- Associated Press - Sunday, January 2, 2011

PARIS | There’s no French James Bond, but a new push may set the stage for one.

France’s secretive international spy agency, the DGSE, is recruiting hundreds of people and getting a budget boost, despite frugal times, to better fend off threats like terrorism and nuclear proliferation. France’s answer to the CIA is buffing its image as well, with its first-ever spokesman and a new website.

The move follows hostage-takings abroad, bomb scares at the Eiffel Tower and fallout from WikiLeaks’ publication of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. France is also set to ban face-covering Islamic veils, which has roiled Muslim extremists around the world and drawn threats from al Qaeda.

The DGSE changes have been long in coming, part of France’s efforts to beef up its network of intelligence operatives as called for in a top-to-bottom security review completed in 2008.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government is sticking to the review’s blueprint even as U.S. and British intelligence agencies are facing cutbacks, and despite the economic crisis that has pinched state pockets across Europe.

France’s draft 2011 budget would give the DGSE a 13 percent funding increase — just a year after France hit a record-high 7.7 percent budget deficit. The agency is adding 500 staff jobs over the next five years, and the prime minister recently inaugurated a new national Intelligence Academy.

It’s a big boost for an agency that’s little known, despite having agents in hot spots around the world.

“These days, remaining in the shadows means not existing. But we do exist, we do have a purpose,” the new spokesman at the DGSE, Nicolas Wuest-Famose, told the Associated Press.

The DGSE fits snugly in the Western intelligence universe, often as an ally of the CIA or Britain’s MI6. The French agency warned of al Qaeda plane hijackings months before the Sept. 11 attacks and helped free hostages in Iraq and other countries.

DGSE agents along with British and U.S. counterparts exposed Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Qom. President Obama publicly revealed their discovery last year.

But there’s also a sense of envy here toward American and British agents, and cooperation hasn’t always been smooth. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have illustrated that. One early 2008 cable quoted a French diplomatic official as saying DGSE officers were “disappointed” that their American counterparts had shared less information in secret with the French than was later made public.

The investment in France’s spies boils down to a bet that intelligence-gathering matters as much, if not more, than military might in this era of terrorism, pirate attacks, politically minded hostage-takings and cybercrime.

“Even the most impartial observer has to recognize that institutionally, budgetarily and in terms of communication, a major evolution is under way” at the DGSE, said Sebastien Laurent, a historian at the University of Bordeaux who co-founded an intelligence research center.

The agency’s new website says it’s looking for software and telecoms experts; computer security and network engineers; “crypto-mathematicians”; as well as linguists, accountants, surveillance agents and warehouse workers.

“We’re also recruiting case officers: not James Bonds, but young men and women ready to serve their country — sometimes in extreme conditions,” said Mr. Wuest-Famose.

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