Elsewhere it would hardly qualify as noteworthy, but in France it is a small revolution.
In an apparent departure from a tradition of secrecy in all matters security, the French government has commissioned a Web site that will provide a detailed data base of past terrorist acts and advice on how to react in case of future ones.
Sites on terrorism accessible to the public have mushroomed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, notably in the English-speaking world, but this is the first of its kind in French. Due to get under way in May, its central aim is to bolster the government’s credibility in dealing with terrorism by setting up an independent and definitive source of information open to all.
According to FranÃ§ois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and the mastermind of the Web site, French security officials are increasingly embracing the idea that people are more likely to accept government measures in the event of a terrorist attack if they are kept in the loop beforehand.
“It’s a big change of attitude for France,” Heisbourg said in an interview. “The notion that information should be spread rather than held back is a revolution. Unlike Anglo-Saxon societies, Latin societies have an instinct to control information.”
The new Web site, which will be accessible from both the Foundation’s site (www.frstrategie.org) and the Interior Ministry’s site (www.interieur.gouv.fr), is part of a broad overhaul of the government’s strategy on terrorism.
While France has lived with occasional outbreaks of terrorism since a messy extraction from its North African colonies in the 1960s, senior officials acknowledge that the latest breed of Islamic terrorism requires a new set of responses – and one that is geared toward the long term.
Security experts reporting directly to President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin are currently drafting proposals on how to refine intelligence services, improve civil protection mechanisms and strengthen the state’s capacity to provide first aid, notably in case of biological or chemical attacks. This “white paper” on terrorism will be published next spring.
Transparency appears to be one pillar of the new strategy.
Heisbourg first pitched the idea of a Web site to the Interior Ministry in early 2004, but support for the project was lukewarm – until the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people on March 11 last year.
In a powerful illustration of how fragile public trust can be in an emergency and how crucially it is rooted in transparency, the conservative Spanish government at the time unexpectedly lost elections three days after the attacks. It was suspected of withholding information in the hours after the bombings and manipulating journalists into believing that the blasts were the work of Basque separatists and not Islamic extremists.
“March 11 was a crucial date for Europe,” said Etienne Guepratte, chief spokesman for the French Interior Ministry. “The Web site corresponds to a new need – we have to adapt our instruments.”
There will be three parts to the site: a data base going back 40 years with information on terrorist acts on French soil and against French interests abroad; a section on how to react to nuclear, biological or chemical attack; and an interactive part that will encourage visitors to send in comments, though strictly not for publication.
The data base is the backbone of the Web site. Type in “GIA 1995” and the search engine spits out a list of the attacks committed 10 years ago by the Algerian-run Armed Islamic Group, abbreviated in French as GIA. A hypertexted script offers further explanations at a click.
If such a site had been available to Spanish voters last year, Heisbourg argues, they could have plugged in some of the known variables, like the approximate death toll, the method and the target, and found that the Madrid attacks bore many characteristics that did not fit the pattern of the Basque terrorist group ETA.
“Madrid illustrated that attempts to manipulate can badly backfire,” Heisbourg said. “To make such manipulation more difficult, you want information that is once-removed from the authorities.”
Terrorism experts inside and outside of France have welcomed both the new data base and the section preparing citizens for possible future attacks.
“I think it is a great development as we try to understand terrorism, and try plan for an ever-shifting threat environment,” said Matt Mayer, acting executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His department uses the “Terrorism Knowledge Base,” a data base published by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (www.tkb.org/Home.jsp).
“This was missing in France – there are a lot of data bases, but so far they are all Anglo-Saxon,” said Christian Sommade, general secretary of the French High Committee on Civil Defense, a Paris-based association.
Only the interactive part of the Web site is causing mild unease. Some critics have expressed concern it could encourage malicious accusations in a country with a history of denunciation, notably during the Vichy collaborationist period under the Nazis in World War II.
“There is unfortunately a tradition of denunciation associated with France because we had a period of occupation – but it happens just about anywhere,” Heisbourg said. “This is a delicate element, but we believe the benefits of having a place for comments outweigh the risks.”
All comments will be filtered by Heisbourg’s team and passed on to the government only if they are considered serious, he said. “It’s a judgment call – just as it is when somebody sends you an anonymous letter with information,” he said.
At the Interior Ministry, officials stressed that there was no covert ambition to collect information through the site: “The sole purpose is to inform citizens,” said Guepratte, the ministry’s spokesman.