Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's a small spy world

In 1964 and 1965, I worked as an assistant English teacher at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Then Christine and I were married in May 1965, and I had to think about earning my living. Through a friend of friends, I found myself working as a French/English translator for an electronics company named CSF, which stood for Compagnie générale de télégraphie Sans Fil, which can be translated literally as General Company for Telegraphy Without Wires. The company was founded in 1918, whence its old-fashioned name. For me, it was quite a boring job, because I had to translate highly technical stuff that I didn't necessarily understand.

The CSF had built the Cyrano radar system installed in the nose of Mirage jet fighters from Dassault, and most of my work consisted of translating the user manuals for this military stuff. Funnily enough, I learned that Australia happened to be a client for these early Mirage/Cyrano systems, but I never had any contacts with compatriots during the four dull months I spent at CSF. I remember meeting up with CSF engineers who were associated with a man named Henri de France [1911-1986] who had invented the Sécam TV standard. The CSF had also invented an early version of an audiovisual jukebox that displayed a video at the same time as the song, but it was a commercial flop. During my brief stay at CSF, maybe the most amusing job I had consisted of translating a speech to be made in England by the big boss, Maurice Ponte [1902-1983], who was a celebrated personage in French electronics history. His speech included words of apology for all the faults in his English. This seemed silly to me, because normally there wouldn't be any English errors at all in my translation.

Retrospectively, I'm not surprised by the idea that French companies such as CSF interested the Soviet Union back in 1965, because the Communists wanted to become independent in all the high-tech domains, and they imagined they could achieve this goal by stealing and copying Western inventions. Inversely, companies such as Thomson-Brandt and CSF—which would merge, a few years later, to form Thomson-CSF—looked upon the Soviet Union as a possible customer in the field of domestic electronics. So, it was normal that professional people on both sides of the Iron Curtain should become acquainted.

According to what I learned from a French TV documentary last night, I may well have been a colleague of this engineer, Jacques Prévost, back in 1965. But I have no recollection of ever running into him at CSF.

At that time, there was a sleazy Russian "diplomat" named Vladimir Vetrov stationed in Paris, and he became acquainted professionally with Prévost. Vetrov, an alcoholic, smashed up an embassy vehicle while driving in a drunken state. Normally, this accident would have put an end to Vetrov's diplomatic career. Well, in circumstances that remain fuzzy, Vetrov asked Prévost if he would be kind enough to get the automobile repaired, discreetly and rapidly. Prévost—who had never, at any moment, been an adept of any kind of espionage, neither industrial nor military—obliged, and thereby won a Russian friend for life.

To cut a long story short, years later, Vetrov—who had never forgotten the kindness of his engineer friend in Paris—started inundating spontaneously the Thomson-CSF representative in Moscow, Xavier Ameil, with tons of top-secret documents. Exceptionally, the Russian traitor asked for nothing in return. Vetrov had grown to hate his native land, and he had only one desire: to cripple the Soviet Union by giving away as many of their confidential documents as possible.

Not long after the documents started to arrive, the French secret service let the Thomson-CSF employee get back to his ordinary work, enabling French specialists to step in to take delivery of the huge quantity of documents that Vetrov was still supplying. They invented an English code-name for the Russian traitor: Farewell. Soon after, François Mitterrand kicked out 43 Soviet "diplomats", and Ronald Reagan was informed of all the precious stuff that had arrived in France. The rest—the crumbling of the Soviet Union and Communism—is world history...

Concerning the intelligence that played a fundamental role in the fall of the Soviet Union, the CIA has little to brag about today, since almost everything was handed to them on a brass plate.

Click their website banner to see a brief article on the Farewell affair.

The moral of this story is that, unlike the incredibly complex tales invented by espionage authors such as John Le Carré, a huge real-life affair resulting in the divulgation of top-secret files can be triggered by trivial events. Such an affair can start from almost nothing: a drunken driver, disgruntled about how his native land is behaving, who gets his automobile repaired by a foreign friend. And yet it can blow up into something big enough to overturn an empire and an ideology.

You remember the fable about the runaway slave Androcles who removed a thorn from a lion's paw. Later, he came face-to-face with that same lion in a Roman arena, whereupon the lion rewarded the kindness of Androcles by refusing to eat him. And they left the arena as liberated friends, to the applause of the Roman onlookers.

So, if ever, late at night, you come upon a drunken foreigner who has just rammed his vehicle into a lamp post, be kind to him. Call a pickup truck to tow the damaged automobile to a garage, and take the guy back home to your place to let him sleep off his drunkenness on your couch. You never know: your name could go down in history as the unwitting instigator of an earth-shaking revolution.


