- 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.

Over the past decade, while the United States, Britain and Spain have experienced major terrorist attacks, France has not. Experts point to France’s moves to strengthen its arsenal of counterterrorism laws after waves of attacks in the 1980s and 1990s.

The DGSE’s successes largely go unpublicized, and for good reason, said Alain Chouet, a former 30-year DGSE veteran and its security intelligence chief until he left in 2002.

“If I can convince Mr. bin Laden not to carry out an attack — I never tried with bin Laden, but I tried with others and it worked in the ‘80s — he isn’t going to put out a communique saying that he didn’t because you asked,” said Mr. Chouet. “And what can you say? You can’t say that you were able to prevent something — because nothing happened.”

The Direction Generale de Securite Exterieure, with some 5,000 agents, has its headquarters in a complex in northeast Paris nicknamed “La Piscine” for its proximity to a public swimming pool.

The service took its biggest black eye in New Zealand.

In July 1985, DGSE saboteurs bombed and sank the Greenpeace anti-nuclear ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor before it was to sail to a protest against French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. A Dutch photographer, Fernando Pereira, was killed.

The public-relations damage has festered for years.

In France, the art and importance of spying doesn’t resonate in the public’s imagination. Suave, sly spies rarely feature as heroes in modern movies and books.

“Our intelligence services do not enjoy an image as flattering as some of their foreign counterparts do,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said at the intelligence academy’s inauguration.

“But that’s changing. And to accelerate this change, we need to communicate more — in conditions that must of course be perfectly under control,” he said.

The service’s role is “secret action. Its mission is not to be on center stage,” said Mr. Wuest-Famose. “But the evolution of society must drive us to open up the DGSE.”

In opening its cloak — if slightly — the DGSE is echoing efforts toward openness in recent years by Britain’s MI6, whose chief John Sawers gave a first-ever public address in October, and Spain’s CNI.

France’s intelligence budget boost is unusual, though. Britain’s three major intelligence agencies collectively face a 7.5 percent budget cut over the next five years. In Washington, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein has vowed to slash intelligence budgets.

One of the DGSE’s main roles now is to help find and free French hostages abroad. Two French TV reporters are being held in Afghanistan, five nuclear company workers in Niger are believed to have been taken by al Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate to neighboring Mali, and one of DGSE’s own is being held in Somalia — after a fellow agent escaped last year.

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