Thirty years ago, French secret service blew up Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior ship in Auckland, New Zealand, killing a Portuguese photographer, as the ship was preparing to head to sea to protest against French nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. Now the French intelligence agent who led the deadly attack has come forward for the first time to apologize for his actions, breaking his silence after 30 years. On July 10, 1985, Jean-Luc Kister led the dive team that planted the bombs on the Rainbow Warrior that sunk the ship and killed Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. TV New Zealand’s program "Sunday" recently tracked down Jean-Luc Kister in northern France and spoke to him about what happened that day. We air the TVNZ report.
AMY GOODMAN: Thirty years ago, French secret service blew up Greenpeace’s flagship Rainbow Warrior ship in Auckland, New Zealand, killing a Portuguese photographer, as the ship was preparing to head to sea to protest French nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. Now the French intelligence agent who led the deadly attack has come forward for the first time to apologize for his actions, breaking his silence after 30 years. On July 10th, 1985, Jean-Luc Kister led the dive team that planted the bombs on the Rainbow Warrior that sunk the ship and killed Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira.
TV New Zealand’s program Sunday this weekend tracked down Jean-Luc Kister in northern France and spoke to him about what happened that day. Reporter John Hudson also spoke with Peter Willcox, the captain of the Greenpeace ship, as well as Fernando Pereira’s daughter and the Le Monde journalist who helped break the remarkable story. This video report begins with Jean-Luc Kister, the French secret service agent, admitting his involvement in the fatal bombing.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: My role was to plant to two bombs on the Rainbow Warrior.
JOHN HUDSON: He led the dive team. He set the bombs. And for 30 years he remained hidden, guarding the secret of what really happened the night the Rainbow Warrior was sunk.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: For a member of the secret service, we never talk.
JOHN HUDSON: But finally, he is talking.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: We were not cold-blooded killers. We did everything to preserve the life of the people on board of the Rainbow Warrior.
JOHN HUDSON: From your point of view, was your part of the operation a success?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: No, for me, it was not successful. It was a big, big failure.
JOHN HUDSON: July 1985, the Rainbow Warrior sails into Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, accompanied by a flotilla ready to join the Greenpeace ship at Moruroa Atoll to protest against French nuclear testing.
PETER WILLCOX: We were preparing to go to French Polynesia, where we were going to protest the nuclear testing of France.
JOHN HUDSON: But the French government had other ideas. It sent 13 members of its secret service, the DGSE, to sink the Rainbow Warrior before it left Auckland.
PETER WILLCOX: The French had always claimed that they didn’t want to kill anybody. But in my opinion, either they were blatantly incompetent or, if they didn’t want to kill anybody, they really didn’t care if they did.
JOHN HUDSON: Just before midnight on July the 10th, two bombs exploded. The first blew a two-square-meter hole in the engine room. The second smaller bomb was attached to the keel.
PETER WILLCOX: It was the force of the second explosion that I’m sure trapped him in the room.
JOHN HUDSON: Two days after the bombing, detectives, acting on a tip-off, arrested two French agents—Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart—traveling on fake passports, posing as Swiss honeymooners. The Ouvéa, a charter yacht, which brought the bombs to New Zealand, was searched in Norfolk Island and then released. At first, discarded equipment, the only clues to the agents who planted the bombs. So, who were they? How did they get away?
We know that the French government ordered the attack to be carried out by the French secret service. But what about the agent responsible for planting the bombs that sank the Rainbow Warrior? Well, here in northern France, Sunday has tracked him down.
This is Metz, a 3,000-year-old city in Lorraine province. It’s now home to Colonel Jean-Luc Kister, a former head of the combat dive team of the French secret service.
So, you put both the bombs on the hull yourself and set them?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Yes, yes, I was the team leader, and I had the responsibility for this part of the operation.
JOHN HUDSON: Colonel Kister remembers being surprised when told of the plan to stop the Rainbow Warrior.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: For us, Greenpeace members were engaged troublemakers, but not very dangerous. We were amazed that such an operation can be conducted on there.
JOHN HUDSON: But this was the time of the Cold War with the Soviets.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: We were told that Greenpeace was infiltrated by the KGB. This was the explanation given to us.
JOHN HUDSON: Jean-Luc Kister had become a military cadet at just 17. By 1985, he was a captain in the combat dive team, a highly trained professional soldier.
So why was the decision taken to blow it up and sink it in Auckland harbor?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: One option would have been to plant the bomb in Vanuatu or in Auckland and to delay the explosion when the boat would be offshore. This was certainly the safest for the operators, but the more dangerous for the crew, and it was immediately abandoned.
