Thirty-two years after the Rainbow Warrior bombing, unrepentant French spy Christine Cabon is found
She was the missing piece of the grim Rainbow Warrior jigsaw – the young undercover agent who eluded police and disappeared. Ahead of Monday's anniversary of the Rainbow Warrior bombing Cecile Meier and Kelly Dennett tracked secret agent Christine Cabon to a small French village, where she broke her 32-year silence.
Retired detective Allan Galbraith remembers it as an Auckland newspaper that spooked Christine Cabon.
After weeks of painstaking investigations revealed a French undercover agent had infiltrated Greenpeace to help plan the Rainbow Warrior bombing, police discovered the spy was in Israel. A newspaper published details of detectives hastening to Israel to capture her.
They arrived to an empty house.
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The investigation into the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior was the biggest of Galbraith's lengthy career which included a stint as assistant police commissioner, and helping establishing the Independent Police Conduct Authority.
Christine Cabon, a mysterious cog in the planning and preparation of the bombing, was a "crucial element" of that inquiry, he says. "She disappeared before we could do anything."
Most of the undercover agents have spoken out publicly – some wrote books, others gave interviews – but what became of Cabon was relatively unknown until now.
Stuff searched for her, canvassing books, articles, old newspaper clippings, interviewing experts and witnesses, and corroborating minute details with official records.
That led us to a small French town in the south of France.
AN ATYPICAL LEFTIE
On April 23, 1985, armed with a letter of recommendation from a Parisian arm of Greenpeace, Christine Cabon introduced herself to staff at Greenpeace's Auckland offices.
She was 'Frederique Bonlieu', a geomorphologist who was passionate about the environment and willing to volunteer on international missions.
Cabon inserted herself into Greenpeace's anti-nuclear testing projects, making friends with its directors and volunteers, sleeping on their couches, and crucially for the French, acquiring intimate details of its workings.
She told people she was a French aristocrat and an activist. The only truth was her age, and that she was from south-west France.
Christine Cabon was known to Greenpeace as 'Frederique Bonlieu'.
Born August 2, 1951, near Pau, Christine had an elder brother Bernard, who was in the army, and a sister.
Her father, an army officer, died before she joined the mission.
She had a keen interest in archaeology and studied modern history and geography before joining the French army in 1977. She was 26.
Quickly she became involved in the intelligence unit of the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE) – the French secret service.
Arriving in New Zealand aged 33, Cabon struck Greenpeace members as an atypical leftie, and her story about why she was there raised vague suspicions that never quite solidified.
She was welcomed into the fold. "In Auckland, they were happy to get a Frenchie to help in an anti-French nuclear testing operation," French historian Gerald Arboit says. "She was friendly, talked to everyone, played the tourist. People talked to her."
Cabon was chosen for the mission because she was a young woman, Arboit believes, different from what people typically thought of as a military type.
Bonlieu's image fitted with the global women's liberation movement. For clandestine missions, the secret service also chose agents who weren't far from the role they would play – she might even have a genuine interest in the environment, Arboit says.
French reports of the time confirm this. Cabon's brother-in-law told a French newspaper she loved nature deeply. "She railed against hunters when we were hiking in the mountains," he recalled.
A SPY IN THE MIDST
The infiltration was easy.
"Her role in the operation was minimal but crucial," Arboit says.
Cabon's mission was to find the Rainbow Warrior's itinerary and to pave the way for other agents to sabotage it.
She snapped photos of Auckland, bought road and maritime maps, and established how to obtain an inflatable boat and gas for the divers' bottles.
Former Greenpeace worker Judy Seaboyer remembers Cabon's presence in the office.
"She just kept hanging about a lot, allowing herself to be left in the office at times.
"It felt really weird to us after the event. Nothing was hidden from anybody. She could have been much more straightforward."
There was no need for Cabon to sneak around, or wait for workers to leave the office to pry into documents – if she had asked questions they would have openly told her everything she needed to know about the Rainbow Warrior, Seaboyer says.
Jane Cooper, another Greenpeace worker at the time, invited Cabon to stay at the flat she shared with then NZ Herald reporter Karen Mangnall.
Mangnall refused to comment.
After about six weeks in Auckland, Cabon's job was done and she left the country.
