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February 19, 2020

The intelligence coup of the century — V

Top Story

February 19, 2020

ZURICH: To its frustration, Germany was never admitted to the vaunted “Five Eyes,” a long-standing intelligence pact involving the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But with the Crypto partnership, Germany moved closer into the American espionage fold than might have seemed possible in World War II’s aftermath. With the secret backing of two of the world’s premier intelligence agencies and the support of two of the world’s largest corporations, Crypto’s business flourished.

A table in the CIA history shows that sales surged from 15 million Swiss francs in 1970 to more than 51 million in 1975, or $19 million. The company’s payroll expanded to more than 250 employees.

“The Minerva purchase had yielded a bonanza,” the CIA history says of this period. The operation entered a two-decade stretch of unprecedented access to foreign governments’ communications.

Iranian suspicions

The NSA’s eavesdropping empire was for many years organized around three main geographic targets, each with its own alphabetic code: A for the Soviets, B for Asia and G for virtually everywhere else.

By the early 1980s, more than half of the intelligence gathered by G group was flowing through Crypto machines, a capability that US officials relied on in crisis after crisis.

In 1978, as the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the United States gathered at Camp David for negotiations on a peace accord, the NSA was secretly monitoring the communications of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with Cairo.

A year later, after Iranian militants stormed the US Embassy and took 52 American hostages, the Carter administration sought their release in back-channel communications through Algeria. Inman, who served as NSA director at the time, said he routinely got calls from President Jimmy Carter asking how the Ayatollah Khomeini regime was reacting to the latest messages. “We were able to respond to his questions about 85 percent of the time,” Inman said. That was because the Iranians and Algerians were using Crypto devices.

Inman said the operation also put him in one of the trickiest binds he’d encountered in government service. At one point, the NSA intercepted Libyan communications indicating that the president’s brother, Billy Carter, was advancing Libya’s interests in Washington and was on leader Moammar Gaddafi’s payroll.

To protect its market position, Crypto and its secret owners engaged in subtle smear campaigns against rival companies, according to the documents, and plied government officials with bribes. Crypto sent an executive to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with 10 Rolex watches in his luggage, the BND history says, and later arranged a training programme for the Saudis in Switzerland which the company also financed.”

Inman referred the matter to the Justice Department. The FBI launched an investigation of Carter, who falsely denied taking payments. In the end, he was not prosecuted but agreed to register as a foreign agent.

Throughout the 1980s, the list of Crypto’s leading clients read like a catalogue of global trouble spots. In 1981, Saudi Arabia was Crypto’s biggest customer, followed by Iran, Italy, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Jordan and South Korea.

At times, the incentives led to sales to countries ill-equipped to use the complicated systems. Nigeria bought a large shipment of Crypto machines, but two years later, when there was still no corresponding payoff in intelligence, a company representative was sent to investigate. “He found the equipment in a warehouse still in its original packaging,” according to the German document.

In 1982, the Reagan administration took advantage of Argentina’s reliance on Crypto equipment, funneling intelligence to Britain during the two countries’ brief war over the Falkland Islands, according to the CIA history, which doesn’t provide any detail on what kind of information was passed to London. The documents generally discuss intelligence gleaned from the operation in broad terms and provide few insights into how it was used.

Reagan appears to have jeopardized the Crypto operation after Libya was implicated in the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin disco popular with American troops stationed in West Germany. Two US soldiers and a Turkish woman were killed as a result of the attack.

Reagan ordered retaliatory strikes against Libya 10 days later. Among the reported victims was one of Gaddafi’s daughters. In an address to the country announcing the strikes, Reagan said the United States had evidence of Libya’s complicity that “is direct, it is precise, it is irrefutable.”

The evidence, Reagan said, showed that Libya’s embassy in East Berlin received orders to carry out the attack a week before it happened. Then, the day after the bombing, “they reported back to Tripoli on the great success of their mission.”

Reagan’s words made clear that Tripoli’s communications with its station in East Berlin had been intercepted and decrypted. But Libya wasn’t the only government that took note of the clues Reagan had provided.

Iran, which knew that Libya also used Crypto machines, became increasingly concerned about the security of its equipment. Tehran didn’t act on those suspicions until six years later.

The irreplaceable man

After the CIA and BND acquisition, one of the most vexing problems for the secret partners was ensuring that Crypto’s workforce remained compliant and unsuspecting.

Even while hidden from view, the agencies went to significant lengths to maintain Hagelin’s benevolent approach to ownership. Employees were well paid and had abundant perks including access to a small sailboat on Lake Zug near company headquarters.

And yet, those who worked most closely with the encryption designs seemed constantly to be getting closer to uncovering the operation’s core secret. The engineers and designers responsible for developing prototype models often questioned the algorithms being foisted on them by a mysterious external entity.

Crypto executives often led employees to believe that the designs were being provided as part of the consulting arrangement with Siemens. But even if that were so, why were encryption flaws so easy to spot, and why were Crypto’s engineers so routinely blocked from fixing them?

To be continued