On Wednesday morning, news emerged out of Paris that two Muslim men aboard Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, were Islamic radicals listed on France’s terrorist watch list.
French foreign intelligence agents from the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure) released this information to the Paris weekly L’Express. Immediately, the story became headline news around the globe. And then, just hours later, those same French terrorism investigators recanted.
“No Terrorists in AF447,” read the second L’Express headline posted on Wednesday evening at 5:35 p.m. local time. Translated from the French, the flip-flop was explained as follows:
Failing to have the date of birth of passengers, it was impossible [for DGSE agents] to know if they were real terrorists or homonyms. Refining their “screening,” the investigators said, raised doubts. The theory of the accident, which killed 228 people, remains privileged.
Why did DGSE agents release potentially “doubtful” information ten days into an investigation when they could have waited only a few more hours to verify facts? Before this information was released, terrorism as a cause for the crash was at the bottom of most experts’ guess lists. Investigators had been focusing on mechanical failure, namely faulty speed sensors, as well as lighting strikes. Satellite photographs suggest that the aircraft flew into a violent storm. At first there was no crash site, which only enhanced the mystery. Then the site was found. Headway was being made. Why bring terrorism into the mix so late in the game, only to say excusez-moi, our mistake?
It is implausible to think that French investigators would release theoretical information before they checked the birth dates, unless they wanted that information in the public domain. The exclusive story was generated by agents from the DGSE, not by the French press. By raising inside suspicions of terrorism, French investigators have gained collaborative possibilities from agents abroad. If critical passenger information was not being shared with international agents before, that certainly is no longer the case. Now terrorism investigators from around the globe — from Interpol to DHS — are decoding the backstory of every passenger on that list with new eyes. French investigators wanted to make the story headline news. And they did.