Monday, September 8, 2003

PARIS — A media ruckus has erupted in France over claims that a government minister was paid as a contact by a CIA spy before being persuaded by the French secret service to pass false information to the Americans.

“Carnets Intimes de la DST,” a book on the French secret service to be published this week, says Henri Plagnol, now secretary of state for civil service reform, passed information to the United States in the 1990s when Washington was investigating France’s position in world trade talks.

Mr. Plagnol, at the time an academic and part-time adviser to the French prime minister, acknowledged meeting an American woman later identified as a spy, but denied that he passed any secrets, insisting that he merely gave her the benefit of his cultural expertise.

“During our lunches we spoke about the situation in the Balkans, agricultural disputes between the U.S. and France, the future European currency and French-German relations. I could hardly believe that any of it would interest the CIA.”

The book, however, said he was recruited as a contact by the CIA before being turned into a double agent by the French counterespionage agency Direction de Surveillance Territoire (DST).

While the book’s authors, investigative journalists Frederic Ploquin and Eric Merlen, say that the minister’s “integrity was never in any doubt,” the book has led to renewed questioning of Mr. Plagnol’s role in the decade-old affair, much of which has been well-known for many years.

The incident arose in the 1990s when Mr. Plagnol, then a lecturer at the Sciences-Po academy, was appointed an adviser to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

An American agent, named as Mary-Ann Baumgartner, working under the cover of a U.S.-European trade foundation, twice paid Mr. Plagnol the equivalent of $800 in cash after discussions over lunch.

The United States was trying to gather inside information on France’s hard-line position on the French “cultural exception” during the trade talks, held under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). France was opposing a U.S. proposal to include films, music and entertainment products in agreed trade quotas.

The book said the DST got wind of the meetings and approached Mr. Plagnol to warn him. When he asked what to do, he was told: “Continue to give information to the Americans — but from now we will fill in the questionnaires they give you.”

Mr. Plagnol fed the CIA misinformation for more than six months until the trade talks ended. Afterward, the DST informed the CIA that it was aware of America’s spying activities, and in 1995 expelled five suspected American agents from France.

The book claims the Americans also tried to recruit an academic adviser of Alain Carignon, who was communications minister, and an operator at the central Paris telephone exchange.

According to excerpts of the book published in the magazine Marianne last week, Mr. Plagnol said: “It’s very difficult in today’s world to draw a line between information likely to interest a foreign intelligence service and information which is totally banal.”

He said he had received 5,000 francs each time he met the American, but did not reveal how many meetings they had.

The affair was investigated by a French parliamentary committee, which found no reason to censure Mr. Plagnol. His version of events has been confirmed by Eric Denece of the French Center for Intelligence Studies, who said the incident has been resurrected “for anti-French reasons.”

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