JOHN HUDSON: Another option, to contaminate the ship’s fuel with bacteria, was also abandoned.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: I don’t know who decided to sink it, but it was clear that in Auckland this was certainly easier. And the fact that the ship was docked was less dangerous for the crew, because we thought also that due to the low tide, even if the boat was sunk, it will lay on the bottom, not totally submerged. It was decided that the explosion could occur around midnight. It was thought that nobody would be in the engine room.
JOHN HUDSON: Why two bombs?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: One bomb was expected to make the people to evacuate the boat, and the second to sink it.
JOHN HUDSON: But Jean-Luc Kister has revealed that’s not what happened. He placed the first, larger bomb on the hull, next to the engine room.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: It was decided by the chief of the operation to make the first one to explode, in order that when there will be water inside the boat, at that time, everybody will evacuate.
JOHN HUDSON: But the ship sank much faster than they had expected. The second, smaller bomb clamped on the keel was designed to keep people off the boat. But, in fact, it killed a man.
So how long was the delay between the two explosions?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: We trigger with four minutes’ delay between the two bombs. Everything was done to prevent anybody to come back.
JOHN HUDSON: Was four minutes really long enough, do you think, for people to evacuate?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: It was thought that it was enough time, and we didn’t expect the boat will sink so quickly.
JOHN HUDSON: The plan was to sink the Rainbow Warrior while keeping the crew out of harm’s way. But they got it wrong. We now know the French agents blew a hole in the Rainbow Warrior far larger than they had expected. Before the bombing, combat divers were watching their target.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: And we have seen that there was a sailing ship along the Rainbow.
JOHN HUDSON: They had been ordered to place the first, larger bomb portside, but realized this would have endangered anyone on board the yachts alongside.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: I decided to put it on the starboard of the boat, always thinking not to hurt anybody.
JOHN HUDSON: There were three agents on the Zodiac, carrying two bombs to sink the ship: Jean-Luc Kister and Jean Cammas were the combat divers; Gérard Royal, the boatman. The two combat divers slipped into the water and were towed under the inflatable and released 500 meters from the target.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: And we all linked together by rope, because we are operating in the darkness.
JOHN HUDSON: Whereabouts on the boat did you set the bombs?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: On the hull.
JOHN HUDSON: It was on the hull?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Yeah
JOHN HUDSON: On board, a birthday party is underway.
PETER WILLCOX: We were quite fortunate, because the first bomb blew a two-by-two-meter hole right in the side of the hull. I mean, the boat sank in 45 seconds.
JOHN HUDSON: When you were planting the bombs, were you aware that there were people on board?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: No, no. No, we didn’t know anything on what was happening. And if there were some people on board, everything was done in order that they can evacuate.
JOHN HUDSON: Wasn’t there a real danger that the first blast could have killed people?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: No. We thought that nobody would be in the engine room at midnight.
JOHN HUDSON: This is a photograph of the damage done by the bomb.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: It’s a big hole.
JOHN HUDSON: A much bigger hole than you would have thought.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: We didn’t expect to have such a large hole in the hull.
JOHN HUDSON: There was shrapnel that ripped through the upper decks. Did you calculate that that could have killed people?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: No, it was not expected to have any other damage. We had never the opportunity to test the real effect on a real boat.
JOHN HUDSON: Fortunately, no one was in the engine room or on the upper decks.
PETER WILLCOX: If the first bomb had gone off half an hour sooner, we would have lost 20 of us.
JOHN HUDSON: In 1985, Peter Willcox was the skipper of Rainbow Warrior. He was in bed asleep when the first bomb exploded.
PETER WILLCOX: We barely had enough time to get everybody off.
JOHN HUDSON: And not everybody did get off.
PETER WILLCOX: That’s Fernando, in the Marshalls, I suspect. Fernando had been in the mess and had gone to his cabin to get his cameras. And that’s when the second bomb went off. And the second bomb trapped him in his cabin and drowned him.
JOHN HUDSON: The second, smaller bomb, supposedly designed to keep the crew off the boat, caused the drowning of photographer Fernando Pereira.
The captain of the Rainbow Warrior, Peter Willcox, says that this was murder, that they knew there were people on board.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Yes, I understand his point of view. But, for us, on our side, we think that it was unfortunately an accidental death of an innocent, Fernando Pereira.
MARELLE PEREIRA: My dad has been murdered. I don’t see it as manslaughter. I don’t see it as accidental killing.
