December 25, 2003

Paris-LAX Josh Marshall worries that

Paris-LAX

Josh Marshall worries that "choppy political waters" may be impeding Franco-American cooperation on anti-terrorist initiatives. Indeed, as Josh writes, there is a muddied 'fog of war' aspect to the intensive (and often contradictory) media coverage surrounding the cancelled Air France flights that were destined for L.A.

Per this Beeb story, American officials are reportedly unhappy that the information about the cancelled flights became so public.

Josh also links this story suggesting that the French weren't immediately convinced of the need to cancel the flights so that the Americans had to threaten to refuse the flights landing rights.

There is also a very interesting article in Le Monde today. The French currently appear most intent on dispelling the news, reported in some outlets, that al-Qaeda may have actually infiltrated Air France's staff. Such theories are even getting aired in the august pages of the FT.

Here's what Le Monde reports:

"A l'ambassade de France, ą Washington, comme ą la direction des services de police, ą Los Angeles, cette hypothŹse a été démentie. Il a été précisé que les préoccupations américaines concernaient les listes de passagers des vols en question et non les pilotes ou les personnels de cabine. Interrogé sur CNN, Jean-Claude Mallet, secrétaire général de la défense nationale, a déclaré qu'il n'avait "rien de ce genre dans -ses- dossiers".

Translation: "At the French Embassy in Washington, as with the head of police services in L.A., this hypothesis [that Air France staff has been infiltrated by al-Qaeda] has been denied. It was specified that American concerns are about the passenger lists of the flights in question rather than pilots or cabin crew. Interviewed on CNN, Jean-Claude Mallet, secretary-general of national defense, declared that there wasn't "anything of that type in his files."

This comprehensive MSNBC roundup appears to support the French contention that the U.S. was more concerned about al-Qaeda terrorists boarding the flights as passengers rather than as pilots and/or flight crew.

That aspect of the story aside, here's some interesting information that sheds lights on the extent of cooperation as between the French and American authorities:

"Les autorités américaines ont demandé ą Paris de prévoir la présence d'agents armés ą bord de plusieurs vols considérés comme d'éventuelles cibles des terroristes. Les procédures franćaises ne comportent pas ce type de mesure, mais la requźte de Washington a été prise en considération par les services concernés, et une réunion interministérielle a été organisée, mardi, sur ce sujet. A la suite de cette réunion, l'ambassadeur franćais, Jean-David Levitte, a informé Condoleezza Rice, conseillŹre du président George Bush pour la sécurité nationale, que des fonctionnaires armés prendraient place dans ces avions.

Mercredi matin, l'ambassadeur américain ą Paris, Howard Leach, a indiqué aux responsables franćais que son gouvernement préférait l'annulation pure et simple des vols menacés. AprŹs avoir retardé un premier vol, Air France l'a annulé."

Translation:

"The American authorities asked Paris to allow armed agents on board several flights considered eventual terrorist targets. French procedures don't conform to this type of measure, and an inter-ministerial meeting was organized, Tuesday, on this subject. After this meeting, the French Ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, informed Condoleeza Rice...that armed agents could board the planes.

Wednesday morning, the American Ambassador to Paris, Howard Leach, indicated to the responsible French officials that his government would prefer the cancellation, pure and simple, of the threatened flights. After delaying the first flight, Air France eventually cancelled it."

What surprises me about all this is that there appears to have been significant French resistance to the notion of having armed agents board the flights. It's not as if the U.S. has asked to do this routinely. And, particularly given the episode with shoe-bomber Richard Reid (who boarded his Boston-bound flight in Paris), as well as what appears to be very specific intelligence about particular carriers and flights, it's somewhat unfortunate that the French would have dragged their feet on all this.

Especially if there was a sense among some in the French government that the Americans were being too panicky and overreacting to raw intelligence reports. This would seem to evoke the pre-9/11 mentality I've written about previously, among some in Europe, in terms of underestimating the mayhem terror strikes can cause. In turn, this can lead to intelligence services being too sanguine about potential threats.

Regardless, the flights were cancelled pursuant to U.S. Administration request. Overall, ths episode points to continued cooperation on intelligence sharing and security measures as between France and the U.S.

Still, however, some friction appears to be acting as an irritant thus slowing somewhat the decision-making process on what specific anti-terror measures might be required. That needs to be remedied soonest given the current threat environment.

Posted by Gregory at December 25, 2003 03:30 PM
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