Created in April 1981 following a series of scandals that had hit its predecessor, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE), the DGSE is France’s principal foreign intelligence agency. It is based at 128 Avenue Mortier, close to a public swimming pool from which it derives its nickname, “La Piscine.” Staffed mainly by military personnel on temporary assignment, the SDECE had acquired a ruthless reputation during the Algerian campaign, when Ahmed Ben Bella’s plane was hijacked in
1955 and Mehdi Ben Barka was abducted a decade later. Allegations from Soviet defectors that the SDECE had been penetrated at high level by the KGB undermined the organization and prompted the defection to the Central Intelligence Agency of Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, the SDECE’s bureau chief in Washington, D.C., who suspected that there was little enthusiasm to root out the Soviet moles.
The French reputation for ruthlessness was enhanced in July 1985 when Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior was sabotaged by a DGSE team in Auckland Harbor, a scandal that prompted the resignation of Pierre Lacoste. Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the DGSE, always active in Francophone Africa, has concentrated on the collection of commercial intelligence in support of French business interests.
The directors have been Henri Ribière (1946–51), Pierre Boursicot (1951–57), Gen. Paul Grossin (1957–62), Gen. Eugene Guibaud (1966–70), Alexandre de Marchenches (1970–81), Pierre Marion
(1981–82), Adm. Pierre Lacoste (1982–85), Gen. Rene Imbot (1985–87), Gen. François Mermet (1987–89), Claude Silberzahn (1989–93), Jacques Dewatre (1993–99), and Jean-Claude Cousseran (1999– ).