For CIA agents, Crypto was a gold mine for intelligence gathering, and neither the recent revelations nor the ensuing scandals will change that.
Rabat – The CIA and its West German spying ally, the BND, spied on both US enemies and allies for decades, according to CIA documents unveiled by the Washington Post.
While the spying encryption program started in 1961, it gained more ground in the Cold War era, with the US and its West German ally eager to discover the communications and secrets of world governments. Crypto AG, which was known to the world as a private Swiss company, was in reality the joint ownership of the US and German intelligence agencies.
The spying program consisted in selling weakly-coded Scrypto machines to countries around the world, allowing the CIA and BND to gather intelligence from the easily breakable encryption program.
The result, the report notes, was the creation of an “eavesdropping empire” that allowed the CIA and the BND to keep track of the secrets of the more than 100 governments who used Crypto’s machines.
First codenamed “Thesaurus” and then “Rubicon,” the Post reported citing a CIA history of the operation, the scheme was the “intelligence coup of the century.” That CIA history, in addition to providing the names of CIA and BND agents who ran the operation during the half-century it lasted, described “how the United States and its allies exploited other nations’ gullibility for years, taking their money and stealing their secrets.”
While the spying operation was mainly, initially targeted at America’s ideological and strategic “enemies” and adversaries, US allies and friends who bought Crypto’s machines found themselves being spied on too. The list of US allies the on whom scheme actively gathered intelligence included Egypt, India, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Spain, among many others.
Meanwhile, China and Russia, who for good measure had their qualms about Crypto and its links to the US government, never bought the company’s machines and were thus in the “small circle” of countries whose secrets the US could not directly read.
Suspicions and silence
And some of the secrets were, in hindsight, of great historical significance. Because the CIA could read the secret communications of all the countries who used Crypto machines, the report stressed, they “monitored Iran’s mullahs during the 1979 hostage crisis, fed intelligence about Argentina’s military to Britain during the Falklands War, tracked the assassination campaigns of South American dictators and caught Libyan officials congratulating themselves on the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco.”
In all these instances, however, it was only in the Falklands War that the US preemptively intervened, sharing Argentinian intelligence with Britain. Other than that, the CIA and BND agents mostly “sat down and watched” as the events they knew of beforehand unfolded on the world scene.
This revelation, notes the Post’s report, may revive suggestions that, for half a century, the US and its German ally knew about most of the world’s “international atrocities” but decided it was better not to expose or intervene. The reason was simple: exposing the plots, or intervening to stop the atrocities they led to, might have come at the peril of the CIA. It would reveal to the world that the US had “access to streams of intelligence.”
In one such case, President Ronald Reagan’s “careless” public statements about the US holding “direct, precise, and irrefutable” evidence that Libya was involved in the 1986 bombing of a the La Bella disco in West Berlin ignited suspicions that the US may have been reading the secret conversations of many governments. Iran and Argentina harbored such suspicions for years, but they surprisingly continued buying and using Crypto-made machines.
Divergences and legacy
The Post described the US-Germany-Crypto alliance as “a deception and exploitation of adversaries, allies, and hundreds of unwitting Crypto employees.” It added that the unholy alliance generated “millions of dollars in profits that the CIA and BND split and plowed in other operations.”
At one point of the alliance, however, there was a split between CIA and BND agents about some ethical aspects of their spying activities. BND reportedly had qualms about spying on allies and friends.
The German agency suggested selling strongly-coded, unbreakable Crypto materials to allies, while the sloppy and easily breakable versions would go to everyone else. The CIA, meanwhile, operated on the premise that there were “no true friends” in the world of spying. Reports speak of such instances of divergence as moments when BND agents were “taken aback” by their American friend’s readiness to spy even on allies.
In Germany, meanwhile, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the resulting reunification of the country intensified political opposition to the spying empire.
In 1993, senior BND officials informed their American counterparts that many high-ranking figures in the German government did not like Germany’s involvement with Crypto. The US then bought Germany’s share of the operation and continued monitoring the whole scheme alone well into the 2000s. The split caused German agents to wonder whether Germany was still part of “this small number of nations who are not read by the Americans,” according to the report.
Recently, the Swiss government ordered an enquiry into Crypto, suggesting they had no clues that what was publicly known as a Swiss company was in fact owned and controlled by the CIA. But critics have suggested the Swiss authorities have long known about the CIA-BND-Crypto collusion, and are only taking action now to distance themselves from the scandal that such revelations are bound to fuel.
With news of the likes of Cambridge Analytica, as well as the revelations of Edward Snowden and Julian Asange still vivid on the minds of many, this latest news about the perils of modern communication and America’s “eavesdropping empire” constitutes a further blow to the US’s claim to moral superiority over foes like Russia, China, or even Iran.
The argument that the revelations will prove problematic for the US’s embattled, waning moral authority is even more acutely relevant to the ongoing Huawei saga, with the US adamantly warning its “allies and friends” against the dangers of using the Chinese company’s 5G netowrk.
As revelations about CIA’s control of Crypto have poured in, some former employees have expressed remorse. Many said they did not know about the collusion, with one insisting he felt “betrayed.” “It makes me wonder whether I should have left earlier,” said another of her belated decision to leave Crypto. And then there were those who, even as they knew about the collusion or had long had strong reservations about Crypto’s work, rationalized and stayed.
For CIA agents, meanwhile, Crypto was a gold mine for intelligence gathering and spying, and neither the recent revelations nor the ensuing scandals will change that fact.
“Do I have any qualms? Zero,” said Bobby Ray Inman, who served as CIA director and NSa deputy director in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Inman went on to describe Crypto as “a very valuable source of communications on significantly large parts of the world important to US policymakers.”