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France spooked by intelligence failures

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PARIS — French intelligence isn’t looking so intelligent these days.

The country’s spies have acquired a certain cachet in recent years, thanks to the internationally acclaimed TV series “Le Bureau des Légendes.” But now they stand accused of legendary blunders, most notably failing to anticipate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That faux pas has alarmed French lawmakers and is particularly embarrassing as the United States warned repeatedly that Russian President Vladimir Putin would launch an attack — and was proved correct.

But it is not the only failure being laid at the door of the French intelligence community. Critics have also blamed the spooks for neglecting to spot that Australia would ditch a major submarine deal with France, and for failing to foresee a coup in Mali.

Official discontent with France’s spies moved from the secret world into the open last week, when French media reported that General Eric Vidaud, the head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DRM), had been forced out after just seven months in the job.

Vidaud, a former special forces commander, was said to have provided “inadequate briefings” and to have “lacked expertise” on key issues, according to website L’Opinion, which broke the story.

Some experts say Vidaud was the fall guy not just for Ukraine but for broader failings, particularly at the DRM, which is dwarfed in terms of resources by France’s main foreign intelligence agency, the Directorate General for External Security (DGSE).

The DRM has traditionally focused on locations in which French troops are active, such as the Sahel region of Africa, making it less equipped to make judgments on areas such as Eastern Europe.

“They had expertise in the Sahel, and less on what happened in Ukraine and Belarus,” said Pierre Brochand, a former DGSE boss.

“I believe that Vidaud is a scapegoat,” he added, describing the DRM as a “weak service … that has never really worked well.”

“They don’t attract the most brilliant minds because of a lack of resources and organization,” said Brochand.

Media reports suggest Vidaud may have lost out in a personality clash with General Thierry Burkhard, the French army chief of staff.

Burkhard’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in an unusually public admonition, Burkhard pointedly noted last month that American spies had done a better job of reading Putin’s intentions than their French counterparts.

“The Americans said that the Russians were going to attack, they were right,” he said in an interview with Le Monde. “Our services thought instead that the conquest of Ukraine would have a tremendous cost, and that Russians had other options.”

Inquiry plan

Christian Cambon, a French senator who chairs the Senate’s foreign affairs and defense committee, said lawmakers from both houses of parliament who oversee intelligence matters would launch an inquiry into Vidaud’s departure.

“The personality issues are not the problem,” said Cambon, a member of the conservative opposition Les Républicains party. “What we want to know is whether the military intelligence is at the level we, in France, expect it to be.”

Cambon noted France had also been blindsided twice last year — by Australia’s decision to ditch its submarine deal with France and form a new alliance with the U.S. and the U.K., known as AUKUS, and by a coup in Mali that deposed a previous military regime.

“The AUKUS affair … we can’t say that we saw it coming,” said Cambon. “In Mali, the coup inside the coup … we did not really see that coming either.”

Some have rallied to Vidaud’s defense – the general himself has not commented publicly on his departure – arguing that the task of military intelligence is to assess military capabilities, and pointing the finger of blame for the failure to read Putin at the DGSE.

“Political intelligence lies in the hands of the DGSE,” said Christophe Gomart, a former DRM chief and ex-head of French special forces.

The DRM “must say if the Russian army is ready in terms of practical, physical preparation, if that army has the means to attack,” he said. “But the decision [to attack] remains a political one, and that’s the DGSE’s role.”

However, the DGSE is likely to emerge the winner in any internal tussle between the two services. It has some 7,000 employees, as opposed to 2,100 at the DRM. And, according to many officials, it benefits from direct access to President Emmanuel Macron. Some officials called Bernard Emié, the current head of the DGSE, “Macron’s pal.”

Eric Denécé, director of the French Center for Intelligence Research think tank, said Vidaud appeared to have been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“From what people told me, Vidaud wasn’t a good fit, and it was not his thing,” said Denécé, who questioned the recent practice of putting former special forces commanders in charge of military intelligence.

“There’s not a great culture of intelligence in the French army,” he added. “There aren’t so many officials who have that in their blood.”

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