Parlez-Vous Espionage?

Settled into their comfy seats on an Air France flight to Paris, two American business executives begin talking about their company's marketing and technical plans. A private chat? Maybe not. According to NBC's "Expose" program last week, there may be microphones hidden in the seats. Alongside you may be a French government spy posing as a passenger or even--quelle horreur!--a flight attendant. All are allegedly working to ferret information that could benefit French companies.

Are those naughty French at it again? Air France categorically denies that it has condoned or conducted any espionage. But NBC says there is an "elaborate industrial espionage campaign" run by the French government to steal secret information from U.S. companies. The report was not particularly new to U.S. intelligence officials. Over the last 10 years, officials say, the French intelligence agency has tried to infiltrate U.S. companies abroad with a grab bag of spy tricks that include planting bugs and copying secret documents. -But last week the former head of the French spy agency finally confirmed that the French have indeed been spying on their allies' industries for years. Pierre Marion, who served as head of the French equivalent of the CIA in the early 1980s, said he set up a 20-agent branch to gather secret technologies and marketing plans of private companies. The branch was formed with President Francois Mitterrand's knowledge and "was not directed [only] against the United States, but was worldwide," Marion told NEWSWEEK.

The French Foreign Ministry declined to comment. But Marion, 70, was far from contrite, portraying the alleged spying as an essential way for France to keep abreast of international commerce and technology. Marion says his spies were able to win France a billion dollar contract to supply jet fighters to India by getting inside information on competing bids. He also confirmed a story that the French built a computer with the help of stolen American technology-and as a joke nicknamed it with the initials of the French secret service.

Marion's confession wasn't the first public disclosure. Last year the FBI confirmed a French scheme to infiltrate foreign offices of IBM and Texas Instruments. As reported in L'Express, a French news magazine, the French secret service tried to recruit agents inside the companies to gather trade secrets useful to the largely government-owned computer firm Compagnie des Machines Bull. Texas Instruments and IBM declined comment. Bull has denied any involvement in espionage.

Marion's airing may strengthen arguments that the United States should reconsider its espionage policy. With the cold war over and economic battles intensifying, some experts say, America should step up foreign-company spying. But that isn't likely soon. Former director William Webster has ruled out giving foreign economic information to U.S. companies. For now, perhaps, the best policy is to watch what you say to the flight attendants.