On Monday, the news broke that the National Security Agency has been actively intercepting French telephone calls and email traffic -- collecting over 70 million French calls in a single month, according to Le Monde.
Turns out this is only the latest surveillance operation in a long, long history of America spying on France. A newly declassified intelligence document reveals that the NSA and its antecedents have been intercepting French communications and breaking French codes and ciphers for more than 70 years.
Monday's Le Monde report may have generated enormous controversy in France, leading the French foreign minister to call in the U.S. ambassador and read him the riot act. But it's hardly a new development. American eavesdroppers began listening on France during World War II. They continued doing so during the Cold War. The NSA even spied on France during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A 1947 top-secret code-word NSA document, titled "The General Cryptanalytic Problems," reveals that in April 1941, eight months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a small U.S. Army code-breaking unit, headed by French linguist Herrick F. Bearce, began trying to solve the diplomatic codes and ciphers of the Vichy French regime headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, which had actively collaborated with Nazi Germany since the fall of France in 1940. A few months earlier, in January 1941, U.S. Army and Navy listening posts had begun intercepting Vichy diplomatic radio traffic between France and its colonies in North and West Africa, Martinique, Madagascar, Indochina, French Guiana, Djibouti, and St. Pierre et Miquelon off the Canadian coast.
Success quickly followed, indicating that the French codes and ciphers were not particularly secure. The report shows that Bearce's cryptanalysts broke their first Vichy French code, designated FBT, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in mid-December 1941. The size of Bearce's section grew by leaps and bounds as his cryptanalysts, with considerable help from their counterparts in Britain and Canada, solved several dozen Vichy encryption systems with increasing ease. The Army continued to read all of the Vichy French codes and ciphers being used until Pétain's regime collapsed following the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. Within a matter of weeks, Vichy communications traffic disappeared from the airwaves except for occasional cables to the sole French colony controlled by Vichy in French Indochina (in what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).
After Pétain's Vichy government collapsed, in April 1943 the U.S. Army code breakers turned their attention to the diplomatic codes and ciphers then being used by America's nominal ally, Gen. Charles de Gaulle's Free French government in exile, which was based in London but maintained embassies in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The report shows that in October 1943, the U.S. Army's French code-breaking specialists, then headed by Maj. William F. Edgerton, solved the first of de Gaulle's most important diplomatic cipher systems, designated FMD. In the months that followed, a half dozen other Free French diplomatic ciphers were solved.
With the solutions of these systems, decrypted French diplomatic traffic became the single most important source of intelligence information being produced by the U.S. Army's code-breaking unit after Germany and Japan. By the time Japan surrendered in August 1945, the U.S. Army's code breakers had broken or were working on the solution to 60 French diplomatic or military code and cipher systems, including nearly all of the high-level encryption systems used by de Gaulle and his top ministers to communicate with French diplomats and generals around the world.
The amount of intelligence information produced from decrypted French diplomatic traffic was enormous and incredibly valuable. For example, the French FMT diplomatic code, which the U.S. Army broke in February 1945, proved to be an intelligence bonanza for the United States since the messages encrypted in the system contained all of the high-level diplomatic traffic between Paris and the French delegation at an April 1945 conference in San Francisco that led to the establishment of the United Nations. In other words, the State Department officials at the San Francisco conference knew everything about the French negotiating positions even before the conference began.
But that is not the extent of the surprises contained in the newly declassified report. Buried all the way at the back of the document is a nine-page chapter titled simply "Assistance From Espionage," which describes in some detail how the FBI and the predecessor to the CIA, then known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), stole countless foreign code books and cipher materials in order to help the Army's code breakers at their work.
It turns out that much of the success enjoyed by the Army's code breakers against the French codes and ciphers during World War II was because FBI and OSS burglars repeatedly broke into French embassies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere around the world to steal French cryptographic materials. These "black-bag jobs" proved to be enormously useful in allowing the Army to break French codes and ciphers. The report states (p. 302) that "The French Section has been the recipient of more compromised [stolen] material than any other language group [within the Army code-breaking organization]," with the document showing that FBI and OSS burglars surreptitiously copied at least nine French codes and ciphers between 1941 and 1945.
But this is only the beginning of a story that has yet to be told. It might surprise people to learn that the NSA and its partners in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have never stopped intercepting French diplomatic and military communications, or trying to break French codes and ciphers, since the day Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. The NSA's intercept operators monitored French military communications in Indochina in the 1950s, as well as French military and diplomatic traffic during the Algerian insurgency in the 1960s. Much of what the U.S. intelligence community knew about the Israeli nuclear weapons program in the late 1950s and early 1960s came from intercepted French communications. And when the French government led the fight in the United Nations against the U.S. government's plans to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the NSA was listening then as well.
France may be a friend and ally of the United States, but that means very little in the U.S. intelligence community, where spying on America's friends is as much a fact of life as spying on America's enemies. As senior U.S. intelligence officials are fond of saying, "We have no friends, only targets."
Matthew M. Aid is the author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror and The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.