Although a former French combat diver of the DGSE secret service who was in charge of sinking the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior apologized on New Zealand TV 30 years later, revealing details of the clandestine operation, most people who looked into the truth of the matter knew a cover up was in play from the get-go.
The two blasts occurred in the harbor of Auckland, New Zealand on the night of July 10th 1985. The Greenpeace ship was heading for Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia to protest against nuclear tests. The French President François Mitterrand gave a direct order to stop the ship by any means, as Le Monde daily investigated after the event.
A clandestine operation was planned and conducted by combat divers of the secret service DGSE. They were told Greenpeace is infiltrated by Communist agents and posed a threat to French national security, Jean-Luc Kister, the team leader who claimed himself responsible for the 1985 act of sabotage confessed.
The Chicago Tribune reported on September 29, 1985, less than 3 months after the bombing, the following:
Bit by tantalizing bit, some of the truth about the Greenpeace Affair leaked out to the French public last week. But dozens of lively rumors still abound, and almost no one believes the whole truth has been told.
Greenpeace is Watergate with a French twist, a bungled intelligence operation that has grown into a first-rate political scandal.
Like Watergate, it involves government skullduggery, official lies, a probing press, high-level leaks, a president under siege, even one of the president`s closest allies left to twist slowly, slowly in the wind. Like Watergate, it has caused so much political damage to the president that his ability to carry out the normal business of government, at home and abroad, may be crippled.
But there are two crucial differences. The first is that in Watergate, no one died. In the sabotage of the Rainbow Warrior, a ship owned by the environmental group Greenpeace, one crew member was killed.
The second difference is that the morality of the intelligence operation, unlike the morality of the Watergate burglary, is not an issue. It is the sloppiness of the cover-up. France is a cynical nation that values competence in government above all other virtues; the appearance of stupidity can be fatal.
At week`s end, both President Francois Mitterrand and his prime minister, Laurent Fabius, were still in office, but badly wounded politically. They have staked their futures on an agreed official version which, although widely disbelieved by both politicians and the public, may be enough to prevent the government’s collapse.
A poll in the magazine Paris Match showed that the public thinks the government is lying — and doesn’t care. Of those polled, 61 percent said they don`t believe the government`s story so far, versus only 20 percent who did. But 64 percent said Mitterrand should stay and 59 percent backed Fabius; only 25 percent wanted them out.
The Greenpeace Affair began with two explosions at midnight on the other side of the world.
The Rainbow Warrior had arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, on July 7, to prepare for protests against French nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia. Three days later, at 11:50 p.m., two bombs attached to the hull of the ship exploded, killing crew member and Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira.
A man in a wet suit was seen driving away. Police got the license number and arrested a couple traveling on fake Swiss passports. They said their names were Turenge.
On Aug. 8, two French magazines identified the “Turenges” as Commander Alain Mafart and Capt. Dominique Prieur of the DGSE, the initials of the French Intelligence Service. It also was learned that three other French agents had come to New Zealand on a chartered yacht, the Ouvea, but left Auckland the day before the bombing.
Mitterrand ordered an official investigation by a senior civil servant named Bernard Tricot. Tricot concluded on Aug. 28 that the “Turenges” and the Ouvea team were in New Zealand merely to spy on the Rainbow Warrior, and the bombing was not the work of French agents.
The Tricot report met almost universal skepticism. But it wasn’t until Sept. 17, three weeks later, that this official version collapsed. The nation`s leading newspaper, Le Monde, reported that a third intelligence team, until then undetected, consisting of two Navy frogmen had actually planted the bombs that sunk the Rainbow Warrior, apparently on Defense Ministry orders.
Within hours, the defense minister, Charles Hernu, issued a heated denial that neither the military nor the DGSE had sabotaged the Rainbow Warrior. Hernu called the Le Monde story “a slander campaign.”
The next day, Mitterrand demanded a full investigation. The day after that, he sent a letter to Fabius complaining that the press was telling him more than his own government.
Fabius hauled in Adm. Pierre Lacoste, director of the DGSE, and demanded an explanation. Lacoste, apparently citing national security, refused. Fabius fired him.
Thereupon, Hernu resigned. The oldest and perhaps closest political ally of Mitterrand, Hernu denied complicity in the affair. But he said his staff “hid the truth from me” and, as the minister responsible, he had to take the consequences.
There was more to come. Two days later, Fabius publicly admitted the “cruel truth” that French intelligence agents had sunk the Rainbow Warrior, acting under orders from Paris. But he did not say who gave the order.
This unanswered question hung in the autumn air for four more days before the normally buoyant Fabius, appearing weary and disconsolate, went on television to say Hernu and Lacoste had given the orders.
“Look”, said an official close to France`s defense establishment, “the order (to bomb the ship) could come from only three people — Mitterrand, Fabius or Hernu. Considering that, they had to pin it on Hernu. But Hernu had already said he wasn’t guilty. So somebody’s lying.”
The Fabius version probably will hold up so long as Hernu continues to take the blame. But Hernu is a proud man and running the defense ministry was his lifelong dream. “If Hernu doesn’t want to lose his honor, he’ll talk,” the same official said.
In French politics, it’s the president, not the prime minister, who is responsible for defense policy. This, plus Mitterrand’s closeness to Hernu makes it unlikely that Hernu gave the order without Mitterrand’s knowledge.
Actually, the Tricot report said that the Turenges operation had been financed through a $500,000 voucher signed by Gen. Jean Saulnier, then head of Mitterrand`s personal military staff and now the armed forces` chief of staff. This voucher seemed to link Mitterrand`s office with the sabotage but, Tricot said, this voucher appears to have been destroyed.
What did Fabius know and when did he know it? He says he only learned the truth from Hernu on Sept. 21. This is widely doubted. In fact, he may have meant he knew the details earlier but only got confirmation from Hernu on that date.
Most European countries have a prime minister to run the government and a nonpolitical president, or king, to cut the ribbons. France is almost alone in having a politically powerful president elected on his own for a seven-year term, and a prime minister, who is head of the strongest party in Parliament which is elected every four years.
The constitution has worked so far because the president and prime minister have come from the same party. But even before Greenpeace, this was likely to change after parliamentary elections next March. Mitterrand`s Socialist government, battered by high unemployment, is expected to lose power, and a prime minister from one of the conservative parties is likely to be anointed.
But Mitterrand, who doesn’t stand for re-election until 1988, would remain president. This would create a constitutional crisis–a socialist president and a conservative government.
Mitterrand is known to have resigned himself to loss of control over domestic policies. But he wants to keep the president`s traditional power over defense and foreign affairs–in other words, to symbolize the power and majesty of France before the world.
And now comes Greenpeace. The press here assumes that because of the scandal, the Socialists will lose even more votes in March. Will that, combined with Greenpeace, leave Mitterrand so humiliated and paralyzed that he will have to resign?
“Uncharted waters,” says a diplomat, noting that Mitterrand is famous for rebounding from trouble.
The fact that French bombs sank a ship in a foreign harbor–that France carried out state-sponsored terrorism — and a man died is almost ignored here, and has no political importance at all.
What matters is that the stumbling cover-up has made France look foolish before the world. It is this that could yet bring down the president who blundered into the Greenpeace.