JOHN HUDSON: Ten years ago, Sunday spoke to Fernando Pereira’s daughter, Marelle. She was just eight when her father died.
MARELLE PEREIRA: Sometimes you think, "Errgh, why?"
JEAN-LUC KISTER: I would like to take this opportunity given to me by the TV of New Zealand to express my deepest regrets and apologies to Ms. Marelle Pereira and her family for the accidental death of Fernando Pereira.
JOHN HUDSON: Are you hoping that when Marelle sees this, that she will find it in her heart to forgive you?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Yes, I would like that she express any forgiveness for me, for us, for all the team, because we didn’t intend to kill anybody during this operation.
JOHN HUDSON: And the apologies didn’t stop there.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: I want to apologize also to Greenpeace members who were on board of the Rainbow Warrior. And I want to apologize to the people of New Zealand for the unfair, clandestine operation conducted in an allied, friendly and peaceful country.
JOHN HUDSON: Why has it taken 30 years for you to make that apology?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Thirty years ago, I was a soldier. And after that, I was engaged in many operations, also with the United Nations security. And I had to obey to the orders at that time. But now I am retired from the active service, and I want to obey to my consciousness.
JOHN HUDSON: But an apology 30 years on doesn’t wash with Peter Willcox.
PETER WILLCOX: Soldiers have to have some level of personal responsibility. And obviously they had none.
JOHN HUDSON: So it’s not good enough to say, "Oh, I was acting on orders"?
PETER WILLCOX: No. Oh, it’s not. I think that’s modern morality. And I think that the men that planted the amount of explosives that they did proved without a doubt that they didn’t care how many people they killed.
JOHN HUDSON: Peter Willcox says it’s not good enough for soldiers to simply say they were taking orders. They need to think through the morality of their actions.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Normally, a soldier should not obey an illegal order. But this was order given at the highest level of the government. So, yes, we had to obey the orders.
JOHN HUDSON: Wasn’t this a terrorist act?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: For us, it was a sabotage operation and no more.
PETER WILLCOX: Nobody has ever paid the price for Fernando’s murder. Nobody. I mean, France, France hasn’t even apologized for it. They don’t care. I think that’s despicable.
JOHN HUDSON: After setting the bombs, Jean-Luc Kister made his getaway in the Zodiac to a rendezvous with a camper van near the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: We heard on the radio that somebody was killed. And everybody was very, very shocked.
JOHN HUDSON: When did you realize that morally this was the wrong thing to do?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Immediately when I knew that Fernando Pereira died.
JOHN HUDSON: Is this something that’s plagued you for the past 30 years, been on your conscience?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Yes. Many time, I am thinking about these things, because, for me, I have an innocent death on my consciousness.
JOHN HUDSON: A week after the bombing, Jean-Luc Kister and his dive buddy, Jean Cammas, were photographed at a youth hostel in Methven.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: We stay in the country 10 or 12 days, skiing in the South Island.
JOHN HUDSON: Then they left New Zealand using false passports.
How did you feel when you found out that it was the French that were responsible?
PETER WILLCOX: Oh, so shocked, so completely shocked. I mean, how could we, a bunch of hippies on an old steel trawler, scare a superpower so much they would set out to murder us? What possibly could we have done? We were speaking truth to power. That was about it. Is that really what scared them so badly?
JOHN HUDSON: Were there repercussions within the DGSE about this? Was there any debate about what happened?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: There was no real debriefing at the DGSE headquarters, because they were so much occupied with the problems in France, and it was a real political fiasco. That could have been a Watergate, a French Watergate. They could have proved that the president was aware.
JOHN HUDSON: By early September 1985, the French government was under pressure.
CHARLES HERNU: [translated] No one in my ministry received an order to commit the attack against the Rainbow Warrior.
JOHN HUDSON: Defense Minister Charles Hernu denied ordering the bombing. The French agents arrested and imprisoned in New Zealand, he claimed, had simply been observing Greenpeace. But then the newspaper Le Monde dropped a bomb of its own, revealing that a third team of French combat divers had planted the explosives.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: It’s a very traditional investigation. Finally, the truth was revealed by the press.
JOHN HUDSON: Edwy Plenel was the police reporter on Le Monde.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: The Rainbow Warrior was sinked by a third team of French military. It was the missing link.
JOHN HUDSON: He and his colleagues discovered the combat divers through a process of elimination.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: And finally, we succeeded to identify an officer, a sub-officer, two guys, frogmen, to put the bomb. It was Kister and Cammas.
JOHN HUDSON: When you ran that story, what was the government reaction?