First she flew to Tahiti in French Polynesia, and then to Israel. While she was overseas, the bombs went off.
Close to midnight on July 10, the Warrior was moored in Auckland, ahead of its planned confrontation at Mururoa Atoll where the French were nuclear testing.
French in diving gear had attached two plastic-wrapped explosives to the propeller, and engine room wall.
Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira drowned as a result.
Galbraith describes the ensuing investigation: "It was more than just another job because of the international connotations, of the whole thing, and the political aspects of it.
"In one sense it was just another criminal investigation, but there were extenuating circumstances – of the French having done such a thing.
France initially denied responsibility, but later admitted agents had been ordered on the mission.
"It was totally unexpected. Out of the blue. Certainly to the police. Whether any other intelligence agencies knew about it was something we had in our minds but something we never had an answer to."
The connection between the mysterious French newcomer and the bombing took some time.
Police hunting for clues searched the French yacht Ouvea which had transported some agents. They discovered a Ponsonby address written on the back of a postcard.
A raid of the bewildered occupants of the home, an art studio, identified the handwriting on the card as theirs.
They remembered the woman well, a tourist who had stayed with their friends.
She had told them her name was Frederique and they described her as 33 years old, 1.7m tall, stocky, with short blonde hair and glasses.
Bit by bit, detectives uncovered details of Cabon's life in New Zealand.
Seaboyer says everyone in Greenpeace felt "naive" after discovering why she was really working with Greenpeace.
Detectives tracked Cabon to Israel and issued a warrant for her arrest on July 24, 1985.
"It was a surprise to find her in Israel," Galbraith says.
"I think it simply was Israel was a friendly harbour, and she was able to simply submerge into life there.
"I think the Israelis were very well aware she was an intelligence agent."
Two days later, the Star broke the news that a Greenpeace volunteer claiming to be an archaeology student was an undercover agent instrumental in the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. Then the NZ Herald reported detectives were en route to Israel to arrest her.
She disappeared the same day.
Arboit, the historian, suspects the French disguised her and flew her back home. "Once in France, she was untouchable."
Galbraith recalls sending detectives to various parts of the world.
Cabon had given Greenpeace contact details for a Greek archeologist she had known, and the woman's Los Angeles apartment was watched for weeks.
An address connected with her in Pau, in the French Pyrenees, turned out to be abandoned.
Back then, the best way to track someone was relying on flight information, Interpol, and other Governments.
The French weren't forthcoming, and quickly detectives ran into a brick wall. It wasn't long before Galbraith realised police had to give up the ghost.
"It was too late. We knew she'd gone from Israel and I think we learned that she was back in France.
"I'm not sure how we found that out. The only two we still had in our grasp at that time were the two who were convicted later," Galbraith says.
"In terms of chasing someone through other countries ... it was a laborious process back then."
While Cabon did her vanishing act, two other agents were being hauled over the coals.
Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart, who had posed as Swiss tourists, were the only agents to stand trial.
They were given lengthy sentences, but served only two years on a French Polynesian Atoll.
Arboit believes it was unlikely Cabon knew the specifics of what was planned, so as to not blow her cover.
Previous missions against Greenpeace had involved small acts of sabotage, including poisoning food to disrupt Greenpeace's itinerary.
Combat divers involved in the bombing were certainly surprised such a drastic action ensued, Arboit says.
They initially thought it might be a training exercise.
But politicians in charge wanted to send a strong message to Greenpeace, which had intensified its anti-nuclear efforts with the Rainbow Warrior – a much bigger ship than previous ones it had used.
"It could have forced its way into the nuclear testing zone and the only way to stop it would have been to shoot at it, which wouldn't be a great look for the French."
French authorities would have considered the mission successful, regardless of Pereira's death, Arboit says.
"If it wasn't for him, no one would be still talking about the Rainbow Warrior," he adds, bluntly.
"It was a successful operation, mission accomplished. Pereira was collateral damage, which is not unusual for a DGSE mission. What went wrong was that Prieur and Mafart were arrested."
Folklore has painted Cabon as everything from an unremarkable, unlikeable woman, to an excellent agent who did her country a service. A peripheral character, or a crucial cog.
"One of the best intelligence-gathering agents of the DGSE," according to The Rainbow Warrior Affair book.
