World

Swiss politicians want answers over reports local firm was used by U.S., German spies

Senior members of the Swiss legislature are demanding a parliamentary investigation into a spying operation in which U.S. and German intelligence reportedly used a Swiss cryptography company as a front to eavesdrop on other countries.

Ex-Supreme Court justice probing Operation Rubicon, but a parliamentary inquiry could also result

Swiss authorities have opened an investigation into Crypto AG, a maker of encryption devices that was alleged to have been a longtime front operated by the CIA and West German intelligence service. (Alexandra Wey/Keystone via AP)

Senior members of the Swiss legislature are demanding a parliamentary investigation into a spying operation in which U.S. and German intelligence reportedly used a Swiss cryptography company as a front to eavesdrop on other countries.

The government has appointed a former Supreme Court justice to look into Operation Rubicon, which for decades involved the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and German BND spy service covertly using Crypto AG's encryption technology to crack other nations' top-secret messages.

He is due to report back by the end of June and the cabinet will be briefed.

But pressure is mounting for parliament to launch its own investigation to find out who in Switzerland knew about the scheme.

Although the outlines of Operation Rubicon were known for years, new details about its scope and duration were made public this week by Swiss, German and U.S. investigative journalists.  

If the Swiss state knew of the operation and turned a blind eye to it, Switzerland's image as a neutral go-between in international affairs could be damaged.

Alfred Heer, head of parliament's government oversight committee, told broadcaster SRF he would propose his panel look into the matter.

"This is the fastest way to shed light on the affair," he said. "It is our obligation to investigate this case."

Other countries were aware, reports allege

The centre-left Social Democrats have called for a full parliamentary investigation and two other coalition parties said they were also open to a full investigation, which would be only the fifth in Swiss history.

According to the news reports, the company used its base in neutral Switzerland to help it sell code-making equipment to Iran, India, Pakistan, Libya, Egypt, Chile, Argentina and dozens of other countries who in effect paid millions of dollars to be spied on.

The technology was modified to let the CIA and BND break codes, the Washington Post newspaper and German and Swiss broadcasters ZDF and SRF reported. They described U.S. spymasters and their then-West German counterparts as controlling nearly all Crypto operations from 1970.

Several former government officials approached by SRF denied knowledge of the operation or said they did not remember.

SRF cited unnamed sources as saying Swiss intelligence knew of the scheme and that Swiss officials helped block a police investigation in the 1990s after a Crypto executive tipped off authorities.

The reports cite a classified CIA history to underpin the allegations, some of which date back at least to 1992, when one of Crypto's employees was arrested and held in Iran for nine months as a suspected spy.

At the time, the company called reports that it was a secret asset of Western intelligence agencies "an unbelievable conspiracy theory," according to a report in German magazine Focus detailing a 1994 book on the subject.

In addition to Switzerland, the reports claim that at least Israel, Sweden and Britain knew of Operation Rubicon, or were in on some of the secrets it unearthed.

The company was liquidated in 2018. A successor company, Crypto International, owned by Swedish national Andreas Linde, said on its website the story was "distressing." The company was now under new ownership and had no connections to the CIA or German spy agency, it said.