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: We publish our information on the Tuesday, and Charlie Hernu and Amiral Lacoste dismiss on the Friday. Three days. The truth is that France organized this bombing and must apologize to New Zealand.
JOHN HUDSON: The decision to sink the Rainbow Warrior came directly from the top in French politics. Thirty years ago this month, the defense minister, Charles Hernu, resigned over his role in the affair. But what about the president, Mitterrand? He lasted in office for a further 10 years, even though funding for the operation came directly from his office.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: The documents about the financement, the finance, exist.
JOHN HUDSON: Edwy Plenel says, after Charlie Hernu resigned, the French government continued a campaign of misinformation to protect the president.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: They said, until many months, that there was no third team.
JOHN HUDSON: Did Laurent Fabius know what was going on?
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: No, no.
JOHN HUDSON: And yet he was the prime minister.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: The prime minister was not involved. Only the army, the minister of defense, the president of the republic. Mitterrand gave the order, in fact.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: In France, the president is the chief of the army, so sometimes there are the direct link between the minister of defense and the chief of the army. So, Laurent Fabius was not aware.
JOHN HUDSON: He was cut out of the loop?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Yes.
JOHN HUDSON: However, Jean-Luc Kister believes someone in the prime minister’s office leaked his name to the media.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: I thought that the leak is coming from the high level, politician level.
HERVÉ EDWY PLENEL: On this point, I don’t agree with Colonel Kister. The reason we knew the name was not the prime minister give us the name.
JOHN HUDSON: Jean-Luc Kister says being named as the diver who planted the bombs on the Rainbow Warrior cost him dearly.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: My family was very shocked. My wife was shocked by the fact that somebody died in this operation, because before the operation, she didn’t know where I was. And a few years later, I get divorced, like many others.
JOHN HUDSON: Colonel Kister told me he’s been involved in many clandestine operations. He’s been wounded several times and is a recipient of the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order. However, bombing the Rainbow Warrior was not his finest hour.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: For us, it was just like to use boxing gloves in order to crush a mosquito, you know? And it was a disproportionate operation. But we had to obey the order, and we were soldiers.
JOHN HUDSON: To emphasize how disappointed he feels about the Auckland bombing, Jean-Luc Kister wanted to take us to this World War II memorial, one of many scattered across northern France.
Why is it important to you to bring us here?
JEAN-LUC KISTER: Seven thousand seven hundred and eighty Kiwi soldiers died in France during the two world wars.
JOHN HUDSON: Here, among the Aussies, Canadians and Brits, lie Kiwi airmen killed while fighting to liberate France. For Jean-Luc Kister, this, more than anything, is a symbol of why Opération Satanique was ill-conceived.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: It was wrong. It was a very wrong decision to conduct such an operation in an allied country, in a friendly country. There are the memories of these strong links between France and New Zealand, and we will always remember the sacrifice they have done for our country.
JOHN HUDSON: President François Mitterrand remained close friends with former Defense Minister Charles Hernu long after he sacked him. Both men have since died. Meanwhile, Peter Willcox is still busy saving the planet—in Rainbow Warrior III, trying to prevent climate change and overfishing. For him, Jean-Luc Kister’s apology changes little.
PETER WILLCOX: They’re the ones that have to live with themselves. They’ve made their bed. Let them sleep at night.
JOHN HUDSON: Peter Willcox said it’s probably 30 years too late.
JEAN-LUC KISTER: It’s never too late for apologies.
AMY GOODMAN: That report by John Hudson for TV New Zealand’s program, Sunday, about the blowing up of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in July of 1985 as the ship was preparing to head to sea to protest against French nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. French secret service agent Jean-Luc Kister, who placed the bombs, reportedly asked to meet Fernando Pereira’s daughter, Marelle, to offer an apology for killing her father, the Portuguese photographer on board the Rainbow Warrior. Marelle declined, saying, "The fact that he seems truly remorseful is enough information for my family and I. He has to live with himself knowing what he did and what he was a part of." The TV program Sunday also contacted Greenpeace New Zealand’s executive director, Bunny McDiarmid, for a comment. She said, quote, "I’m glad someone from that murderous fiasco apologized. But it’s 30 years later, nobody was held to account for the murder of Fernando."
That does it for this report. You can visit our website to watch our interview with Rainbow Warrior Captain Peter Willcox.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Find out who Donald Trump met with at a news conference he held in New York. But first we go to Guatemala City to find out about the elections in Guatemala after the president was imprisoned. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Bonnie "Prince" Billy singing "Black Captain," revised for Peter Willcox, the captain of the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s ship.