France's spy network should have copied the British to avoid recent embarrassments, says former special forces chief
French Special Forces Commander General Christophe Gomart - AFP
France could have avoided a number of embarrassing recent failures with intelligence agents if it had taken a leaf out of the command structure of British military intelligence, according to the country's former chief of special forces.
General Christophe Gomart was the commander of the French special forces COS from 2011 to 2013. Although COS conducts covert missions around the world, its 4,000 agents are kept under tight military control.
However, this does not apply to the Action Service, SA, a secret army of 1,000 agents that carry out counter-terrorism activities, sabotage, kidnapping and murder for the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), the French MI6.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Gen Gomart said it was time to put these agents under the command of the regular special forces, citing the British model of SAS staff serving as the wing of MI6 while under military command stay.
“Right now we have two military units that land on the ground without really knowing that the other is there. In my opinion, that creates useless risks for both of them, ”said Gen Gomart, who was also responsible for French military intelligence from 2011 to 2017.
He argued that they should be merged, save for a reduced number of SA employees who work in "very small groups in completely secret ways."
"I'm not saying that we should copy the British directly, but we can learn a lot from the SAS as it brings these units together and is very effective," he said.
The DGSE was under military command until President Mitterrand placed it in civilian hands in 1988 - AFP
The DGSE was under military command until President Mitterrand placed it in civilian hands in 1988, apparently to punish generals who dared to criticize it publicly shortly before the presidential election.
The agency has been pushed into the spotlight and humiliated in the past few weeks by the successful French spy series The Bureau.
First, two of his retired SA agents were sentenced to eight and twelve years' imprisonment in July for “sharing information with a foreign power, namely China,” following a top-secret trial.
Then, last month, in a bizarre development, two Action Service corporals outside Paris were arrested with guns and knives after neighbors gave police a tip that they were staking out a house.
According to Le Parisien, the couple told police that the target was a 54-year-old therapist who specializes in hypnosis and corporate coaching. "They said they were ordered to kill them with firearms," the newspaper said.
A total of six people were charged with murder, including four people from the DGSE's Saran parachute training center in Loiret.
The DGSE has refused to comment on the men or to defend them publicly.
Gen Gomart said better oversight of SA agents, who tend to "act as if they were alone in the world", could reduce the risk of such unfortunate events in France and abroad.
French Division General Christophe Gomart - AFP
“These are units that are not adequately monitored. In the regular French special forces, inspections are carried out every year by external authorities to check that all rules and standards are being applied, ”he said.
"That's not the case for the SA, which thinks it is above all. Tighter controls would also reduce the unacceptable number of deaths during exercise," he said.
He outlines his criticism in a new book, A Soldier in the Shadows, which the DGSE reportedly infuriated.
In it, he says that Action Service agents botched several overseas operations that were to be turned over to the battle-hardened COS special forces he had previously led.
When asked by the Telegraph about his relationships with his UK counterparts, he said his first contact with them was during a combat survival training course in the UK where he was shocked by their propensity to induce trainees to engage in various exercises " undressing naked ".
But he was impressed when they had to fend for themselves with no money in "hostile territory" of the Midlands and a British colleague produced a five pound note from a condom he had swallowed. "That brightened our day when it bought us scrambled eggs on a farm."
"The British stay ... well, the British," he said, describing relations between special forces as "cordial".
"They are like second cousins with whom there is friction but who remain family, while Americans are more like friends. Relations are excellent, but we talk more to Americans."
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