For decades, the Central Intelligence Agency, along with its West German counterpart the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), secretly controlled the Swiss-based company Crypto AG, which enabled them to engage in decades of communication interception.
Crypto AG, which went defunct in 2018, sold encryption devices to governments across the world. However, this CIA-owned company managed to covertly rig their devices by building in backdoors that allowed the U.S. and the German government to easily crack supposedly encrypted messages.
The firm was purchased by the two intelligence agencies back in 1970 through a shell organization registered in neighboring Liechtenstein. Over the course of nearly five decades, roughly one hundred countries were targeted.
States that purchased Crypto AG products include Iran, Pakistan, several Latin American states, India, as well as the Vatican.
The operation, initially codenamed “Thesaurus” and later “Rubicon,” was according to a CIA report “the intelligence coup of the century.”
Ownership of the company by the CIA and the BND, along with support from the National Security Agency, resulted in crucial scoops. Among these were interceptions of Iranian leaders during the 1979 hostage crisis, evidence of Libyan involvement in the Berlin disco bombing in 1986, and intelligence from the Argentine military during the Falklands War.
Though the operation resulted in numerous intelligence successes, it did at times suffer from security breaches as well as occasional human errors. By the early 1990s, fearing the risk of exposure, the Germans sold their stake in the company with the U.S. simply continuing the operation by themselves.
Though some countries, such as the Soviet Union, were wary of possible CIA links, recent revelations of the true history behind Crypto AG has sent shockwaves in Switzerland.
A central pillar of Swiss political and constitutional life has been the country’s centuries-old neutrality. It enabled the country to stay out of both world wars as well as to benefit diplomatically from its position. Several international institutions, such as the United Nations, have offices in the country and the Swiss Embassy in Tehran represents U.S. interests while the Swiss Embassy in Washington is able to do the same for Iran.
Senior figures have denied knowledge of the Crypto Affair, as it is referred to in the country. Kaspar Villiger, who served as the Swiss Defense Minister from 1989 until 1995, has denied allegations that he was aware of the CIA’s ownership of the firm. Similarly, Swiss parliamentarian and Crypto board member from 1992 until 2016 Georg Stucky stated that “I have no recollection of such a thing” despite him being named in CIA documents.
While the activities of the CIA and the BND are by no means surprising, what has caught many off guard has been the alleged Swiss complicity in the matter. With growing calls for a parliamentary inquiry, it remains to be seen what the consequence of the news will be. It is very well possible that Switzerland’s reputation will be tarnished which could potentially hamper the country’s efforts at diplomacy in the future.