PARIS — As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to revamp American counter-terrorism programs and close down the Bush administration's controversial Guantanamo Bay military tribunals, the incoming Democratic leader could find a few building blocks in what France calls its "fight against terror."
Relying on extensive intelligence, far-reaching domestic terrorism laws and close coordination with the United States, France has established an efficient strategy that's won public support and begrudging respect even from critics, who argue that Paris is rounding up too many people and risking a Muslim backlash.
"We don't agree with the concept of 'war on terror,' " said Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who served as France's best-known counter-terrorism judge for more than 20 years and helped capture the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994.
"We call it the fight against terror," said Bruguiere, who's now helping the European Union examine terrorist financing. "It's not a war. A war implies the use of military forces and we can't use military forces inside the country, so it's necessary to use other, nonmilitary means."
The biggest lesson the United States can learn from France is to build broad public support for a more open counter-terrorism strategy, said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution research center who specializes in Europe and national-security issues.
By denying suspects their day in court and having a network of secret prisons, the Bush administration provoked public skepticism, Shapiro said.
"It's very shortsighted when you fail to generate a societal consensus for what is a very real and long-term problem," he said. "The problem isn't rendition itself, it's . . . doing these things by executive fiat. Rendition, if well-supervised, could be a useful tool."
Supporters of the French approach note that while neighboring Spain and England have sustained deadly terrorist attacks in recent years, France so far has been immune.
The French model relies on sophisticated intelligence cooperation and broad laws that allow the police to imprison suspects with only tangential terrorist ties.
Even as American hawks were denouncing France in 2003 for its opposition to invading Iraq — the House of Representatives changed its lunchroom menus to offer "freedom fries" — intelligence officials in Paris were quietly working with their U.S. counterparts on a secret counter-terrorism program.
The project came to light when The Washington Post revealed details in 2005. The CIA-backed center in Paris collects, distills and transforms information into clandestine counter-terrorism operations. Alliance Base, as it's called, is credited with orchestrating the 2003 arrest of Christian Ganczarski, a German convert to Islam who's awaiting trial in France as an alleged mastermind, along with al Qaida leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of a 2002 synagogue bombing in Tunisia that killed 21 people, including two French citizens.
Ganczarski attorney Sebastien Bono contends that the case against his client is based on thin evidence and intelligence that the government hasn't shared with him.
Bono said the spark for the arrest was a taped, 30-second call in which the bomber in Tunisia simply asked Ganczarski to pray for him and then hung up.
"I think we have good intelligence services, and intelligence services are a necessity in any society," Bono said. "But we are not dealing with intelligence here."
Human Rights Watch recently cited Ganczarski's case in a report critical of France's counter-terrorism laws.
The group warned that France's expansive use of the law was stretching the legal system to the breaking point by undermining the rights of suspects, using information allegedly obtained by torture in questionable countries and rounding up innocent men.
Shapiro said, however, that the very openness of Ganzarski's upcoming trial was one example of the strength of the system.
"A not-guilty verdict, as much as a guilty verdict, can be a success by showing that the system is not a rubber stamp," he said.
Experts such as Shapiro and James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. probably wouldn't embrace France's tougher domestic-intelligence system.
"There's a limit to what we can do on domestic intelligence," Lewis said.
To contain terrorist threats, France relies on a broad racketeering-style law that allows police to imprison people who are loosely affiliated with suspects. That, critics say, casts too wide a net.
Human Rights Watch said that suspects in France had been arrested and jailed, often for years, because they were part of a hiking group with a suspected terrorist or because they went to the same pizzeria in the low-income Paris suburbs famous for making pizzas with meat specially prepared for Muslim devotees.
"It is true that French secret services have been one of the most efficient, but the price is high," said William Bourdon, a veteran human-rights attorney in Paris. "What is the price of efficiency if you simultaneously contribute to worsening the feeling of persecution and stigmatization that provides arguments for Salafists in little clandestine mosques north of Paris, who use this bitterness to recruit new people?"
Bruguiere contended that French successes in combating terrorism haven't come at the expense of human rights.
"I think the United States understands, seven years after Sept. 11, that the systems implemented by President Bush are no longer acceptable," he said. "So the next administration understands that the French system is very efficient. And there is no gap between legality and efficiency. You can be very efficient in the framework of the law."
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