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September 14, 2004

The WASHINGTON TIMES' "French Connection" to Saddam is a Phony

This past Sunday, the Washington Times front-paged a headline that hollered, "FRENCH CONNECTION ARMED SADDAM." The paper was trumpeting its publication of the first in a series of extracts from a new book, "Treachery," by its intelligence correspondent, Bill Gertz. On a previous occasion I had exposed the holes in Gertz's antii-French crusading, when the WashTimes floated a completely false Gertz story claiming that France had supplied passports to Saddam's cronies to allow them to escape the U.S. invading forces (see my article in The Nation, "Baiting the French").

In the September 8 extract it published from Gertz's book, the WashTimes repeats the phony passport story--with no more proof than the last time--and adds a passle of new inventions. To take just one example: Gertz asserts:

"On April 8 [a little more than two weeks after the U.S. invasion began] came the downing of Air Force Maj. Jim Ewald's A-10 Thunderbolt fighter over Baghdad, and the discovery that it was a French-made Roland missile that brought down the American pilot and destroyed a $13 million aircraft. Ewald, one of the first U.S. pilots shot down in the war, was rescued by members of the Army's 54th Engineer Battalion who saw him parachute to earth not far from the wreckage. Army intelligence concluded that the French had sold the missile to the Iraqis within the past year, despite French denials.

"A week after Ewald's A-10 was downed, an Army team searching Iraqi weapons depots at the Baghdad airport discovered caches of French-made missiles. One anti-aircraft missile, among a cache of 51 Roland-2s from a French-German manufacturing partnership, bore a label indicating that the batch was produced just months earlier."

I e-mailed Gertz's article to my friend Claude Angeli, dean of French investigative reporters, author of a raft of books on Frrench politics and foreign policy, and the editor of the weekly Le Canard Enchaine, known for its investigative prowess. Claude rang me from Paris this morning, chuckling. He had just spoken to a senior French military officer, to whom he had forwarded Gertz's article, and this general--who was quite familiar with these old charges, which had been raised during the war and before Saddam's fall-- was laughing too. "The whole article is a tissue of inventions," Claude told me. "The general, too, laughed at the gross errors."

As to the Roland missiles Gertz claimed had been "produced just months earlier," Angeli informed me, missiles of this type had not been manufactured for 17 years. They had been sold to Iraq at the time of the Iran-Iraq war, when the U.S. was also supplying Iraq with arms, military technology, and intelligence as a result of its policy to maintain Baghdad as a counterweight to Tehran in the region. And the deterioiration of such missiles--particularly their electronic components, which require constant maintenance--would have been so great after 17 years that they would have been virtually unusable.

Moreover, while U.S. forces had discovered the number "2002" on a case containing the missiles, this was not a date of manufacture but a serial number! Angeli, who has excellent sources at the Quai d'Orsay, told me that this supposed "discovery" of Gertz's was so obviously false that it had not even been a matter of contention between the U.S. and France at the time of the war, let alone today.

On another Gertz claim--that rockets used in a failed attempt to kill Paul Wolfowitz while he was staying at the Hotel Rashid in Baghdad were French-made Matra-Sneb missiles--is also a Swiss-cheese-er. It turned out, Angeli told me, that the Iraqis had used parts from old French rockets to repair Thomson-Brandt rockets that had originally been sold to Russia. These cobbled-together rockets failed to hit Wolfowitz.

Another risible Gertz charge is his assertion that Condi Rice is "soft on France" (one more cause for laughter at the Quai d'Orsay). If the rest of Gertz's book is as sloppy, inaccurate, and false as these examples reveal, it is truly "n'importe quoi," as Angeli characterized the WashTimes article. Unfortunately, as a result of a glowing promotion campaign of Gertz's book by conservative news media, it is already in seventh place on Amazon.com's best-seller list. There's a market for anti-French garbage of this type: a Louis Harris poll released at the beginning of September found that 10% of Americans consider France an "enemy," while another 32% believe France is "unfriendly" to the U.S.--for a total of 42% of Americans hostile to the French. And these findings even came after the lavish French ceremonies in Normandy commemorating the anniversary of the U.S. D-Day landings during World War II on June 6, in which copious tribute was paid to France's American liberators.

Considering the amount of anti-froggie slurs, jokes, and propaganda spewed from U.S. media at the height of the Iraq invasion--leading to attacks on businesses with French names, like the firebombing of a "French Cleaners" in California that turned out to be owned by a Lebanese-American--the Harris numbers are not surprising. My favorite story of anti-froggie prejudice last year carried to ludicrous extremes: the Nashville radio station which sponsored a "Bash the Peugeot" contest, in which, for a fee of $10, frog-haters got three chances to smash one of the French-made cars with a sledgehammer!

The White House has, of course, sought to exploit the anti-French mood in the country to attack John Kerry, starting with Karl Rove's famous comment that Kerry (who has French relatives and speaks French) "looks French." Now there's a right-wing website, "John Kerry for President--of France!" that peddles a line of anti-Kerry-anti-French T-shirts and suchlike to the troglodyte frog-haters. Quel pays malade, le notre!

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