French admit secret service spied on reporter

 

FRENCH INTERIOR minister Claude Guéant has admitted that the secret service spied on a journalist from the newspaper Le Mondeto trace the source of a leak that embarrassed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party.

Senior ministers last year ridiculed claims by Le Mondethat the Élysée Palace had ordered the intelligence service to carry out an inquiry into the paper’s coverage of the Bettencourt party funding scandal.

The paper alleged that spies had obtained the mobile phone records of its reporter, Gérard Davet, after he ran a story detailing new allegations against then labour minister Eric Woerth, who later left cabinet.

It emerged yesterday that an investigating judge, acting on foot of legal action by Le Monde, has found evidence in support of the paper’s claims.

Judge Sylvia Zimmermann discovered that, on July 19th, 2010 – a day after Mr Davet’s article was published – the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI) – the counter-intelligence service – ordered telecoms company Orange to hand over detailed records of the journalist’s calls over a four-day period.

These included incoming and outgoing numbers, the time of each call and Mr Davet’s GPS location during the conversations.

Two days later, the authorities sought similar information on David Sénat, an official in the office of justice minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. Mr Sénat, suspected of having leaked information, was removed from his post and sent to work on a project in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana.

The police acknowledged last year that Mr Sénat’s phone records had been obtained, but senior ministers firmly denied the same was true of Mr Davet’s phone.

“The DCRI is not the Stasi,” then interior minister Brice Hortefeux told the National Assembly last November. “Its aim is not to follow journalists.” Asked last November about the possibility that the police could have broken a law that protects journalists’ sources, Mr Sarkozy said: “No, I don’t imagine so. I don’t believe so.”

The government’s line changed yesterday, when news of Ms Zimmermann’s investigation broke. Mr Guéant confirmed that phone records were used in order to find the source of a “scandalous” leak within the justice system. “What was being sought was the source,” he said.

In a front-page editorial yesterday, Le Mondeclaimed the interception of its reporter’s phone records was in breach of a law that restricts phone tapping to cases where the interests of the state are under threat. It also contravened a law – strengthened by Mr Sarkozy’s government in January 2010 – that protects the freedom of the press.

“The summit of the state used public means for private ends, and to protect the president’s party,” Le Monde’s editorial stated.

In his comments yesterday, Mr Guéant said the method used by the intelligence service in this case was “completely different from a tap”.

The use of phone taps has risen dramatically in France in the past decade, from 5,845 taps in 2002 to about 35,000 today, but allegations that they have been used for domestic political ends are denied by the authorities.

Last November the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaînéalleged that Mr Sarkozy personally supervised the surveillance of journalists covering sensitive stories. Citing unnamed intelligence sources, the paper said that, from early 2010, whenever reporters undertook “annoying” investigations, the head of the DCRI would be told to place them under surveillance. It said a specialist group composed of former spies was set up for the purpose of studying journalists’ itemised landline and mobile phone bills.

The claims were described as “totally far-fetched” by the Élysée.