WASHINGTON --- The government of France is complaining to American officials that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is using the news media to wage what it calls an ugly campaign to destroy the image of France."
Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador in Washington, sent a letter to Bush and to members of Congress yesterday. The letter said the White House failed to discipline administration officials responsible for leaking inaccurate stories to the media. The motive, the letter says, is to disparage France in retaliation for its opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq.
"The Washington Post" reported that the letter includes a two-page list of articles in U.S. media over the past nine months that accuse France of various unsavory contacts with Iraq on the basis of anonymous sources.
The most recent was an article published on 6 May in "The Washington Times," which quoted unnamed intelligence officials as saying the French government had issued French passports to fleeing Iraqi officials in Syria allowing them to travel to Western Europe.
France has vehemently denied all these accounts, and no one in the U.S. government has publicly confirmed them. But on the day of "The Washington Times" story, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the French someday will have to account for "what they did or did not do," as he put it.
Yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked during a Pentagon briefing about France's claims of a U.S. government campaign to ruin its reputation. He replied: "Certainly there's no such campaign out of this building. I can't speak for the rest of government, but I have heard of nothing like that."
It is not uncommon for governments -- or dissenting government officials -- to use the news media for their own purposes. This was evident in Washington during the months preceding the war in Iraq, according to Jane Hall, an assistant professor of communications at American University in Washington.
"I think that, in the walkup to the war in Iraq, there may have been some times when the administration wanted to scare the Iraqis and plans were leaked. I also think there were people in the Pentagon who were opposed to the war plans who were, at least last summer, leaking some things that pretty clearly indicated that these were people opposed to the plans," Hall said.
Hall told RFE/RL that a journalist must be careful when publicizing information provided by a source who insists on anonymity. She said that in her two decades of reporting, she kept in mind something that she was told early in her career. "When I first got into journalism, a friend of mine who was a pretty well-known journalist said, 'Just remember: Whenever somebody tells you something, they're telling you something for a reason.'"
Hall noted that there are times when a story is more than just a collection of facts, but is an indictment of a person, an institution, or even the government of a powerful country -- in this case, France, which also is the United States' oldest ally.
According to Hall, it is important to let the subject of a story comment on it. Just as important, she said, is to obtain independent verification of the claims. This becomes even more important when the subject's reputation is at stake.
But Hall said this is not always possible. She cited the 6 May article in "The Washington Times," written by Bill Gertz, a veteran journalist who has a reputation for accuracy and good contacts among intelligence officials.
Hall said even Gertz may not have enough contacts or other resources to verify such sensitive information. "The rule used to be that you get more than one source," she said. "When you've got something that seems exclusive, you've got to be really careful, I think. It's very hard to check out what a U.S. intelligence official tells you, though, independently. I mean, what are you going to do? You're not going to be able to go to Iraq or Syria yourself. You have to trust your source and try to verify it as best you can."
Stories like the ones that have drawn complaints from the French government tend to be exclusive to a publication or broadcaster, according to Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington.
Feldstein explained that stories such as Gertz's tend to be detailed and contain sensitive information. Therefore their sources usually entrust them only to reporters who have proved to be reliable in representing the nuances correctly.
And then, Feldstein said, there is the chance that the story is wrong -- either due to the faulty information from the source, or misreporting by the journalist. "When you get a story like Bill Gertz's at 'The Washington Times,' where it's only one outlet that has it, usually you have one of two things operating. Either you have a story that's maybe bogus -- and I'm not saying that that's the case in Gertz's situation because he's had some pretty good scoops -- or you have something that other reporters can't match because you're really looking at different factions within the government leaking for the purpose of pushing their specific agenda, and they're probably going to do that with people they really trust," he said.
Ultimately, though, mutual trust is needed to bring such a story to the public. Not only must the reporter trust his sources to give him reliable information, but the sources themselves must trust the reporter to write the article accurately, and never to disclose his source's identity.
Feldstein said the record indicates that Gertz and his sources share that trust. "Gertz obviously is well-connected in the national-security apparatus, he works for a very conservative newspaper, 'The Washington Times,' and probably is more trusted than the average mainstream reporter to not reveal his source."