  1. Thank you William for this. I too watched the programme, but my execrable French prevented me from deriving anything like full value from it; you have "filled the gap" so to speak. As for CSF, surely the translation would be "Wireless telegraphy"?

  2. When I was a kid in Australia, the "why-less" was the magic box on the sideboard that emitted speech and music. That name competed with "radio" up until they both got replaced by "transistor", meaning a miniature why-less. Maybe we realized vaguely that, in a why-less, there were effectively less wires than in some more archaic communications device. As a child, I had no firm idea of what this earlier device, with wires, actually looked like. Maybe it was some kind of complicated telephone service, because the latter used miles of wires strung up on poles... and my Internet still reaches me at Gamone in this way. I had heard people talking about "getting a wire" in the case of dramatic news about accidents and deaths, so I realized that communications were based mysteriously upon the same kind of stuff (no doubt without the barbs) that we used to keep our horses and cattle from strolling away. Britain's poet laureate Alfred Austin [1835-1913] produced an excellent technical summary concerning the communication of news about the terminally-ill King Edward VII:

    Along the wire, th'electric message came:
    He is no worse, he's very much the same.

    Maybe "electric message" was poet-laureate talk designating a simple phone call. At the local post office in South Grafton, I saw an employee clicking away on a small device in Morse code, and I was told that this had something to do with this whole domain of wires, phones and why-lesses. It was all quite confusing...

    In old-fashioned French usage, a radio receiver used to be referred to (and still is, among oldies) as a TSF.

    In fact, common usage in the past often failed to distinguish between three specific technologies: telegraphy, telephony and radio.

    These days, we have a new term that is no less mysterious than why-less: wi-fi. The term "why-less" seemed to say: "Be modern! Why settle for less?" The expression "why-figh" seems to ask us: "Why fight with wires? Why cry about messy connections?" Here's a WiKi definition:

    The term "Wi-Fi" suggests "Wireless Fidelity", comparing with the long-established audio recording term "High Fidelity" or "Hi-Fi", and "Wireless Fidelity" has often been used in an informal way, even by the Wi-Fi Alliance itself, but officially the term does not mean anything.

    Confusionless, no?

  3. William,

    You wrote "In fact, common usage in the past often failed to distinguish between three specific technologies: telegraphy, telephony and radio."

    One example in French, that I find particularly irritating is that the French use the same word (souder) for both soldering and welding. This is insane as the techniques are totally different. Of course in English we sometimes use the word "welt" meaning to hammer, which of course is the origin of welding which was achieved by hammering white-hot pieces metal until they fused. Such and approach would hardly work with soldering!

    As for "wireless" well I found it interesting that the word was rediscovered since for use with computers the word "radio" would not be quite correct. A rare instance of precision in today's use of language I think.

  4. Paul:

    In correct French, the verb "to weld" is souder, whereas the verb "to solder" is braser. I've found that many craftsmen respect this usage. The two processes, welding and soldering, are designated as du soudage and du brasage. The resulting joints are designated as une soudure and une brasure.

    It's true that, in French, the verb souder is often used loosely in place of braser to designate what is called soldering in English. In fact, it's the English term that's wrong! The English verb "to solder", derived from the French souder, should have designated the solidification process that we refer to as "welding". Instead, the English verb "to solder" was applied incorrectly to the process that consists of melting so-called "solder" in order to fasten copper wires. When my father showed me how to build a made-to-measure racing-cycle frame, he always used the correct English terminology to designate the process for joining the tubes. They were brazed joints.

  5. Well now: I think you are referring to "brazing" are you not? This of course is where e.g. steel is joined using a brass filler. Used a lot when bicycle frames had lugs which provided the necessary area for the braze to work - one cannot butt "weld" using braze. In fact where there is sufficient area, a brazed joint would be stronger than mild steel. Again like soldering, a different metal is used as a sort of adhesive. Nickel-bronze rods have been used in race-car fabrication since the lower temperatures employed minimise risks of distortion and also cracking where such alloy steels as 4130 are used.

    Incidentally I had a lovely book, originally French that was first published in 1913. It was called "Autogenous Welding" and was produced by the "Soudogaz" company. It seems that oxy-acetylene welding was invented by the French about 1904. The book had many splendid photographs of proud French artisans holding extraordinary pieces of welding and fabrication work. Of course most of them had magnificent moustaches!