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Covering Up Down Under

September 01, 1985

If New Zealand has gained anything at all from the uproar over the suspected participation of French intelligence agents in the sinking of a nuclear-protest ship in a New Zealand harbor, it is the pleasure of seeing the French government squirm. It is just possible, however, that French democracy is getting something better: more control over the shadowy Action Division of the French secret service.

New Zealand authorities have implicated six French intelligence agents in the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of the anti-nuclear Greenpeace movement, which had hoped to disrupt a French nuclear test at Mururoa atoll in the Polynesian islands. A photographer was killed in the explosion, which occurred in Auckland harbor.

Under heavy pressure from the French press, the government of President Francois Mitterrand appointed Bernard Tricot, an adviser to President Charles de Gaulle 20 years ago, to investigate the charges. His report was a classic whitewash.

Yes, Tricot said, the six men and women arrested or sought by the New Zealanders were French agents. And, yes, they were on a surveillance mission that was related to the Rainbow Warrior. But, no, "at the government level, no decision was taken to damage the Rainbow Warrior." And, anyhow, Tricot found it "unlikely" that the French agents were involved in the sinking of the Greenpeace ship.

Prime Minister David Lange of New Zealand understandably called the report "utterly incredible," and suggested that Tricot had made a fool of himself. He also suggested that the French government apologize and recall its ambassador.

No apology was forthcoming. But Premier Laurent Fabius shows every sign of using the affair to settle scores with the Action Division, or dirty-tricks department, of the General Directorate of External Security. Expressing concern over "apparent shortcomings" in the functioning of the spy service, he has ordered a review of its operations. Speculation is that leading members of the intelligence agency will be transferred or forced into retirement.

The ruling Socialists, it seems, have always looked on the Action Division as a haven for right-wingers who have schemed on previous occasions to embarrass the Mitterrand government. According to some reports, the Socialist government now sees a chance to capitalize on suspicions that the spy service acted without authority in New Zealand and must now be brought under tighter control.

Skeptics inside and outside France will not rush to accept the notion that Mitterrand and his ministers were all innocent of advance knowledge of the Rainbow Warrior affair. But, considering what happened in New Zealand, it's hard to quarrel with the idea of a housecleaning within the French intelligence service.

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