Journalist Karen Mangnall, who had lived briefly with Cabon, was assigned by the NZ Herald to cover the investigation.
One of her news reports after the bombing – now shown to be incorrect – claimed Cabon had undergone facial reconstruction surgery and acquired a new identity to protect herself from retaliation, particularly from enemies she targeted prior to her arrival in New Zealand.
The truth was more mundane.
Life as a spy ended for Cabon as soon as her identity was revealed, Arboit says.
The publicity surrounding her involvement meant any future undercover roles were blighted.
Cabon followed a normal career in the terrestrial army instead.
Beginning as a lieutenant she graduated to captain of human resources, then colonel, eventually retiring with high honours – first the ordre national du merite, then the legion d'honneur.
A name. Then an address. Then a phone number, in the small village of Lasseubetat, in the southwest of France. For days, the phone rings unanswered – until finally, she picks up.
Christine Cabon is civil, gracious even. New Zealand was a "magnificent" country, she recalls. "I have fond memories of New Zealand and of the people I met," she says.
At 66, the local councillor lives a peaceful life with her four dogs, her garden, her civic duties to the good people of Lasseubetat and as the town's unofficial historian.
Initially, though, she is not interested in discussing her own role in history.
Negotiating conversation while directing her dog ("Excuse me for a second, my dog is trying to eat one of my socks. I have to get it before he swallows it!") she politely, but firmly, declines to talk about the bombing.
Cabon has watched from remote seclusion as others broke their silence.
Mafart and Prieur – the agents arrested posing as a Swiss couple – each wrote books.
The man who set the bomb on the ship – Jean-Luc Kister – publicly apologised to New Zealand on national television.
Not for her, such outpourings.
"Thanks for giving me the opportunity to express myself but I do not intend to go off the reservation," she says. "It's an ethical question."
Sometimes she gets frustrated hearing only one version of the events, but says she will respect her contractual obligation to the army – which forbids her speaking for 50 years after seeing active service.
Yet over the following days, she opens up gradually, sometimes defensively. So does she have anything to say to the New Zealand public?
"My job was what it was," she says. "I entered the army to prevent international and national conflict because my family, originally from Alsace, suffered from the war.
"My career choice is my problem but I ended up [involved in the Rainbow Warrior affair] as a result of my choice."I think all military people who serve their countries can find themselves in situations they hadn't wished for."
That is the closest she comes, at first, to acknowledging any glimmer of regret.
And she's soon back on message: the army has an important role to play and wars around the world are still taking lives, she says.
"I have many comrades who are getting killed in Mali by ISIS, in Iraq and in several places around the world."
She has nothing to say to the New Zealand public.
"It would have too many implications. There might be some private people I could send a message to, people I met while in New Zealand, but not for the public."
Yet in 1985, a news story reported she wrote to Greenpeace organisers after she learned about the bombing.
In a letter from Israel postmarked July 19, a week before she disappeared, she lamented Pereira's death: "What can I say about such a news? I feel so choked."
She wrote that if the French Government was behind the bombing, its strategy had backfired and given even more support to the campaign against French nuclear tests.
"Why such a monstrosity?" she asked.
THE VILLAGE MARKET
It's the peak of summer in Lasseubetat, on the gentle lower slopes of the Pyrenees.
The village has 250 inhabitants. Cabon, 66, is on the council and a former deputy mayor.
Many locals know her past, but they know her better for her active involvement in the life of the village over the past 10 years.
She has helped with complex issues such as the environmental impact of a local urban plan. She even created a detailed cartography of the village.
Mayor Aimé Soumet describes her as "a very precious resource for the community".
He has discussed the Rainbow Warrior affair with Cabon.
"The attack was an an interference on New Zealand soil, for sure," he agrees.
"The French context at the time explains this operation. But then, when it comes to the finesse of the execution, questions remain."
Soumet is happy to let bygones be bygones.
"She is extremely loyal. She takes responsibility for her actions, following orders. She is able to talk about it with a bit of self-critique and even a bit of self-deprecation."
It is in this benign climate that our French reporter and photographer from the local paper, La République des Pyrénées, knock on Cabon's door.
She is preparing for the village market, a couple of days later. Too gracious to turn them away, she invites them in for a drink of cider and acquiesces to talk further.
