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France says it is victim of smear campaign

Bush administration disputes charge

From Andrea Koppel and John King
CNN Washington Bureau

French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte said the United States is spreading misinformation about the French government.
French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte said the United States is spreading misinformation about the French government.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- France says it is the victim of a smear campaign by the Bush administration, charging some U.S. officials are leaking false stories about alleged French complicity with the Iraqi regime.

The Bush administration dismissed the charge.

The French government lays out its claim in a letter written by the French ambassador to the United States, according to a French diplomat familiar with its contents.

The letter was to have been delivered to the White House and members of Congress Thursday.

"This is not acceptable," said one French diplomat. France "does not consider it a policy, but considers that some people have done some damage to the relationship."

One U.S. official involved in national security matters said the French claim was baseless.

"There are a lot of things we don't like, and we have not been shy about that," said the U.S. official. "But there is no campaign against the French."

The Bush administration has made no secret of its anger following an intense campaign by France earlier this year to block a U.S.-led attempt to win the support of the U.N. Security Council for a second resolution authorizing military action in Iraq.

The French campaign succeeded and the United States, Great Britain and Spain instead went ahead with a "coalition of the willing" to invade Iraq without the backing of the United Nations.

In his letter, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte cited eight examples of what he describes as proof of a deliberate U.S. campaign to spread misinformation about the French government. CNN has obtained a copy of the list, which accompanies the letter.

"We cannot accept to be accused repeatedly for stories sourced in the administration for things we have not done," said the French diplomat familiar with the letter. "Who did this? Why? For what agenda?" the diplomat wondered aloud.

Among the stories cited by the French:

• News reports, quoting administration officials, suggesting France might have sold weapons to Iraq in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

• A Washington Times story reporting U.S. intelligence sources had received information suggesting French officials in Syria were helping members of the Iraqi leadership escape the U.S. military by issuing French passports to them. (Excerpts from the list)

"The passport story had them really hot," said a senior U.S. official. "They delivered passionate, heated and repeated denials that any such thing was occurring."

The official said there was no evidence of the French issuing such passports, and noted the White House never said there was any such evidence.

On the day of the Washington Times story, however, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer suggested reporters would be better served asking the French whether they provided passports to Iraqi officials.

At the time Fleischer made that statement at the daily White House briefing, other senior officials privately suggested the story was based on one uncorroborated tip received by U.S. intelligence agencies, and that the information was being investigated but not being treated as true or even necessarily credible.

"That one put them over the top," this official said. Nevertheless, this official and the others denied any coordinated effort to smear the French. "Do we have reason to be mad? We think we do," the senior official said.

This official said the French letter had not been received at the White House, but that there had been "official communications" suggesting it would be delivered as early as Thursday.

This official suggested any assertion of an organized campaign "is ridiculous" and attributed the letter to "a sense of resentment" by some French officials that U.S. officials have talked of negative ramifications for U.S.-French relations because of the disagreements over Iraq.

Deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan, when asked about the French complaint, recalled a recent quote from Secretary of State Colin Powell that "the United States and France have been in marriage counseling for 200 years."

McClellan also said the United States and France are allies and that, while differences persist, "We are looking to the future."

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