WASHINGTON -- Prompted by new evidence that French intelligence agents have been directed to seek U.S. corporate secrets, the Clinton administration is preparing an intensive effort to thwart industrial espionage by its allies.
Administration officials said yesterday they had concluded that a 21-page document listing U.S. aerospace companies as targets for industrial spying had been issued by the French government.
The document, whose contents were first reported by Knight-Ridder News Service, was described by the officials as an assignment to agents to gather secrets being sought by French companies.
The French government has said there is no indication that the document is authentic. But the State Department confirmed yesterday that it had been briefed about its contents and said it was taking the spying allegations seriously.
In an account confirmed by government officials, Knight-Ridder said the espionage plan gave top priority to technologies being developed by companies that compete with government-controlled French companies. The officials said they thought the document had been prepared in 1989 or 1990.
Among the items listed is the HS 601 communications satellite, developed by the Hughes Aircraft Co., which recently lost out to French companies in a competition to provide $258 million worth such spacecraft to Arab countries.
Hughes, which was told about the document by the Central Intelligence Agency this month, has cited it among its reasons for withdrawing from the Paris Air Show.
A senior official who insisted on anonymity said the administration had discussed the issue with the French in recent days. The official refused to characterize the exchange.
Other government officials said the episode would speed up a plan for vigorous new steps to detect spying and to levy strict penalties against countries that direct it, allies or not.
The officials indicated that they were determined to put an end to a policy, driven by the Cold War, of overlooking the conduct of allies.
L "No more Mr. Nice Guy," a senior intelligence official said.
Another administration official said the Federal Bureau of Investigation had already intensified its monitoring of so-called friendly spying. The official said the number of industrial espionage cases being investigated by the FBI had soared from 10 to 500 in the past nine months.
Even before the new evidence of French espionage emerged, the problems posed by "friendly spying" had been discussed as part of an administration review of the role the United States should play in gathering economic intelligence.
But the officials said they saw scant prospect even now that the administration would authorize its intelligence agencies to spy for U.S. companies. They said the planned crackdown on foreign industrial espionage was intended in part to defuse the pressure for such a step.