She refuses to let us record the interview: "I was in the intelligence services, you're not going to have me on like that," she says with a smile.
But over a drink, she recalls her mission in 1985. Gathering information, sending reports back to France, all the while living and breathing the fictitious persona of environmental activist Frederique Bonlieu.
"I even helped Greenpeace draft a letter to the French president, asking him to halt nuclear testing."
"I wasn't living a lie," she says.
"I was playing a role. In a way, comedians would do a better job than us. It is not difficult per se. It's when we leave that it's complicated. You need 24 to 48 hours to recover."
She did not know the details of the operation because of a secret service principle called "partitioning":
"No agent on the ground needs to know the whole mission."
And a month before the bombing, she left.
She kept her head down for six weeks, as the full extent of the scandal emerged.
That glimmer of regret, again. Pereira's death should have never happened, she says, "but it's too late to go back in time".
In Israel that week, late in July, NZ Police almost got her.
There have been many theories about how she escaped back to France.
Galbraith believes she was tipped off by media reports. Greenpeace claims she was alerted by the DGSE.
Some postulate a confidante warned her.
But according to Cabon's account, it was blind luck – she had already boarded a flight home from Israel when she got wind that police were poised to swoop.
"I learned about it when I was in the plane, so already on French territory," she remembers. "I had the good idea to book with Air France. It's a good airline."
With the arrest of Prieur and Mafart, it had been just a matter of time before the house of cards came tumbling down.
She might have escaped with her freedom, but not with her cover.
As the international political maelstrom swirled, her identity was disclosed – "a risk of the job", she says – and her career as a spy ended.
She remembers being warned of this risk when training to join the DGSE: "The biggest danger for agents on the ground, it's the politicians," she was told then.
Two years ago, one of the men who planted the bombs fronted up on television. Cabon saw Colonel Jean Luc Kister's public apology – and she didn't approve.
"In his place, I wouldn't have done it, even if I understand his reasons."
Approached for comment this week, Kister is not entering into a tit-for-tat.
"One of the basic principles of a clandestine operation is effectively the partitioning/separation system," he says. "Team members are not supposed to meet other teams in the field and don't know anything concerning their mission. Concerning this operation I will continue not to speak or comment about other team members"
Cabon, for one, will not be publicly apologising. She has her reasons, she says.
What she does acknowledge is that, 32 years on from the undercover mission, there was nothing glamorous about the life of a notorious spy.
When it was all over, Cabon may have escaped prison but she was sidelined into an office job at the DGSE. Her career of international intrigue was over.
"We know the risk exists," she says with a tired smile. "We are not like James Bond. More like Le Carré."
In Wellington, retired Detective Superintendent Allan Galbraith is not surprised at Cabon's reluctance to apologise.
He does not seek to see her extradited to face justice.
That matter had been settled long ago by this Government, and besides, so much time has passed.
"At the time we would very much have liked to have been able to lay hands on Christine Cabon but as time passed I think it became less of an issue for us, although it was frustrating.
"Later on it becomes something you accept."
And in Lasseubetat at the end of her interview, the glasses of cider emptied, Cabon reflects on her career choice again.
She stands by her decisions, even more firmly today with Isis and the rampant threat of terrorism around the world.
She acknowledges, though, that New Zealand will see it differently.
"It's a country where war never happened. They have a pacifist spirit.
"They did lose many men in the first and second world wars. But for the New Zealand Government and its population, the Rainbow Warrior affair was the first and perhaps the only violent action taken on its soil.
"For them, it is an exceptional historic event. A friendly country attacked them. For them, it's a trauma."
To New Zealanders, she concedes, "we are the terrorists".
"Whoever ordered the mission, whatever the reasons, good or bad … what we did, it's called an attack."
THE DGSE AGENTS: WHO WHERE THEY?
Christine Cabon (alias Frederique Bonlieu)
As a French secret service agent, Cabon infiltrated the Greenpeace office in April 1985 to obtain plans for the Rainbow Warrior's Mururoa expedition. She left New Zealand on May 24 1985; at the time of the bombing she was in Israel. Auckland police asked Israeli authorities to arrest her, but she again skipped the country.
Chief Petty Officer Roland Verge (alias Raymond Velche)
The skipper of the yacht Ouvea was an army combat diver, seconded to the DGSE.
