Baiting the French. (Comment)

Article excerpt

George W. Bush may have intoned "Vive la France" to a reporter from Le Figaro and other foreign journalists just before he took off for his dismissively quick drop-in at the G-8 meeting in Evian--but it's unlikely that will be taken as a signal by his cohorts to cease peddling anti-French stories to journalists with a skepticism deficit.

A month after Colin Powell, in April, solemnly affirmed that France would be "punished" for its opposition to Bush's war, the New York Times reported that "a midlevel meeting in the White House was called to discuss ways to do so." Just by happenstance, of course, that meeting coincided with a marked ratcheting-up of nasty media stories accusing Jacques Chirac's government of being in bed with Saddam Hussein.

In an unprecedented May 15 letter to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, France's US Ambassador, denounced a "disinformation campaign aimed at sullying France's image and misleading the public." Levitte cited and refuted eight stories he called "false," all of which "rely on information from 'anonymous administration officials.'" Examples: The New York Times published a story saying high-precision switches used in nukes had been sold by France to Iraq; it turned out the sale by a private company of the switches, which were dual-use and had been requested as medical equipment, was barred by the French government when it figured out the deception. Newsweek published a blind item suggesting French Roland 2 missiles made in 2002 had been found in Iraq; it turned out that no Roland 2s were manufactured after 1993, and that France had sold no weaponry to Iraq since 1990.

But no story proved as incendiary as a May 6 report by Bill Gertz in the ultraconservative, Moonie-owned Washington Times--based on "anonymous intelligence sources"--alleging that France had provided passports to "an unknown number" of Saddam's henchmen to help them escape to Europe as the Baath regime collapsed. The frogbaiting frothers on Fox News and other nets railed about this no-names report for weeks; it became a staple of right-wing talk-radio's virulently anti-French spewing and fodder for late-night TV comics. Dennis Miller, chez Jay Leno, launched into a five-minute riff using the passport story for a broadside against the French, "who never take baths." About the only TV talking head who came to France's defense was Bill Press, who said on CNBC that the passport story and similar tales "are coming out of the same little intelligence cell at the Pentagon that told us that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and that there were tons and tons of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

The passport story sparked a call for an investigation by House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner--to which the Department of Homeland Security responded two weeks later that according to US intelligence, there was "no indication that France supplied passports to Iraqis." The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung reported May 15 that the White House, the State Department and the CIA all said they were "aware of no such intelligence information." And the story was categorically denounced as false by Dominique de Villepin, France's foreign minister.

But that didn't stop the Pentagon's leakers, who, speaking "on the condition of anonymity," fed the Washington Times a May 24 story saying that "a U.S. military intelligence team" in Iraq had "uncovered" a dozen blank French passports--where and when was never specified. In this story, Gertz went to great lengths to suggest that the passports could not have been stolen, because the "French Embassy was protected by armed guards and barbed wire...after the fall of Baghdad." (France has no formal embassy in Iraq, only an "interest section." However, a French spokesman in Washington says passports were burgled from a prefecture in France some months ago; the culprits remain unidentified.)

When I asked Gertz about his story, which was written from Washington, he admitted that no one he'd talked to had actually seen the "uncovered" blank passports, and that he was relying entirely on a Pentagon-leaked "field report," which he hadn't seen either. …