Feldstein said this mutual trust includes an implicit threat that further ensures reliability: each side knows that if the other breaches the trust, the relationship is ended. If the reporter betrays his source, his journalistic credibility will be badly damaged. If the source betrays the trust, his identity may be revealed. (ends)
A U.S. Slander Campaign Against France?
(Source: Deutsche Welle German radio; issued May 16, 2003)
France has accused the U.S. of waging a campaign to discredit it. The French government has felt obliged to file a formal complaint with Washington.
In Paris the talk is of an anti-France campaign, of lies and false allegations fed into the grapevine by circles in the U.S. government who are determined to discredit France because of its staunch opposition to the war against Iraq. Washington, however, is playing innocent. U.S. Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld claims to know nothing about any such â€œcampaignâ€.
But France, which has been keeping tabs on the accusations hurled across the Atlantic, is fed up. From allegations of organizing French passports for fleeing Iraqis, to rumors of having delivered missile technology to the Iraq powers, what France did next is topic of the month. Having counted eight such stories doing the rounds in American newspapers, the French ambassador to the U.S. decided enough was enough and wrote a letter to Congress and the White House calling for a stop to the falsehoods. What puzzles him most is why the allegations should be attributed to officials, as they are.
White House denial
The U.S. government has responded to the ambassador's consternation with an official shrug of the shoulders. Scott McCallan, a Whitehouse spokesman, said he knows nothing about any of it. He has sworn that the French government position on Iraq has nothing to do with changing "french fries" to "freedom fries." He says the White House stance is to look forward and to how they can work together with France in the future.
But there is no getting away from the fact that tension between the two nations is having some far-reaching consequences. The marble used for grave stones at Arlington Memorial Cemetery will no longer be ordered from France and the U.S. Marines will no longer receive their rations from a French contractor.
When asked about relations with France, Rumsfeld said the U.S. wants to work closely with those countries that want to work with the U.S., "and that logically leads you to countries that are on a certain relationship with us." Paris says that is just another slap in the face, because like neighboring Germany, that relationship has gone sour.
Calling the shots
As Rumsfeld was busy denying the existence of any anti-France campaign, he cited the upcoming air show in Paris, saying: â€œItâ€™s not as if people wonâ€™t be going from the United States, it may be at a certain level, but...â€ It was only later that a Pentagon employee filled in the gaps which Rumsfeld left so conspicuously open, and confessed that this year the U.S. would only be sending half as many aircraft to the show as in the previous year.
When asked if he considered U.S. behavior towards the French as some kind of punishment, the Defense Minister paused for thought before saying: â€œOh gosh, you know, I guess itâ€™s a reality...â€ (ends)
Letter from Jean-David Levitte, Ambassador of France to the US,
to the Congressmen, Administration Officials and Media representatives
(Source: French Embassy in Washington; issued May 15, 2003)
Washington, May 15, 2003
For more than two hundred years, the United States and France have been friends and allies. But for several months, some members of the American media have issued false accusations against France.
The most serious of these accusations share the following characteristics:
-- They spread false information
-- They all rely on information from "anonymous administration officials."
A list of some of these allegations is attached to this letter. I would like to draw your attention to the troublingâ€“indeed, unacceptableâ€“nature of this disinformation campaign aimed at sullying Franceâ€™s image and misleading the public. The methods used by those propagating this disinformation have no place in the relationship between friends and allies, who may disagree on important issues but should not engage in denigration and lies.
Our friendship is a treasure. It must be protected. In this dangerous world, we must continue to work side by side against the scourge of terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and for the promotion of peace and our common values. Terrorism is the most important threat that we have to face today, as the deadly and cowardly attacks in Saudi Arabia have once again proven. We should not let bitterness between two staunch allies distract us from the fight against terrorism. France is determined to continue to work with the United States in a spirit of good will on all these issues.
In transmitting this information to you, I hope to help put an end to these useless polemics. I hope that this information will be useful to you and I remain at your disposal to discuss this issue in greater detail should you wish to do so.
Embassy of France in the United States - May 15, 2003
Attachment to French Ambassadorâ€™s Letter
1. September 1-15, 2002: In its â€œWeek in Reviewâ€ section, The New York Times published an article entitled â€œPsst... Can I Get a Bomb Trigger?â€ alleging that in 1998, France and Germany had supplied Iraq with high-precision switches used in detonating nuclear weapons.
