14 Mar 2008

Counterterrorism, the French Way


Reuel Marc Gerecht & Gary Schmitt suggest American can learn something from France, the country possessing the most successful counter-terrorism record in the world.

Can America draw any lessons from France’s encounter with Islamic terrorism? The two countries have separate histories of interaction with the Muslim world and philosophical differences when it comes to legal systems and the role of the state domestically. But it is worth knowing how other democracies do things, particularly when what they do seems to work.

Counterterrorist personnel in the FBI, CIA, and National Security Council usually rotate out of the terrorism portfolio after a few years—a distinct disadvantage compared with the French system.And something the French do—and perhaps the hardest thing for Americans to appreciate, let alone adopt—is to grant highly intrusive powers to their internal security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), and to their counterterrorist, investigative magistrates, the juges d’instruction. The latter institution is the lynchpin of France’s counterterrorist prowess, allowing the French to marry the powers of prevention, deterrence, and punishment under one man. These magistrates, who came into being after 1986, have no American parallel and in the powers they possess appear to be sui generis within Europe. They oversee and often direct the investigative potential of France’s myriad police services, especially the intelligence unit of the French national police, the Renseignements Généraux, and the DST.

This direction is exercised through a combination of administrative statutes and, just as important, informal relations. While the DST works primarily under the authority of the minister of interior, over the years a new cooperative relationship has evolved with the juges d’instruction. Because of the success of such magistrates as Jean-Louis Bruguière and Jean-François Ricard, who proved they could handle sensitive information collected by a domestic intelligence agency, the DST now works hand in glove with the magistrates and may even be directed by them in ongoing investigations.

These magistrates and their offices have become the repositories of counterterrorist information inside the French government. The advantage over the American system here is overwhelming: counterterrorist personnel in the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, and National Security Council usually rotate out of the terrorism portfolio after a few years. And few could be said to have monitored specific cases and particular Islamist organizations for years on end.

Also striking is the ability of the French to concentrate the resources of the state. From the use of wiretaps, to day-and-night physical surveillance, to “preventive detention” that can be directed against targets on whom authorities do not have sufficient evidence to seek criminal prosecution, magistrates and their allied police and intelligence services can rapidly monitor, harass, and paralyze those they suspect of terrorist activity. As the French government’s 2006 “White Paper” on domestic security and terrorism states, “To be effective, a judicial system for counterterrorism must combine a preventive element, whose objective is to prevent terrorists from acting, and a repressive element, to punish those who commit attacks as well as their organizers and accomplices. The French system follows this logic. But its originality and strength lie in the fact that the barrier between prevention and punishment is not airtight.” The juges have largely deconstructed this wall.

The French operate ruthlessly and informally, unhindered by our Constitutional system of limitations on searches or by habeas corpus. Their results may be enviable, but Americans are unlikely to wish to confer anything like those kinds of powers upon the State. Look at the successful fuss the Left has made over civil liberties with regard to automated datamining of emails transmitted overseas.

One Feedback on "Counterterrorism, the French Way"

Dominique R. Poirier

The French domestic policy you make allusion to finds its origins in the XVIIth century, under the new policy of the Cardinal of Richelieu.

The main motive and concern was the repression of the spread of Protestantism, and rise of power of this new religious trend that gained power at fast pace in some French regions at that time; that is to say, after the proclamation by the King Henry IV of the Edict of Nantes, which set the beginning of religious tolerance and pluralism in the kingdom of France.

Also, at Paris, Theophraste Renaudot largely contributed to the setting of the “bureau d’adresses,” the ancestor of the state employment agency, addressing to the masses; and he started to edit La Gazette, the first French newspaper, whose aims was to inform people, and to shape public opinion.

Later, during the French Revolution, the event of the “levee en masse,” in 1793, was a turning point in military affairs, and introduced the concept of the French citizen, from his infancy on to his late years, women included, as a “property of the State” compelled to participate anytime to the war effort.

In the meantime, during the XVIIIth century, enlightened despotism according to the model imagined by Frederic II of Prussia, set in place an efficient secret political police, which had to be perfected under the reign of Napoleon 1er by Joseph Fouché, Minister of Police, then Minister of Justice. Fouché developed a then unpopular concept of agents provocateurs and domestic spies; an idea that proved to be successful at spotting and stopping anti-Bonapartists plots and conspiracies.

During the early second half of the XIXth century, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (aka Napoleon III), strongly extended the power of the state over private affairs, and he took also special provisions likely to prevent riots and popular revolutions from their inception on (redesigned city architecture and streets).

At the same time, the spread of a Masons society “a la Française” reinforced still more the control of the state over private affairs.

Since then, the basis of the French domestic surveillance was set in place and owed its ensuing improvement to scarcely more than progress and scientific discoveries, actually.

The “Fouché system” of the Napoleon era has been maintained all along since its inception, and it is the ancestor of this successful French method authors Reuel Marc Gerecht & Gary Schmitt make allusion to.
It developed itself into a preventive policy of a sort, which consists of creating “dummy” activist and extremist political and religious cells, and immigrant minorities, attracting and ensnaring isolated activists of all sorts; thus cutting the ground from under authentic, foreign or else, organizations’ feet.

But, as JDZ rightly underlines it, the other side of the coin is a highly bureaucratized nation under tight control; unwilling to yield ground to an American vision of democracy featuring individual freedom and right to free speech.


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