Concerned Citizens and Secret Operatives?

December 14, 2012

by Louis Clerc

The French scene provided recently two archetypes of informal “diplomats” and other operatives: the concerned citizen, and the dubious cast of private operatives, politicians, diplomats and soldiers one can find around “intelligence” or “secret” issues.

Saturday last week, the family of AQMI-held French hostage Pierre Legrand set a video online asking the group to propose something regarding the fate of Legrand and his three colleagues, whe were all kidnapped in 2010. In the video, Pierre Legrand’s brother Clément addresses AQMi – could it be that direct contacts or this kind would prove more efficient than what the French state has been attempting to do? The Legrand family’s video, however, seems to be more about domestic than international politics; its message is addressed to the government, asking for more involvment in a case that drags on. If technological change, globalization and the new role of technological media have made possible the direct intervention of concerned citizens in international relations, it is still difficult to reach results without the channels of official diplomacy. Clément Legrand’s video exerts public pressure, not so much on AQMI than on the French state.

Hostage situations, that happen at the crossroad between public and private, open and secret, legal and illegal, diplomacy and intelligence, naturally bring to the fore an undefined cast of informal actors used as relays between governments and the groups holding hostages. A recent documentary on three French journalists held hostages in Iraq presented a wonderful series of such archetypes. The documentary evoked the kidnapping and eventual liberation of three French reporters between 2004 and 2005: Christian Chesnot, Georges Malbrunot and their iraqi driver were kidnapped in August 2004 and liberated in December; Florence Aubenas and her guide Hussein Hanoun were kidnapped in January 2005 and liberated in June. The documentary described the negotiations prior to their liberation, especially presenting the actors on the French side.

On the official side, one could meet an impressive cast of diplomats with ties in the intelligence community. First was Pierre Brochand, a former diplomat, then head of the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE); second came his colleague Bernard Bajolet, the then French ambassador in Irak, fluent both in Arabic and in the meanders of intelligence, Irak, and diplomacy. Those were two specialists, in-between the diplomatic and intelligence communities, who didn’t seem to get along too well with two other actors, “les abrutis” in Brochand’s terms. First of all Philippe Brett, archetype of the shabby in-between with friends in high places, an overblown past as a “security adviser”, and an obvious desire to be involved. Second, the MP Didier Julia, well-versed in Iraki matters under Sadam Hussein, former friend of Tariq Aziz, and “ready to help”. In the case of Chesnot and Malbrunot, Brett and Julia involved themselves seemingly without asking anyone; Brett would even pretend for a while that he managed to obtain the hostages’ liberation, only to have to acknowledge that he didn’t…

It is easy to become unhealthily fascinated by these networks, their high-flying characters and dubious deals. But, if conducted with the necessary caution, the historical study of intelligence activities gives one a wonderful openning on diplomatic relations and a rather unorthodox “diplomatic community”. In the French case, Thomas Gomart, Pierre Lacoste or Olivier Forcade, for example, have worked to develop this area of research in the history of French foreign policy.