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Dispute Over France a Factor in Intelligence Rift / Les États-Unis continueront d'espionner la France

An already strained relationship between the White House and the departing spymaster Dennis C. Blair erupted earlier this year over Mr. Blair's efforts to cement close intelligence ties to France and broker a pledge between the nations not to spy on each other, American government officials said Friday.

Dennis Blair.jpgThe White House scuttled the plan, officials said, but not before President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had come to believe that a deal was in place. Officials said that Mr. Sarkozy was angered about the miscommunication, and that the episode had hurt ties between the United States and France at a time when the two nations are trying to present a united front to dismantle Iran's nuclear program.

Officials said the dust-up was not the proximate cause of President Obama's decision to remove Mr. Blair, who announced his resignation on Thursday, from the job as director of national intelligence, but was a contributing factor in the mutual distrust between the White House and members of Mr. Blair's staff. The episode also illuminates the extent to which communications between the president's aides and Mr. Blair had deteriorated during a period of particular alarm about terrorist threats to the United States.

As the White House mulled over choices to replace Mr. Blair, with the top choice still James R. Clapper, there were fresh questions about whether the intelligence overhaul that created the post of national intelligence director was fatally flawed, and whether Mr. Obama would move gradually to further weaken the authorities granted to the director and give additional power to individual spy agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mr. Blair and each of his predecessors have lamented openly that the intelligence director does not have enough power to deliver the intended shock therapy to America's byzantine spying apparatus. And some experts have faulted both Mr. Obama and former President George W. Bush for not pushing to define where the job fits among the constellation of American intelligence agencies.

On Friday, the White House expressed its own frustration with the structure of the job. "The government continues to work through the challenges that the law and the position have always presented to government and in the coordination of many different agencies and departments and the intelligence functions that they represent," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. "I think many D.N.I.'s beyond whoever is next will deal with some of the vagueness and many of the complexities."

But privately, senior administration officials said the situation simply was not working, citing among other things the failure to coordinate intelligence that led to the attempted bombing of a passenger jet on Dec. 25.

Mr. Blair had pressed for a pact between the United States and France that would have halted espionage operations on each other's soil, a more formal version of America's "gentleman's agreement" with Britain.

The informal agreement with London is built on decades of trust between the American and British governments. Officials said that Mr. Blair had come to believe that Mr. Sarkozy's presidency was a unique opportunity for two countries long suspicious of each other's motives to build lasting security ties.

But others worried that a written pact - the first of its kind for the United States - would handcuff the United States if a new government came to power in France that was more hostile to American foreign policy goals.

"What people balked at was the suggestion of a formal, written, no-spy pact, signed by heads of state," said one American intelligence official. "How would you verify it - by spying?"

A spokesman for the intelligence director declined to comment.

Unlike America's relationship with Britain and other close allies like Australia, the United States and France have a long history of spying on each other. For example, intelligence experts said the French had been particularly aggressive in trying to steal secrets about the American defense and technology industries. For its part, the United States has long been suspicious of French government and business ties to countries like Iran and Syria, and about North African militant groups whose operatives work inside France.

In recent months, Mr. Blair had also made a push to rein in covert activities carried out by the C.I.A., reflecting his view that the United States had become too enamored over stealth activities.

He even developed rules to guide policy makers before they approved a covert action. Among them were guidelines that covert activity should never be employed "for the purpose of circumventing a lack of U.S. public support for any particular overt policy," according to one American official.

Officials said that some in the White House and C.I.A. bristled at Mr. Blair's efforts to exert greater oversight over covert action. The reaction, they said, puzzled Mr. Blair, who had thought he had been given a degree of authority over these activities.

There appears to have been similar miscommunication on the France episode. Officials said that while Mr. Blair had been authorized to work out new intelligence-sharing arrangements with the French, he was specifically told by the White House that a formal no-spying pact was off the table.

Mark M. Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the C.I.A., said the relative weakness of the intelligence director position was especially frustrating to Mr. Blair, who had powerful positions in the military, notably as head of United States Pacific Command.

"Denny had been commander of the largest military command in the world," Mr. Lowenthal said. "And then he took this job where anyone who wanted to ignore him basically could do it."

Source du texte : NEW YORK TIMES

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