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February 17, 2020

The intelligence coup of the century - IV

Top Story

February 17, 2020

ZURICH: The CIA and NSA saw a new opening in the mid-1960s, as the spread of electronic circuits forced Hagelin to accept outside help adapting to the new technology, or face extinction clinging to the manufacturing of mechanical machines.

NSA cryptologists were equally concerned about the potential impact of integrated circuits, which seemed poised to enable a new era of unbreakable encryption. But one of the agency’s senior analysts, Peter Jenks, identified a potential vulnerability. If “carefully designed by a clever crypto-mathematician,” he said, a circuit-based system could be made to appear that it was producing endless streams of randomly generated characters, while in reality it would repeat itself at short enough intervals for NSA experts — and their powerful computers — to crack the pattern.

Two years later, in 1967, Crypto rolled out a new, all-electronic model, the H-460, whose inner workings were completely designed by the NSA.

The CIA history all but gloats about crossing this threshold. “Imagine the idea of the American government convincing a foreign manufacturer to jimmy equipment in its favor,” the history says. “Talk about a brave new world.”

The NSA didn’t install crude “back doors” or secretly program the devices to cough up their encryption keys. And the agency still faced the difficult task of intercepting other governments’ communications, whether plucking signals out of the air or, in later years, tapping into fiber optic cables.

But the manipulation of Crypto’s algorithms streamlined the code-breaking process, at times reducing to seconds a task that might otherwise have taken months. The company always made at least two versions of its products — secure models that would be sold to friendly governments, and rigged systems for the rest of the world.

In so doing, the U.S.-Hagelin partnership had evolved from denial to “active measures.” No longer was Crypto merely restricting sales of its best equipment but actively selling devices that were engineered to betray their buyers.

The payoff went beyond the penetration of the devices. Crypto’s shift to electronic products buoyed business so much that it became addicted to its dependence on the NSA. Foreign governments clamored for systems that seemed clearly superior to the old clunky mechanical devices but in fact were easier for US spies to read.

German and American partners

By the end of the 1960s, Hagelin was nearing 80 and anxious to secure the future for his company, which had grown to more than 180 employees. CIA officials were similarly anxious about what would happen to the operation if Hagelin were to suddenly sell or die.

Hagelin had once hoped to turn control over to his son, Bo. But US intelligence officials regarded him as a “wild card” and worked to conceal the partnership from him. Bo Hagelin was killed in a car crash on Washington’s Beltway in 1970. There were no indications of foul play.

US intelligence officials discussed the idea of buying Crypto for years, but squabbling between the CIA and NSA prevented them from acting until two other spy agencies entered the fray.

The French, West German and other European intelligence services had either been told about the United States’ arrangement with Crypto or figured it out on their own. Some were understandably jealous and probed for ways to secure a similar deal for themselves.

In 1967, Hagelin was approached by the French intelligence service with an offer to buy the company in partnership with German intelligence. Hagelin rebuffed the offer and reported it to his CIA handlers. But two years later, the Germans came back seeking to make a follow-up bid with the blessing of the United States.

In a meeting in early 1969 at the West German Embassy in Washington, the head of that country’s cipher service, Wilhelm Goeing, outlined the proposal and asked whether the Americans “were interested in becoming partners too.”

Months later, CIA Director Richard Helms approved the idea of buying Crypto and dispatched a subordinate to Bonn, the West German capital, to negotiate terms with one major caveat: the French, CIA officials told Goeing, would have to be “shut out.”

West Germany acquiesced to this American power play, and a deal between the two spy agencies was recorded in a June 1970 memo carrying the shaky signature of a CIA case officer in Munich who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and the illegible scrawl of his BND counterpart.

The two agencies agreed to chip in equally to buy out Hagelin for approximately $5.75 million, but the CIA left it largely to the Germans to figure out how to prevent any trace of the transaction from ever becoming public.

A Liechtenstein law firm, Marxer and Goop, helped hide the identities of the new owners of Crypto through a series of shells and “bearer” shares that required no names in registration documents. The firm was paid an annual salary “less for the extensive work but more for their silence and acceptance,” the BND history says. The firm, now named Marxer and Partner, did not respond to a request for comment.

A new board of directors was set up to oversee the company. Only one member of the board, Sture Nyberg, to whom Hagelin had turned over day-to-day management, knew of CIA involvement. “It was through this mechanism,” the CIA history notes, “that BND and CIA controlled the activities” of Crypto. Nyberg left the company in 1976. The Post and ZDF could not locate him or determine whether he is still alive.

The two spy agencies held their own regular meetings to discuss what to do with their acquisition. The CIA used a secret base in Munich, initially on a military installation used by American troops and later in the attic of a building adjacent to the US Consulate, as the headquarters for its involvement in the operation.

The CIA and BND agreed on a series of code names for the program and its various components. Crypto was called “Minerva,” which is also the title of the CIA history. The operation was at first code-named “Thesaurus,” though in the 1980s it was changed to “Rubicon.”

Each year, the CIA and BND split any profits Crypto had made, according to the German history, which says the BND handled the accounting and delivered the cash owed to the CIA in an underground parking garage.

From the outset, the partnership was beset by petty disagreements and tensions. To CIA operatives, the BND often seemed preoccupied with turning a profit, and the Americans “constantly reminded the Germans that this was an intelligence operation, not a money-making enterprise.” The Germans were taken aback by the Americans’ willingness to spy on all but their closest allies, with targets including Nato members Spain, Greece, Turkey and Italy.

Mindful of the limitations to their abilities to run a high-tech company, the two agencies brought in corporate outsiders. The Germans enlisted Siemens, a Munich-based conglomerate, to advise Crypto on business and technical issues in exchange for 5 percent of the company’s sales. The United States later brought in Motorola to fix balky products, making it clear to the company’s CEO this was being done for US intelligence. Siemens declined to comment. Motorola officials did not respond to a request for comment.

To be continued