A Chip Comes In From the Cold: Tales of High-Tech Spying
A trans-Atlantic computer-chip war has ended. And as an American company and a French conglomerate shake off the dust of battle, they leave behind a tale of espionage and bureaucratic bumbling worthy of John Le Carre.
To begin at the end, the story unraveled when the French government-owned Cie. des Machines Bull sued Texas Instruments Inc. in a U.S. court in 1993. The French computer company complained that TI was illegally making a computer chip that Bull had invented and patented.
Had it not been for the prospect of a daunting court battle, TI officials might have found the lawsuit amusing: They replied that they had invented the chip _ and Bull had it only because a spy inside TI had given it to French intelligence agents, who passed it on to Bull.
This much is undisputed: In the 1970s and 1980s, French intelligence agents recruited moles in the French subsidiaries of U.S. companies, including International Business Machines Corp. and Texas Instruments. The moles passed secrets about new computer chips and other technology to the French agents.
U.S. government officials say French agents passed the stolen technology on to Machines Bull, although the French company denies getting any stolen data.
The French spy system came to light in 1989, when the moles inside the U.S. companies were fired. After a brief flurry of publicity and with few details disclosed, the matter seemed to fade away.
Fast forward to the 1993 lawsuit in Dallas. TI argued that the judge should reject Bull’s lawsuit because of the French company’s ``unclean hands″ and invalid patent. Bull denied any wrongdoing, including getting any stolen TI technology. This week the case was settled out of court on terms that haven’t been disclosed.
But details of the alleged French espionage scheme have emerged in court files. In the documents, Texas Instruments unmasks the alleged spy and charges that he was passing TI secrets to French agents for nearly 13 years.
In 1969, according to documents in the TI case, Jean Pierre Dolait completed his engineering degree in Paris and went to Pasadena to study at the California Institute of Technology. Mr. Dolait got his Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering at Cal Tech, and then his M.B.A. at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Texas Instruments hired Mr. Dolait in 1976, according to a TI personnel record filed in court. Mr. Dolait, starting as a product manager, worked his way up. By 1989, he was based in the Texas Instruments plant near Nice and was European marketing director for semiconductors.
Around that time someone mailed a package from an IBM plant in France, according to an IBM official. But the address label came off or was obliterated, so the French post office returned the package to the company. IBM officials were shocked to discover the package contained highly confidential IBM technical documents.
IBM called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which launched a broad inquiry. The FBI found that several U.S. companies had moles feeding technical data to French intelligence agents. Texas Instruments was one of the victims. According to TI’s court documents, the mole inside the company was Mr. Dolait.
TI asked Mr. Dolait to fly from Nice to Texas, supposedly to attend a business meeting. Instead, he was questioned by the FBI. According to a TI official, the FBI provided the company with enough information to fire Mr. Dolait on the spot for spying. Mr. Dolait couldn’t be located for comment.
TI lawyers said in a court document that ``the French espionage agent discovered working as a TI employee in 1989 had been feeding information useful to Bull from TI . . . for 13 years.″
In 1991 a Bull licensing manager _ who apparently was oblivious to all this _ wrote to Jerry Junkins, chairman of Texas Instruments. A TI chip family, the TMS 370, seems to infringe on a Bull patent, wrote Yves Coutenceau. Perhaps TI should obtain a license and pay licensing fees to Bull, Mr. Coutenceau suggested.
A Texas Instruments license lawyer in Dallas _ also apparently unaware of the alleged spy game _ wrote a routine reply to Mr. Coutenceau saying that he would look into it. Negotiations between TI and Bull ensued, with the TI lawyer even offering to pay a royalty to Bull of up to 6 percent of the chip’s sales. But on Oct. 6, 1993, Bull sued TI for alleged patent infringement.
That set off alarm bells at Texas Instruments. TI’s 370 chips are widely used in autos in fuel-injection systems, air conditioners and radios, and bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Texas Instruments lawyers took a closer look at Bull’s chip design.