The Embassy issued a denial, which was published the following week in that sectionâ€™s Letters to the Editor column, noting that a French company had indeed received an order for 120 switches, presented as â€œspare partsâ€ for medical equipment but that the French authorities had immediately barred this sale and alerted both Germany and the country that had previously sold the equipment that incorporated the switches.
2. On November 5, 2002, the front page of The Washington Post carried a story entitled â€œFour Nations Thought to Possess Smallpox.â€ According to this article, France, along with Russia, Iraq and North Korea, possesses prohibited human smallpox strains. This â€œinformationâ€ was purportedly given to the Washington Post by an â€œAmerican intelligence source,â€ who mentioned the existence of a â€œreportâ€ on this subject.
At the Embassyâ€™s request, the Post subsequently published a rebuttal from the Embassy Press Office noting that France abides by WHO provisions and by its own national regulations prohibiting the possession of human smallpox strains.
3. On March 7, 2003, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz asserted that two French companies had sold Iraq spare parts for airplanes and helicopters. The article referred to â€œa U.S. intelligence source.â€
On March 8, the two companies named in the story formally denied these allegations, as did the Embassy, which had already given a categorical reply to the question put to it by the reporter. On March 10, the Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson reiterated the two companiesâ€™ denial, adding that the French authorities had never authorized the export or re-export of such spare parts and strictly respected the arms embargo and Security Council resolutions. That denial was published, which did not prevent the Washington Times from regularly referring to this case.
4. On March 13, New York Times columnist William Safire began a series of articles entitled â€œThe French Connectionâ€ in which he claimed that France had permitted the delivery of sensitive equipment to Iraq. According to him, a French intermediary had facilitated Iraqâ€™s acquisition, through Syria, of chemical components for long-range surface-to-surface missiles. Safire asserted in the same article that â€œhe had been toldâ€ that the SociÃ©tÃ© Nationale des Poudres et Explosifs had signed a contract in April 2002 to provide Iraq with five tons of dimethyl hydrazine, a chemical that can be used for missile propulsion.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman denied these allegations on March 14, noting that it had neither delivered nor authorized the delivery of such products, either directly or indirectly. In his interview with CNN/CBS, President Chirac expressed himself most clearly on this subject. Although he no longer mentioned the SNPE after that, Safire nevertheless continued his attacks in two successive columns. Moreover, The New York Times never published the Embassyâ€™s rebuttal to these charges nor took the trouble to answer the letter the French Ambassador personally sent them on this subject.
5. On April 2 on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough accused France of selling Iraq â€œplanes, missiles, armored vehicles, radar equipment and spare parts for Iraqi fighter planes,â€ and of offering to sell nuclear reactors, without mentioning specific dates.
Needless to say, France fully complies with the UN sanctions against Iraq, including a ban of all weapons sales.
6. On April 21, Newsweek reported the â€œpossibleâ€ discovery of Roland 2 missiles by coalition forces in Iraq and implied that they had been manufactured in 2002. A charred Roland 3 missile launcher was also allegedly found.
Once again, the Ministry spokesman had to specify that France had sold no military equipment to Iraq since the summer of 1990 and that it was furthermore impossible for Roland 2s to have been manufactured in 2002, given the fact that they were not manufactured after 1993. This information had in fact been communicated to the author of the article, who made very limited use of it.
7. On May 6, The Washington Times once again attacked our country, indicating that according to an â€œanonymous American intelligence source,â€ France had helped wanted Iraqi leaders to escape to Europe by providing them with French passports.
Although the author of that article did call the Embassy and included our denial in his article, he nevertheless referred to this supposed â€œscandalâ€ three times in the following days. The fact that the Foreign Ministryâ€™s spokesman issued a categorical denial did not dissuade the Washington Times.
8. Recently, as reported again by the Washington Times, other â€œintelligence sourcesâ€ accused France and Russia of seeking to sign oil contracts with Iraq just before the start of the war. A â€œmilitary expertâ€ asked by MSNBC about the coalitionâ€™s failure to discover banned weapons insinuated that â€œweapons could well have been discoveredâ€ and that they â€œcould very well be French or Russian,â€ which would have led the administration not to mention them â€œout of concern for easing tensions.â€