Saturday, May 17, 2003

The Department of Homeland Security is investigating whether the French government provided passports to members of Saddam Hussein’s regime fleeing Iraq as French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin demanded yesterday that “lies” published in the U.S. and British press stop.

The department notified Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, that its investigation is ongoing, meeting a deadline the chairman set for a response to his request for such an inquiry.

“They told us they are still investigating the matter” and had not reached any conclusions, said Raj Bharwani, a spokesman for Mr. Sensenbrenner.

Meanwhile, a member of the EU Parliament has asked for an “urgent investigation” into the matter. If the reports are true, “this would constitute an extremely serious development and would further undermine EU-U.S. relations,” Struan Stevenson, the EU parliamentarian, stated in a May 13 letter to Christopher Patten, the Parliament’s commissioner for external relations. French passports are regarded as documents of the European Union.

The United States began investigating reports of French collaboration with fleeing Iraqis after The Washington Times reported May 6 that an unknown number of Iraqis were given passports by French officials in Syria. The report cited U.S. intelligence officials.

The passports allowed the Iraqis to evade detection by U.S. military and intelligence agencies because they were EU travel documents.

Earlier this week, France’s ambassador to the United States accused the Bush administration of starting a disinformation campaign against France.

Mr. de Villepin broadened the charge yesterday, saying the British media, too, had carried disinformation.

“There is, in the American press and in the British press, a great number of articles, information that was without foundation, untruthful,” Mr. de Villepin said in an interview aired on French radio yesterday.

Paris is taking an inventory of press accounts about France, with plans to show that they are not true, he said.

Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States, stated in a letter to Congress and the administration that the U.S. press has made “false accusations” against France. He complained in the letter about what he called the “troubling — indeed unacceptable — nature of this disinformation campaign aimed at sullying France’s image and misleading the public.”

The letter mentioned numerous recent press reports of French collaboration with Saddam’s government, including The Times’ article on passports.

Responding to the French charges, White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday, “There is no such organized effort.”

An administration official said the French government’s anger appears to be based on worries that its sales of French products in the United States, including wine, are being hurt.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he has no knowledge of a campaign against France.

“Certainly there’s no such campaign out of this building,” he said. “I can’t speak for the rest of the government, but I have heard of nothing like that.”

He said officials at the Pentagon have had discussions about whether to scale back official representation at the Paris Air Show.

Earlier intelligence reports indicated that Iraq was able to obtain French military spare parts for its Mirage jets and Gazelle attack helicopters in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Also, intelligence officials said France attempted to conclude an oil deal with Saddam’s government days before U.S. military action began March 19.

France opposed U.S. efforts to oust Saddam. French President Jacques Chirac said March 18 that “Iraq does not today present an immediate threat warranting an immediate war.”

Asked recently whether Iraqis are in France or whether Paris helped officials of Saddam’s regime flee Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters May 9, “I’ve read those reports, but I don’t have anything I can add to them.”

Mr. Sensenbrenner asked the Homeland Security Department in a May 8 letter to investigate reports of the French provision of passports. He stated in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that if the reports are confirmed, the French government should be penalized.

Mr. Sensenbrenner stated in the letter that giving travel documents to Iraqi officials could threaten U.S. national security because French passport holders are part of a visa-waiver program.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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