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Washington made clear this week that China is America’s biggest cyber nemesis, at least in terms of the theft of U.S. intellectual property. So who’s next? Not Russia, nor North Korea, according to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It’s France — one of America’s closest allies

“There are probably a dozen or 15 countries that steal our technology in this way,” Gates said in an interview the Council on Foreign Relations posted online Thursday. “In terms of the most capable, next to the Chinese, are the French — and they’ve been doing it a long time.”

Gates, who was also director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the first Bush administration, said that when he talks to business audiences, he asks, “How many of you go to Paris on business?’ Hands go up. ‘How many of you take your laptops?’ Hands go up. ‘How many of you take your laptops to dinner?’ Not very many hands.”

“For years,” Gates said, “French intelligence services have been breaking into the hotel rooms of American businessmen and surreptitiously downloading their laptops if they felt those laptops had technological information or competitive information that would be useful for French companies.