As he continues to await the outcome of a federal bribery investigation of his dealings in Africa, the diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz this week struck back at a French newspaper which had linked him to allegations of a coup plot and raising a private militia.
Steinmetz released a letter on Monday apparently showing that a French spy agency had disavowed a document which, the newspaper had said, linked Steinmetz to a coup plot in the West African nation of Guinea.
Steinmetz has brought a defamation lawsuit against the paper, the muckraking newsweekly Le Canard Enchaîné. The suit, filed in October, is an odd sideshow to the multi-national criminal investigations surrounding Steinmetz’s mining company BSG Resources Ltd. The company faces accusations it paid millions of dollars in bribes to win access to iron ore deposits in Guinea valued at as much as $50 billion.
Le Canard Enchaîné said in September that French and U.S. intelligence believed Steinmetz was hoping to topple the current Guinean government to prevent it from seizing his mining assets there.
The release by publicists in New York and London also underscored the highly public nature of the battles that the normally low-profile Steinmetz is now waging since BSG Resources, which Steinmetz owns through family trusts, became the focus prosecutors’ efforts to combat transnational corruption in Guinea, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Steinmetz and BSG Resources have steadfastly denied the allegations, claiming to be the victims of a “smear campaign” by commercial and strategic adversaries bent on depriving the company of its assets.
“The fabrication and dissemination of forged intelligence reports are the latest indications that Guinean President Alpha Conde will use illegal tactics to fulfill his ambition of seizing BSGR’s mining assets,” said a company statement.
The Guinean government has denied the allegations.
A former Steinmetz associate, Frédéric Cilins, is due to stand trial in New York in March on charges of attempting to tamper with the work of a federal grand jury which is investigating the Guinea mining deal. Cilins also denies the charges.
In its article in September, Le Canard Enchaîné wrote that analytical documents from the Central Intelligence Agency and France’s Directorate-General for External Security, or D.G.S.E., together claimed that a security consultant for Steinmetz was forming a private militia to assist in dirty-tricks operations to overthrow President Alpha Condé, whose government is poised to revoke BSGR’s mineral contracts.
The article appeared just days before Guinea was scheduled to hold parliamentary elections. The country’s security minister Madifing Diane seized on the report, warning that “Guinea is in danger and the strings are being pulled from the outside.”
No coup d’état occurred during the elections. However, the information released this week by Steinmetz’s company, while not conclusive, cast serious doubt on the article’s claims.
According to correspondence released Monday, Steinmetz’s Paris attorney Richard Malka obtained the reporter’s source documents as part of the lawsuit and asked D.G.S.E. Director-General Bernard Bajolet to authenticate them.
A January 13 response, apparently from D.G.S.E. Chief of Staff Stéphane Genest, told Malka that the document “does not come from the D.G.S.E.”
The French Defense Ministry, which houses the D.G.S.E., told 100Reporters it could not comment on pending court cases.
But Steinmetz’s publicists said the letter showed the reporter had relied on “faked” documents and they released the source documents, one in French and another in English, which matched information that Le Canard Enchaîné had attributed to the C.I.A.
Davidson Goldin, a New York spokesman for Steinmetz, did not respond when asked if Steinmetz’s lawyers had made any attempt to authenticate the English-language document with the C.I.A.
C.I.A. spokesman Todd Ebitz said his agency had no comment.
But Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a repository of intelligence and law enforcement records in Washington, D.C., said the English-language document did not appear to originate with the C.I.A.
“It has no markings of any kind, including who wrote it and who it was written for. No classification stamps, no routing numbers or office designation, no cable time codes, etc.,” Kornbluh said in an email. “The language it uses is not a professional phraseology.”
Kornbluh noted that the documented called for U.S., French and other state authorities to be “alerted” so that they could thwart the supposed coup plot — “which means it was not written by an actual C.I.A. analyst, who would never make such a suggestion,” Kormbluh said.
Reached at his office in Paris on Monday, Le Canard Enchaîné’s editor-in-chief Louis-Marie Horeau said he strongly doubted that the intelligence agencies would publicly discuss the authenticity of their own records.
“It’s been some time that Steinmetz has been parading about documents which supposedly are denials. The D.G.S.E. and the C.I.A. never either confirm or deny the authenticity of their notes,” said Horeau.
Horeau could not be reached subsequently for comment on Steinmetz’s release of the apparent D.G.S.E. letter. An attorney for the paper, Jean-Marc Fédida, and its publisher, Michel Gaillard, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a follow-up article in October, Le Canard Enchaîné acknowledged the commotion produced in Guinea by its first article.
“By reporting on the two documents at the origin of this political tumult, ‘Le Canard’ did not present gospel truths but the views of intelligence eggheads, supported, at least partly, by facts,” the article said, noting the existence of an F.B.I. investigation into Steinmetz’s business.
Founded in 1915, Le Canard Enchaîné is an anomaly in the French news media. It has no functioning website, accepts no advertising and prefers punning editorial cartoons to photographs. It has long been feared in the upper echelons of French society for its damning revelations, having for example exposed Finance Minister Maurice Papon in 1981 as an accomplice to crimes against humanity during the Holocaust.
The newspaper derives its unusual name from L’Homme Enchaîné, or the “Chained Man,” a name taken in reaction to government censorship during World War I by a newspaper published by the statesman Georges Clémenceau. “Canard,” or duck, is a colloquial word for newspaper.
The provisions for criminal defamation in France’s 19th century press freedom laws are widely seen as severe and are sometimes criticized for both encouraging easy libel cases and hindering free expression.
This has not caused Le Canard Enchaîné to shy away from litigious targets and the paper has frequently been the subject of lawsuits for defamation, with mixed results.
In April, the newspaper was convicted of defaming Bernard Squarcini, the head of police intelligence, after accusing him of illegally placing journalists under surveillance after they criticized then-President Nicolas Sarkozy. (Squarcini is, however, expected to stand trial next month on criminal charges of spying on a newspaper reporter.)
Sarkozy’s Finance Minister Eric Woerth in February lost a defamation case against Le Canard Enchaîné after it reported that that he had authorized a cut-rate, no-bid government sale of 140 acres of forested land to private developers.
The industrial and telecoms conglomerate Bouygues S.A. in 2012 also lost a defamation case brought against the newspaper, which said a criminal investigation for corruption and influence peddling had been opened over the award of a multi-billion-dollar contract for the construction of new Defense Ministry headquarters near Paris.