The French are expressing little surprise or outrage because their government is no slouch at official surveillance, legal or otherwise. Theres a long tradition of Gallic snooping, starting with the word espionage itself, which comes from the medieval French espier. Louis XIV famously created a ruthlessly efficient secret police force, and the terror methods developed by some French revolutionaries in the late 18th century were later deliberately copied by the Soviet Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. Actresss Phone More recently, during President Francois Mitterrand s first term in the 1980s, the phones of dozens of private citizens, including some well-known journalists and, inexplicably, the actress Carole Bouquet, were tapped; seven officials in Mitterrands administration were tried and convicted for the intrusions. Intelligence officials everywhere are tight-lipped about their activities, but Frances top spooks have dropped occasional clues, especially during and after a revamp of the intelligence agencies organization in 2008. The picture that emerges is of a security apparatus equipped with advanced cybersurveillance tools, but which nonetheless sees itself as playing catch-up with the U.S. and the U.K. A reckoning arrived five years ago with the publication of a white paper , a government strategy document on defense and intelligence, which highlighted a gap in France s technological ability to carry out comprehensive surveillance. While the U.S. and some other countries had invested heavily in advanced signal intelligence, Frances services have not benefited on the same scale, the report said. What was needed was a qualitative and quantitative leap that would allow French agencies to maintain a high standard and be able to dialogue with the few countries who are our principal intelligence partners. Early this year, Erard Courbin de Mangoux, the director of the main external intelligence agency, the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure , reported to a parliamentary commission that France had caught up. We have been able to develop an important capacity to intercept Internet traffic , Courbin de Mangoux said. We are also working heavily on imaging. In July, shortly after the disclosures about U.S. spying by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the daily Le Monde published a front-page article under the headline: Revelations about the French Big Brother. The newspaper alleged that the DGSE systematically spied on e-mails, text messages , phone calls and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These communications were subsequently stored for years, outside any political control or oversight, in computers in the basement of the agencys building in Paris.
A judicial source told AFP the investigation had been opened into Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, after a criminal complaint filed on September 13. The complaint, by anti-corruption groups Sherpa and Transparency International, alleges the 76-year-old illegally acquired “extraordinary wealth” in France through corrupt schemes and embezzlement. Once a stalwart of the Syrian authorities, Rifaat al-Assad broke with his brother’s government in 1984 and reportedly has no links with the current regime, which is fighting in a civil conflict that has left more than 110,000 dead since it began in March 2011. Before splitting from the regime, Rifaat al-Assad was accused of being responsible for the deaths of thousands during the crushing of a Sunni Islamist uprising in 1982. The massacre in the town of Hama, by troops allegedly under Rifaat al-Assad’s command, left between 10,000 and 25,000 dead. Rifaat al-Assad has denied any involvement and in 2011 dismissed allegations he was behind the killings as “a myth.” The criminal complaint accuses Rifaat al-Assad of acquiring wealth “in the billions of euros” through corruption, embezzlement of public funds, misuse of corporate assets and other crimes, noting that he had “no known professional activity.” The head of Sherpa, William Bourdon, welcomed the prosecutors’ decision as a “first step” but said a full probe by investigating magistrates needed to be launched. “It is obvious that only an examining magistrate has the necessary authority to deal with offences of such a complex and international nature,” he told AFP, adding that a magistrate would also have more power to seize assets. French media have reported that Rifaat al-Assad’s holdings include a mansion and several dozen apartments in Paris, with newspaper Le Monde estimating the total value of his estate in France at 160 million euros ($215 million). Le Monde reported earlier this year that the potential sale of one of his properties — a mansion on the prestigious Avenue Foch — fell through after potential Russian buyers offered only 70 million euros. Once considered a possible successor to his brother, Rifaat al-Assad fled to France after being placed under house arrest following a failed coup attempt. His estrangement from the regime means he has not been affected by the freezing of assets and travel restrictions imposed by the European Union against Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle. Rifaat’s son, Siwar al-Assad, told France Info radio earlier that the family’s wealth was legitimate and promised to cooperate with any investigation. He said that after settling in France his father had received funds from “states, leaders and friends abroad.” “We are utterly transparent in our investments, nothing was done in secret, the origins of our funds were completely legal,” he said.
France to sanction Google over privacy rules