• In the wood-paneled dining room of Paris' exclusive Travellers club, the exuberant Count Alexandre de Marenches stands out from the sedate, pinstripe luncheon crowd. At 6 ft. 3 in. and 220 lbs., he would stand out almost anywhere. That can be a problem for a man who has spent much of his career in the low-profile netherworld of international espionage. But today, the former head of French intelligence feels like telling tales out of school.

    There was no need for Marenches to introduce himself. His resume is intertwined with the history of France: scion of a noble family that traces its roots back to the 12th century, he fought in North Africa and Italy during World War II and served as liaison officer between De Gaulle and Eisenhower. In 1970 Georges Pompidou named him director of France's version of the CIA, the Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contre-Espionnage, where he remained until 1981. (

    At 72, with his SDECE years well behind him, Marenches doesn't mind sharing a few stories over a two-hour lunch of foie gras and braised veal. "Shortly after your hostages were taken in Tehran in 1979," he recalls, "the Americans asked my advice. I told them, 'When dealing with rug merchants, you need something to trade.' " The count's modest proposal: kidnap the Ayatullah Khomeini and exchange him for the 53 Americans. "After weeks of reconnaissance, my people came up with a detailed plan to land a helicopter near Khomeini's residence, neutralize his guards and whisk him away. The CIA loved the idea, but Jimmy Carter nixed it. He said, 'We just can't do this to an old bishop.' "

    Marenches got on better with Ronald Reagan -- "no intellectual," he avers, "but a good man." During an Oval Office chat in 1981, the count suggested a rather farfetched plan he called "Operation Mosquito" to undermine Soviet morale in Afghanistan -- "so named because one tiny mosquito can drive a bear crazy." The plan consisted of smuggling into Afghanistan hard drugs, Russian- language Bibles and forged copies of the Soviet army newspaper full of subversive articles -- "Disobey orders, shoot your officers in the back, that sort of thing." By Marenches's account, Reagan and CIA director William Casey approved the project, and Marenches agreed to carry it out. "When I had everything set up, I went back to Casey and said, 'Bill, can you assure me that there won't be any leaks and that my photo won't wind up in the Washington Post?' He said, 'Alex, I can't guarantee that.' So I told him, 'The deal's off.' "

    Like many Western governments, France was curious about the exact state of Leonid Brezhnev's health during his final years. Marenches found an ingenious way to get information. "He was staying at the Hotel d'Angleterre in Copenhagen during a state visit," the count recalls. "Our people rented the suite under his and dismantled all the plumbing. They intercepted his toilet flushings and sent the samples to Paris for analysis." This unpleasant bit of trade craft revealed that Brezhnev, a vodka lover, had suffered severe liver damage. "The old boy didn't last long after that," says the count, raising a magnanimous glass of mineral water to the memory of a former nemesis.