Historian Zala on the crypto affair: “The reputation damage is done without question”


The “crypto leaks” have dominated the headlines for days. Many questions are still open. The historian Sacha Zala believes that Switzerland could actively look away. And explains how files from the Federal Archives can disappear.

Sacha Zala thinks it is conceivable that official Switzerland was actively looking away.

Sacha Zala thinks it is conceivable that official Switzerland was actively looking away.

Colin Frei

Mr. Zala, the crypto affair is currently moving Switzerland. There is talk of the “most important espionage operation” that has ever taken place. Do you agree with this assessment?

At first I wouldn’t classify it that dramatically. In Operation Minerva, for example, the Soviet Union could not be bugged during the Cold War. The main enemy was not cracked. That puts the scope into perspective. I also have to say after the first reading of the few published and very short parts of the text: This document has obviously been created by someone who wanted to put himself and the CIA in a good light.

Some kind of propaganda paper?

I have no doubts about the infiltration of Crypto AG. But you have to be able to ask: Who wrote this document? With what intent? Who leaked it to the media and why? And also: why now? It is essential for historical research to know the sources.

Here, however, the journalists are silent.

They often have something in common with the news services: do not reveal the source. Do not get me wrong. I think the investigative research done here is excellent. But essential, scientific questions cannot be answered at the moment. It is now a matter of bringing light into the dark.

Politicians are now crying out for complete information, even demanding a PUK. Will that help?

Most likely we will never be able to fully resolve this affair. The crucial traces have long been blurred. I can hardly imagine a news agency that would not!

What do you mean?

Espionage is a core task of every intelligence service. To assume otherwise would simply be naive. I think it is plausible that the Swiss intelligence service was informed.

The authorities presented themselves in Zug, but nothing was done. Did the investigation send out deliberately?

The deputy chief of the intelligence service portrays himself as ignorant and says that he was fucked up. It is difficult to judge that. But I’m doing an analogy.

Do calm down.

You may remember the Wurenlingen attack. Switzerland stopped the investigations at some point. In addition, conspiracy theories circulate. But the reality is very simple: Switzerland was interested in looking away. They did not want to arrest terrorists because they would have targeted other terrorists, as the kidnapping of a Swissair plane to Zerqa in 1970 had shown. So there was a pragmatic interest in letting the examinations go away. But prove something like that! Because: The authorities have determined.

Why did you investigate?

First, because they are required by law. Second, because it would raise suspicions if they stayed idle. Now you have to ask yourself the question: Has the affair sunk because someone was actively interested in torpedoing it? Or has it silted up because the authorities didn’t have the means to really investigate? Both would actually be questionable.

That sounds very worrying.

Yes indeed. But one shouldn’t forget either: Switzerland can hardly obtain secret information without foreign countries. As well as? We don’t do military operations abroad, we don’t have spy satellites in space, and we don’t train people like James Bond. Honor sovereignty, if you want to share the information of the Americans, you obviously have to endure something. And that includes a pinch of mischief. But the question that arises in this affair is: Did politics know?

The politicians all say: we knew nothing.

Yes, they say that. And maybe it’s true. Now is the time to find out. Also with regard to the question of what lessons we can learn from it. This eavesdropping scandal is nothing compared to what we have to expect today with the new technologies. Merkel’s cell phone was also bugged …

And then files also disappeared …

Federal offices are obliged to offer their files to the Federal Archives. However, if the offices fail to fulfill their duty, the Federal Archives have no means of enforcing this. That is why I have long advocated that the Federal Archives be given the same competencies as, for example, the Swiss Federal Audit Office.

So if you want to destroy, hide or disappear files, you can just do that?

If authorities destroy files without the consent of the Federal Archives, this is illegal, but there is still not much you can do about it.

Documents that disappear from the archive without a trace?

This is actually striking. But there can still be various reasons. Like the scandal surrounding the P26. There is also a lot of messing around. Overall, sloppiness is much more of a concern for research than intent.

All coincidence?

Offices can request their files back. Of course, they must not change historical dossiers. But if you do it anyway, nobody will notice. I assume that when the research on Crypto AG started last year, the relevant office wanted to inspect it, request the files back and then …

Then yes?

The dossier was lost. Or it deliberately disappeared.

Has the system in Switzerland?

At least I wouldn’t be surprised if documents disappear in delicate shadow affairs. In principle, however, the majority of the files in Switzerland are properly archived. Switzerland has no general archiving problem.

But now a general reputation problem. Or is everything half as wild in the end?

The reputation damage is done without question. But I think the international crisis will soon be forgotten. Everything half as wild.

For real?

Yes. You can forget that Swiss services will no longer be used due to such an affair in the future.

Is Switzerland now losing its role as an intermediary?

The mediation services operate in a different political dimension. We also tend to place too much importance on these services in Switzerland. Because we like to hear the narrative of neutral Switzerland, which does an excellent job.

What do you mean?

Ask yourself: What does neutrality mean anyway? In international law, it has practically only a military meaning. But Switzerland has raised the concept of neutrality to a kind of state religion. It can also be used to trade better.

The affair is now drawing more circles. The question is also: Who knew then?

It is very difficult to classify this at this point. Also because there are currently hardly any documents. In the past decades of my research, I have never seen a document in which Swiss diplomacy used Crypto AG as a negotiating argument. From a diplomatic point of view, it would have been very useful to underline this possible gesture of friendship in talks with the United States. That is why it is clear to me that the circle of know-all would be small in any case.

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