South American military dictatorships combined forces in the late 1970s on a continent-wide crackdown they called Operation Condor against perceived threats to their rule. It was part of a broader wave of violence in which nuns and priests were imprisoned, dissidents were tossed out of airplanes and thousands of victims were “disappeared.”
To coordinate this brutal campaign, Argentina, Chile and other countries established a secret communications network using encryption machines from a Swiss company called Crypto AG.
Crypto was secretly owned by the CIA as part of a decades-long operation with West German intelligence. The U.S. spy agency was, in effect, supplying rigged communications gear to some of South America’s most brutal regimes and, as a result, in unique position to know the extent of their atrocities.
The CIA connection to Condor is detailed in documents obtained by The Washington Post as well as additional files unearthed by researchers at the National Security Archive in Washington. What the documents don’t show is any substantial effort by U.S. spy agencies, or senior officials privy to the intelligence, to expose or stop human rights violations unfolding in their view.
Whether there were opportunities to act, and failures to do so, are among the difficult questions raised by the revelations about the CIA’s involvement in Crypto — dubbed Operation Rubicon by the agency. The program enabled U.S. spy agencies to monitor the communications of dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America over half a century.
As a result, the documents highlight one of the eternal dilemmas of espionage: Is there an obligation to intervene or expose illegal or violent actions even if doing so might jeopardize a precious intelligence stream?
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the revelations this month about the CIA-Crypto operation have triggered conversations among their peers about these issues and concerns about the exposure of a long-held secret, as well as congratulatory notes on the accomplishments of Operation Rubicon.
“Ethical and moral issues are things you never stop thinking about,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior CIA officer who was twice stationed in Moscow and served as head of the agency’s Europe division. Mowatt-Larssen declined to discuss any aspect of the Crypto operation but said such programs inevitably require those running them to confront difficult dilemmas.
Espionage is “about manipulation and betrayal,” and it often involves weighing national interests against impact on individuals, he said. “Is what you’re doing ultimately worth the damage it is causing, the human cost?”
These issues have been raised in more stark fashion by other CIA operations that have come to light in recent decades, including the agency’s support for militant groups in Latin America, its treatment of al-Qaida detainees after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and its drone campaigns that killed hundreds of militants, as well as an unknown number of civilians, in countries including Pakistan and Yemen.
The Crypto program was one of intelligence-gathering, not lethal measures. Even so, the CIA’s detailed internal history of the operation makes clear that U.S. spies confronted moral, ethical and even legal predicaments at almost every turn. The CIA declined to comment for this story.
Details about the Crypto operation were exposed last week as part of a joint reporting project involving The Post, German public broadcaster ZDF and Swiss television news channel SRF. This article is based on the CIA history, a companion volume drafted by the German intelligence service, the BND, and interviews with current and former officials.
In recent days, the disclosure of those classified files has led to follow-on revelations by security researchers, who have scoured public records for references to Crypto or its founder, Boris Hagelin. The National Security Archive, at George Washington University, uncovered numerous documents showing that South American countries used Crypto machines.
A paper in their collection from the Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, describes the efforts of nations involved in Condor — including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay — to find ways to share intelligence about targets they wanted arrested or killed.
The security services of those countries established a communications network together using crude Crypto encryption machines known as CX-52s. In 1977, the group upgraded to newer electronic models, according to the DIA report, which notes that “Argentina provided Hagelin Crypto H-4605 equipment to Condortel,” the name for the countries’ secret communications network.
The countries’ initial target was a multinational rebel group operating in the southern part of the continent. But over time the operation morphed into a sprawling campaign involving mass killings in South America and assassinations of alleged rebel leaders and political exiles in Europe and the United States.
The documents indicate that CIA officials were alarmed about human rights abuses by the military juntas of Latin America. A 1976 memo to the deputy director of the CIA refers to instructions that went out to U.S. ambassadors in the region to “express the serious concern of the U.S. government to the alleged assassination plans envisioned within ‘Operation Condor.’ “
But the same memo indicates that U.S. officials were more concerned about killings beyond the Condor countries’ borders than the casualty count in South America. The CIA also was largely focused on shielding itself from “possible adverse political ramifications for the Agency should ‘Condor’ engage in assassinations and other flagrant violations of human rights.”
Carlos Osorio, a researcher at the National Security Archive, said the Crypto documents reinforce the perception among Latin Americans that U.S. officials did little to stop the bloodshed in previous decades. “They have always suspected U.S. participation, and knowledge is a form of participation,” Osorio said. “This is confirmation of those suspicions.”
More broadly, Osorio said, the documents suggest that the CIA and other intelligence services involved in Crypto were predominantly preying on lesser-developed countries, and those of the Southern Hemisphere. Neither the Soviet Union nor China ever purchased or used Crypto machines.
At times, the CIA history takes a bemused tone about South America’s troubles. It notes that Argentina became suspicious that devices it had been sold were vulnerable and summoned company officials to Buenos Aires. Among them was the company’s chief executive at the time, Heinz Wagner, among a handful of Crypto executives who knew that Crypto was owned by the CIA.
