Thirty years ago this summer French President Mitterrand made Ronald Reagan an offer he couldn’t resist.
Thirty years ago in late July 1981, the G-7 Economic Summit opened at Chateau Montebello, Quebec. Anticipation was both high and low.
In his six-month tenure, Ronald Reagan had not only openly challenged the Soviet Union in his first news conference at ten days in office and survived an assassination attempt at 69 days, but was also constructing a major new economic policy featuring large-scale tax cuts along with a major military rebuilding program. He was viewed by other summit participants (save for Margaret Thatcher) as unskilled, uneducated in statecraft, and generally provocative toward the Soviet Union and other communist and left-leaning states.
Reagan had already met Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki in 1978 travels, and Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau at a special Ottawa meeting in March 1981. At Chateau Montebello and from an unanticipated ally — French president François Mitterrand — Reagan would first hear of what would become the most important and successful counterespionage project of the century.
Mitterrand’s surprising May 10 upset victory over widely-favored Gaullist president Giscard d’Estaing (who had declined to meet with Reagan in Paris in 1978, two years before the U.S. election) had raised alarms. Mitterrand won with the open support of the French Communist Party, and promptly installed four communist ministers in his cabinet, as well as the famous leftist revolutionary intellectual Régis Debray, who had fought under Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 and was captured, jailed, sentenced but later released. Western powers were alarmed: with a socialist government including communists, would France be a reliable contributor to the common defense? What would the U.S. under Reagan do?
The State Department expressed concern about the election results to the White House. Having observed Mitterrand closely for years, I gave the White House press briefing, identified as a “senior White House Official.” Questioning was detailed and hostile, as the press regulars found it hard to believe that Reagan was not furious. He wasn’t, but he was very curious.
At the conclusion of the first Montebello session of leaders, Mitterrand, accompanied by his key advisor, Jacques Attali, approached Reagan and me. Speaking rapidly in French, Mitterrand expressed gratitude for the deliberately moderate reaction to his election. Shortly thereafter, he sent word requesting a highly private session with Reagan. The president agreed.
When they did meet later, each with an aide, Mitterrand revealed to Reagan that French intelligence had acquired and begun exploiting an incredible intelligence asset, a “mole” well placed in Moscow, a KGB colonel named Vladimir I. Vetrov. Vetrov’s job was to sort the intelligence and technology, stolen or otherwise acquired, by some 400 agents operating in the West. The KGB operation was labeled “Farewell” by the French. The initial channel: the French electronics giant Thomson-CSF through its Moscow representative, to the French DST — the counterpart of the FBI — and then directly to Mitterrand.
The massive pilferage, all taking place in conditions generally described as “détente,” had blossomed in the early 1970s under the cover of “peaceful coexistence,” a term with radically different meanings to East and West. The U.S. had opened the technology door a crack in an effort to entice the Soviets, far behind scientifically and technologically, to alter their aggressive behavior and military buildup. Détente, like “peaceful coexistence,” was in Soviet eyes a one-way street to get what they needed. As Brezhnev was reported to have told the Politburo in 1971, “We communists have to string along with the capitalists for a while. We need their credits, their agriculture and their technology. But we are going to continue massive military programs.”
The corps of international shoplifters and pilferers worked the West and Japan to fulfill KGB collection requirements. Col. Vetrov sifted the stolen haul, then parceled out technologies to military and industrial-end users. It was a sizable global effort.
So Reagan, astounded at Mitterrand’s offer, agreed because he knew that the overwhelming focus was on theft from U.S. defense, scientific, and military technology sectors.
In Washington, the channel ran to Dr. Gus W. Weiss of the National Security Council staff and to CIA Director Bill Casey. Weiss, a long-time friend since he worked with Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute, was one of my early recruits in 1980, as he was in 1971 when Peter G. Peterson and I established the newly created White House Council on International Economic Policy (CIEP). Weiss had built deep relations with the French in the 1970s while working with them on the highly successful SNECMA jet engine project, and from 1981 as the NSC specialist on economic intelligence matters working closely with NSC economist Norman A. Bailey. Weiss was perfect for the task; a brilliant, quiet, and unassuming PhD, and ingenious in all he undertook, never drawing attention to himself and sharing. He and Casey were the perfect people to exploit the Farewell prize to the maximum.
After I left the Administration in early 1982, Weiss hit upon yet another brilliant variant to exploit the Farewell channel: because the Soviets thought they were getting away with the Line X caper undetected — and thus would be unhindered in gathering authentic technologies for their industrial and military hardware — they had come to trust what they got. Weiss reasoned that technologies to be deployed would be tested (confirmed by Farewell) one or more times, so some key technologies the Soviets were allowed to procure would then withstand several tests and be programmed to malfunction at some point — or even cause outright destruction.
There were sensational results from the counterespionage and economic warfare strategies derived from Vetrov’s Farewell contributions, including a huge blast measured at nearly three kilotons of force in the Siberian pipeline in mid-1982, and the eventual roll-up and expulsion of nearly 400 KGB agents operating in the U.S., France and elsewhere.
As for Vetrov himself, on a tryst with his girlfriend he attacked and almost killed her, then actually killed a nearby intervening policeman. Vetrov was eventually caught, sentenced to Siberia, and ultimately executed, thus closing a chapter of the Cold War that will remain forever memorable as one of the West’s greatest achievements. The French proved effective and reliable partners because the canny Mitterrand played his cards adroitly, as did Casey and Weiss.
Reagan, so often underestimated (in his eyes an advantage, as Jimmy Carter and Soviet leaders discovered), had worked with Mitterrand to accomplish what may have been the giant step to bring the Cold War to a close — by convincing the Soviets that the U.S. had the technology, the resources, the money, and the determination to take risks to achieve peace, and that we would expend those resources to achieve the goal.
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H/T to National Review Online