the circle around Jacques Chirac might stand a spoiler candidate to derail the Sarkozy campaign. Not surprisingly, she’s considered much more of a conservative conservative than Sarko, and a potential future presidential candidate. Even her microparty seems designed to contrast with either Sarko’s Rolex-and-yacht look or the IT-director professionalism of someone like Francois Fillon – it’s called Le ChÃªne, The Oak. Feel the Burkean traditions on that. So the fact that…someone…called the spooks on her office implies a certain tension, to say the least.
Meanwhile, the “someone”? Who he? Well, the President did have the DCRI investigate the source of rumours about his wife. So he’s got form for making use of the intelligence services personally. She’s in the news as well, by the way:
..avoids charity work, held up filming on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and had three former lovers as houseguests when Nicolas Sarkozy first visited her Mediterranean villa.
Who was it who said that the cavalry lent tone to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl?
Anyway, it’s hard to overstate and understate the importance of this story. Imagine if the Bush administration had been spying on the New York Times‘s phone calls to, say, Valerie Plame – not perhaps the biggest leap of fantasy ever undertaken – and the Times both detected this somehow, and called the FBI to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, under a source-protection law introduced by the same administration. On the other hand, the weirder any political scandal gets, the greater the pressure to find some sort of amicable resolution. (See the quote above.) The system, after all, must preserve itself. But the exit strategy from here is very far from obvious.