17:33 GMT07 April 2020
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    The rumours of a spying affair known as “Crypto Leaks” around the Swiss company Crypto AG were true, says German expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom after explosive docs were leaked. The CIA and BND's years-long spying on diplomatic communication of nearly 100 countries will lead to diplomatic turbulence, believes the expert engaged in the investigation.

    Schmidt-Eenboom has made a name for himself as an expert on intelligence activities. There is hardly a single intelligence scandal in recent years without the media drawing on his expertise and assessments. Thus, it is not surprising that he was also involved in an investigation of the so-called "Crypto Leaks" affair.

    Schmidt-Eenboom was not surprised that secret services spy on everything and everyone, gleaning information like vacuum cleaners. The expert, however, was surprised by something completely different, as he tells Sputnik.

    Sputnik: Mr Schmidt-Eenboom, on the one hand, the commotion and outrage in the German media can be somehow understood, on the other hand, we are talking about the work of the intelligence services. In other words, the fact that security services are engaged in such things, in general, is not surprising. How unexpected was it for you when you heard about that?

    Schmidt-Eenboom: First of all, I must say that I have been involved in the investigation for nine months but when I first saw the secret documents, I was extremely surprised. Not because BND and the CIA were spying on a global scale but because the operation was joint. It was unimaginable that a small German agency and large American intelligence agencies were conducting a very, very effective operation for 23 years with an extreme level of secrecy. Even for experts, for me and my colleagues, it was very unexpected.

    Sputnik: Do you have an explanation why BND left the operation in 1993, as it claimed itself, what are the reasons if everything was supposedly so successful?

    Schmidt-Eenboom: Yes, after the Bühler scandal, the media were getting closer. After this sales engineer from Crypto AG spent nine months in prison in Iran and then came back and made serious accusations against his employer, a wave of media activity swept around the world.

    Starting with newspapers in Romania, Brazil, of course, in Switzerland and Germany, there was an increasing threat that a specific publication would follow despite denials by Crypto AG and the company's management. And in this situation, the secret service coordinator at the time, Mr Schmidbauer, told us very clearly there was a danger that the whole operation would collapse.

    And all of this was in a historic moment when European allies were watching very closely what reunited Germany was doing. And the most scandalous of these actions was the wiretapping of numerous allies, namely Japan, Turkey, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, and the Vatican. The fact that special services were targeting the most important regions of the Near and Middle East, Arab states, all Mediterranean North African countries – it was the reasonable work of intelligence services, it definitely is highly accepted.

    But spying on one's closest allies, if this were to be exposed, it would've led to great political turbulence in Europe. And thus the chancellor's office decided against the will of the BND to end the operation. The CIA, however, did not hesitate to continue this operation until 2018.

    Sputnik: Did you have to check if the leaked documents, information, were true at all? Or were you provided with any questionable content?

    Schmidt-Eenboom: No, of course, we have received these materials from very reliable sources. But then, during many months of investigation, several witnesses from that time, some former employees of Crypto AG, they appeared in the American research, they were saying that this was true, this is how it happened, everything happened in that way.

    So they partially supplemented the information but above all, proved the American source, having confirmed the authenticity of the documents. And most importantly, the former intelligence coordinator Schmidbauer says that “yes” we were involved in this operation; we ended it in 1993, but before that, it was very important, specifically in the fight against international terrorism.

    Sputnik: You mentioned that the CIA continued the operation after BND withdrew. Are there indications that there were similar operations with other agencies or that it is still ongoing?

    Schmidt-Eenboom: There are certain interconnected events. We saw that the CIA was not only targeting Crypto AG, they were also trying to influence all Western encryption manufacturers around the world. That means they haven't ceased their actions.

    Of course, there is also other, smaller, regular cooperation, especially in the area of satellite reconnaissance. Because when you intercept information from a satellite, you can always only get what comes from the sky, not what goes from bottom to top. This is why there is always a need for cooperation. That means that BND in its satellite surveillance needs partners in other parts of the world, for example, the Taiwanese Military Intelligence Bureau.

    The Taiwanese accept what comes from the sky and BND with its stations acts as a host. The system works in a similar way with the French at the Kourou Cosmodrome in French Guiana. It's what all the intelligence agencies do, specifically in satellite reconnaissance.

    And of course, there is – and this was very clearly demonstrated by Snowden – the traditionally close cooperation between British intelligence and the NSA, where they are talking about attacks on submarine cables.

    Sputnik: Switzerland reacted and imposed an export ban on Crypto AG products. How do you assess this, is it more of a symbolic act, that is to say, to show that we are doing something and not just standing still and letting it all happen, is it something else that they want to save, prevent or is it just a symbolic act?

    Schmidt-Eenboom: This is not a symbolic act. It's primarily a preventive measure. They have also demonstrated that the export ban will last until we are absolutely clear about the scope of the scandal through the investigation. And a former federal judge who is to present the investigation has already said this.

    And if I see the political debate in Switzerland correctly, it could end up in the parliamentary inquiry commission, which will then question the former intelligence officers from Crypto AG as witnesses. In other words, the prevailing situation in Switzerland at the moment means that it is actually causing significant domestic political turbulence. And the following issue then immediately arises here. In Switzerland, this is very important because it is the central point of state self-determination, namely Swiss neutrality.

    Sputnik: Switzerland is taking action, while other countries have not yet made clear statements about that. But I believe that there have been some disturbing signals. You have identified several nations that have also been affected by spying activities. How do you assess the political and diplomatic damage that this scandal will cause or may have caused?

    Schmidt-Eenboom: Of course, we see resonance in the media, and what we do not see is a reaction in different ministries of foreign affairs. Many countries can figure out through a publication, namely a long list in The Washington Post that their diplomatic classified communications have been hacked for decades.

    And they, of course, wonder what was so important that we were communicating about and what ended up in the archives of the BND, the CIA, and the NSA. And then, clearly, there will be diplomatic disagreements. In Germany, we are now seeing the BND trying to hush it all up. When we sent the request, they told us that they provide information about the operation to parliamentary monitoring bodies.

    But it is the BND that has not informed parliamentarians for 25 years and now seems to be trying to smooth over the scandal. But we still have a long 60-minute documentary film by ZDF about Operation Rubicon, and some unpleasant new moments will be revealed there. So the BND won’t be able to push it out of the focus so quickly.

    Sputnik: The keyword is “quickly”. In such scandals, the phrase "history must be written anew" is immediately brought up. Do you think it is true that we simply evaluate some or historical events differently? 

    Schmidt-Eenboom: To some extent. For example, in the case of Argentina, that is the transfer of BND cyphers to the British, who had gained advantages in the Falklands War as a result, this has already been documented in detail in specialised literature. In the case of La Belle (the explosion at the Berlin nightclub La Belle – ed. note Sputnik), there was still residual doubt about Libya's involvement and it has now been completely cleared.

    What is quite new is the information that the Americans at the Camp David negotiations had full control of secret communication with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo, which definitely gave them significant advantages in the negotiations. And we must accurately re-evaluate the US-Iran hostage crisis as well because Algeria played the role of a mediator there. And Algeria was also a client of Crypto AG, so the Americans could turn to secret communication between Algeria and Iran for their purposes in the negotiations.

    Sputnik: Thank you very much for the information, Mr Schmidt-Eenboom. I believe this is not the last time we will be discussing this matter.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    Tags:
    encryption, spying, intelligence, German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), CIA, Switzerland, U.S
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