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Spy shadow on former French minister

Paris, Sept. 7: A furious row has erupted in France over allegations that a minister was paid as a contact by a CIA spy, before being persuaded by the French secret service to pass false information to the Americans.

According to Carnets Intimes de la BST — a book on the French secret service to be published this week — Henri Plagnol, who is now secretary of state for civil service reform, passed information to the US in the 1990s when America was investigating France’s position in the Gatt world trade talks.

Plagnol, at the time an academic and part-time adviser to France’s then Prime Minister, has admitted meeting an American woman later identified as a spy, but denied that he passed any secrets insisting that he merely gave her the benefit of his cultural expertise.

“During our lunches we spoke about the situation in the Balkans, agricultural disputes between the US and France, the future European currency and French/German relations. I could hardly believe that any of it would interest the CIA.” The book, however, says he was recruited as a contact by the CIA before being “turned” into a double agent by the French counter-espionage agency Direction de Surveillance Territoire (DST).

While the book’s authors, the investigative journalists Frederic Ploquin and Eric Merlen, say that the minister’s “integrity was never in any doubt,” the book has led to renewed questioning of Plagnol’s role in the decade-old affair, much of which has been well-known for many years. The incident arose in the 1990s when Plagnol, then a lecturer at the Sciences-Po academy, was appointed an adviser to Edouard Balladur, the then Prime Minister.

An American agent, named as Mary-Ann Baumgartner, working under the cover of a US-European trade foundation, twice paid Plagnol the equivalent of £500 in cash after discussions over lunch.

America was trying to gather inside information on France’s hardline position on the French “cultural exception”, during the trade talks. France was opposing a US proposal to include films, music and entertainment products in agreed trade quotas.

According to the book, the DST got wind of the meetings and approached Plagnol to warn him. When he asked what to do, he was told: “Continue to give information to the Americans — but from now we will fill in the questionnaires they give you.”

Plagnol fed the CIA misinformation for more than six months until the trade talks ended. Afterwards the DST informed the CIA that it was aware of America’s spying activities, and in 1995 expelled five suspected American agents from France.

The book claims that the Americans also tried to recruit an academic adviser of the then communications minister Alain Carignon, and an operator at the central Paris telephone exchange.

According to extracts of the book in the magazine Marianne last week, Plagnol said: "It's very difficult in today's world to draw a line between information likely to interest a foreign intelligence service and information which is totally banal."

He admitted that he had received 5,000 francs each time he met the American, but did not reveal how many meetings they had.

The affair was investigated by a French parliamentary committee which found no reason to censure Plagnol. Today, his version of events has been confirmed by Eric Denece, of the French Centre for Intelligence Studies, who said the incident had been resurrected "for anti-French reasons".

Last night, Jean Saint-Guilhem, the director of Plagnol's office, said that nothing in the book contradicted the minister's statements. "The matter is closed," he said.

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