The American aerospace marketing executive smiled when he pointed to the oblong black box on display in his company's booth at the recent Paris Air Show.
The box represents the latest in flight-control technology for particular types of American-made aircraft, and numerous aeronautical engineers - and spies - from other nations would like to know precisely how it works.But for purposes of selling the technology to airlines around the globe at the world's premier aviation trade show, the box was just a prop. It not only was sealed, but it also was purposely left empty so that a curious engineer, or spy, wouldn't even be able to judge the weight of the real thing.
"No one brings any secrets here," said the executive, who works for a contractor with a major presence in the Philadelphia area, and requested anonymity. "This is the most open show in the world."
Indeed, for many of the American aerospace companies that use the biennial Paris show to help sell their products, allegations that the French have used it to conduct industrial espionage against U.S. defense contractors were met largely by yawns.
Makers of high-tech aviation products have known or suspected for years that France and other friendly nations have been just as eager as the former Soviet Union ever was to learn all they could about those products.
It has always been cheaper for those nations to steal such information than to do the arduous research and development it takes to build competitive products of their own, American industry officials say. And the Paris Air Show has been one of the best places to see the latest in weapons and to engage military officers and aerospace company salespeople in conversations about how they work.
The end of the Cold War has meant that many intelligence services around the world, including American agencies, have been turning their attention away
from defense secrets and toward commercial technology.
"The fact that people listen to your phones and go through your briefcase isn't exactly new news," said Joel Johnson, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a Washington trade group.
Indications are that the French, especially, have been at the game for years.
A list of the French targets was acquired and published by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Among their major targets were Boeing Co. and former General Electric Co. plants in Valley Forge and in East Windsor, N.J., now owned by Martin Marietta Corp., where satellite technology was designed and built. Top priority appeared to have been given to technology that was under development by both U.S. and French aerospace companies.
The French government hasn't confirmed or denied that the list was an official document.
The only acknowledgment of French espionage activity seen at the Paris show was completely unofficial: Free-lance photographer Ettiene de Malgaive wore a black beret, and attached a handprinted sign, reading "French spy on duty," to his camera at every news conference.
But the French target list's authenticity was taken seriously by others. It was among the reasons cited by a major U.S. defense contractor, Hughes Aircraft Corp., when it pulled out of the Paris show last month.
Mr. Johnson said Hughes Chairman C. Michael Armstrong may have been particularly sensitive to loss of trade secrets to the French because a few years ago, when he was head of International Business Machines Corp.'s European division, IBM lost a major contract to the French company Thomson CSI. Industrial espionage was suspected in that case.
While all other major U.S. aerospace companies were represented at the Paris show, continuing to use the 10-day event to display their wares and schmooze with customers, some other smaller companies that had been there before didn't appear this time. It was estimated by show officials that the event attracted about 10 percent fewer attending from the aerospace trade than the latest one, in 1991.