“The Argentines demonstrated their attack” showing weaknesses in the Crypto equipment and “demanded an explanation,” the document says. “Wagner was frightened almost out of his wits. This was a regime that reputedly threw dissenters out of airplanes unequipped with parachutes. Who would miss an obscure Swiss CEO who failed to return from a business trip?”
Wagner, after modifying the Argentine machine, returned safely, and Buenos Aires remained in the Crypto fold.
A dozen years later, an unwitting Crypto employee faced a more harrowing ordeal when he was imprisoned by Iran in 1992. The CIA’s seeming indifference angered German intelligence officials, friction that contributed to the dissolution of their clandestine partnership a year later when the CIA bought out the BND’s shares.
Hans Buehler, a salesman for Crypto, was interrogated for nine months by Iranian officials who had become convinced that their Crypto machines were compromised, according to the CIA files. Like all but a few Crypto employees, Buehler knew nothing about CIA ownership of Crypto or that its devices were rigged so American spies could crack other countries’ codes.
At CIA headquarters, officials’ paramount concern was not for the endangered Crypto employee. “Back at Langley the issue was clear,” according to the CIA history. “How much did he know about the firm’s ownership? What would he tell his jailers to get out of Iran? How much damage could he do?”
When Iran signaled that it would be willing to free Buehler for $1 million, the CIA balked at contributing, citing U.S. policy against paying ransom for hostages. It was an ethically contorted position for the U.S. government, standing on principle against paying ransom, with no evident consideration for its culpability in putting a private individual in harm’s way.
The BND ultimately paid the ransom, and sought reimbursement from the CIA for years to no avail.
Buehler returned to Switzerland “traumatized” and angry, according to the documents. He signed an agreement not to discuss what had transpired during his imprisonment or the nature of Iran’s suspicions, but he soon began talking to news organizations and other Crypto employees about both.
Remarkably, CIA officials endorsed a plan to sue Buehler — through lawyers hired by Crypto — to compel his silence. “The strategy was to draw out the process for years, in hopes that Buehler would become exhausted and settle out of court,” the CIA files say.
A court showdown was only averted when Buehler agreed to a settlement that required him to declare — falsely, it is now clear — that there was no basis for his accusations that Crypto was working with foreign intelligence services. Crypto agreed to pay Buehler’s legal fees, and he signed a document stipulating that he had to stay away from the press. “Every violation would cost him” 100,000 Swiss francs, according to the CIA history.
Buehler died in 2018.
At a security conference last week in Munich, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Iran was not surprised by the revelations that Crytpo had served as a front for U.S. intelligence. In an interview, he indicated that his country’s relationship with Crypto was severed when Western sanctions against the country forced Crypto to halt sales there 20 years ago.
The list of countries targeted in the Crypto operation suggests that U.S. spies would have had extensive insight into turbulent developments across multiple continents and decades — massacres in Indonesia, abuses under apartheid in South Africa and violent crackdowns against dissidents waged by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat.
“Knowledge of atrocities creates legal obligations in extreme cases and moral obligations in all cases,” said John Sifton, a senior official at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. Sifton said the CIA and BND documents warrant re-evaluation of those nations’ responses to global crises.
“It would be interesting to go through all of the speeches and statements of the State Department — all the statements over the years where U.S. officials distanced themselves from allegations of atrocities, or professed ignorance,” Sifton said.
Former intelligence officials said such standards are unrealistic, and that the Crypto revelations reflect the ethical and moral compromises that espionage entails.
A former senior CIA official cited cases in World War II when U.S. and British officials acquired intelligence about planned German attacks and then “declined to react tactically even to protect an aircraft or a ship or troops, lest they expose that they are reading this traffic.”
“Intelligence is an unusual business,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject. “Inevitably you become aware of (disturbing) things, and even if one wanted, you’re not in a position to right all the wrongs in the world. Your primary mission is to collect information and give it to policymakers and war-fighters, and let them figure out what to do.”
A senior diplomat from South America said the reaction among the countries identified as targets in the Cypto operation has been one of “surprise and appalment,” but also one of resignation about U.S. hypocrisy.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his country be identified, citing concern for damaging U.S. relations, said his government and others were torn over whether to denounce the activities exposed in the Crypto documents or to demand a fuller accounting of what transpired.
But even as the files cast the U.S. spy agencies in harsh light, they also reveal how ruthless targeted countries could be toward one another.
When Argentina summoned the Crypto chief executive, Wagner, to Buenos Aires, government officials demanded that the vulnerabilities in the devices they purchased be repaired.
They “accepted” a modification that they were led to believe — falsely — would make their communications secure from eavesdropping, according to the CIA history. But they did so “on the promise” that Crypto officials “not tip off” other Latin American countries that also were Crypto customers.
Buenos Aires wanted its neighbors to remain ignorant of the vulnerability, so that Argentina could spy on them.
“The grand competition between East and West,” the CIA history says, “was of less concern to them than intramural contests in their own backyards.”
Mueller reported from Cologne, Germany, where he is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung in Washington and Souad Mekhennet in Munich contributed to this report.