His affair with the wife of a Whangarei policeman helped draw police attention to the yacht and its movements. Verge is now retired.
Petty Officer Jean-Michel Bartelo, alias Jean-Michel Berthelot
A DGSE combat diver, Bartelo was initially reported to be one of the frogmen who attached plastic-wrapped explosives to the hull to the ship. Now, his level of involvement is unclear. After a long career in the navy, he reportedly lives in the south of France and consults for offshore drilling companies.
Petty Officer Gerald Adries (aliases Eric Audrenc, Eric Andreine)
Andries, another combat frogman, purchased and shipped an inflatable and outboard motor from London for using in the bombing. Six years later he was arrested in Switzerland, but New Zealand informed Swiss authorities they would not seek his extradition, for fear of trade reprisals. Andries is now retired.
Dr Xavier Maniguet
Maniguet was one of the French residents aboard the yacht Ouvea, but initially claimed to be just a passenger. A doctor specialising in treating dive accident victims, he later wrote a book, The Jaws Of Death, that referred to his role in the Rainbow Warrior mission. Maniguet died in a small plane crash in 2009.
Major Alain Mafart (alias Alain Turenge)
Mafart was responsible for ground-based support to the sabotage team. He was arrested after arousing suspicions when returning a rental van. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. Later he was deported to Hao Atoll in French Polynesia where he served 17 months before being smuggled back to Paris, where he received a promotion and France's National Order of Merit. His autobiography blamed gossiping do-gooder New Zealanders for his arrest.
Captain Dominique Prieur (alias Sophie Turenge)
Prieur, who had studied activist groups like Greenpeace, travelled with Mafart posing as his wife. She too was arrested and sent to Hao, where her husband joined her. She was allowed to return to Paris in 1988 in contravention of the UN-brokered sentence, after becoming pregnant. In her book Secret Agent she expressed her horror at Fernando Pereira's death. "For me, the death of a man was very hard to take." She is now retired.
Colonel Louis-Pierre Dillais (alias Jean Louis Dormand)
Dillais, who was in charge of the bombing mission on the night, reportedly drove the inflatable for the two divers. The son-in-law of former Foreign Minister Jean François-Poncet, on his return to France he was promoted to head of sensitive issues at the Defence Ministry and awarded the Legion of Honour. He left to work for an arms manufacturer.
The suspected "third team" from the Rainbow Warrior bombing - French nationals "Alain Tonel" and "Jacques Camurier" .
Jean Cammas (alias Jacques Camurier)
Cammas was named by author Michael King as one of the bomber in his 1986 book Death of the Rainbow Warrior, an allegation that has been disputed by some media but reinforced by fellow diver Jean Luc Kister.
Royal, the brother of French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, reportedly admitted to his brother that he had planted the bombs. It is more likely, however, that he piloted the inflatable. After retiring from the army he moved into private sector intelligence services. Pereira's daughter Marelle has called for him to be extradited to stand trial for murder, but the NZ government has repeated that the case as closed.
Colonel Jean Luc Kister (alias Alain Tonel)
Awarded the Légion of Honour in 1994, Kister left the army to take up a security advisory role for the UN. In retirement, he gave a 2015 interview to the TVNZ Sunday show in which he apologised for the bombing and Pereira's death - the only agent to do so.
Colonel Jean-Claude Lesquer
Lesquer, the head of the DGSE's Action unit, specialised in clandestine ops. Charged with the bombing, he lost his post over the scandal. But he climbed back through the ranks during the Gulf War and in 1995, he was promoted to major-general.
Admiral Henri Fages
As director of the Mururoa's Nuclear test centre and chief of South Pacific French Fleet, he informed the French minister of defence about the Greenpeace threat and asked for an "intensification of intelligence gathering" to stop the Rainbow Warrior. Retired in June 1985, he was not involved in the affair.
Admiral Pierre Lacoste
The head of the secret service, Lacoste lost his job over the embarrassment caused to France by the mission. The newspaper Le Monde published extracts of a 1986 report in which he said he acted under the orders of President Francois Mitterrand himself.
The Minister of Defence who ordered the mission, Hernu resigned when his role became public. Hernu died at the age of 66.
- Sunday Star Times