In an unprecedented formal complaint, France on Thursday accused the White House of conducting an organized smear campaign against the French government through a series of unattributed and unsubstantiated leaks to the US media.
Paris has told its diplomats in America to monitor the US press for further signs of a disinformation campaign, a very public sign of distrust suggesting that there has been no improvement in Franco-American relations since the Iraq war.
France's ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, sent a letter to the administration and to Congress complaining about a string of news stories in the US press before and since the war.
They include reports in the conservative Washington Times quoting unnamed American government sources as saying that Paris had given French passports to senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime, allowing them to escape to Syria and then fly to Europe.
Following angry French denials, the State Department said there was no evidence to "substantiate the premise" behind the report.
However, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was more ambivalent, pointing out that "France has historically had a very close relationship with Iraq."
Asked about the smear allegations yesterday, Rumsfeld said, "I know nothing of such a campaign. Certainly there is no such campaign out of this building. I can't speak for the rest of the government."
The French embassy yesterday refused to release Levitte's letter before it was formally delivered to US officials. But according to the Washington Post, other stories listed in a two-page annex to the French complaint include a 1998 New York Times report claiming that France and Germany had sold high-precision switches to Iraq which could be used to detonate a nuclear bomb.
In fact, according to officials, Paris blocked the sale and informed the German government of Iraq's pursuit of the switches.