The FBI has been hiding sensitive records of American eavesdropping operations from parliamentary scrutiny for decades. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (right) gave orders in 1948 for tricky political papers to be stored away in Room 6527 – known as the Confidential File Room - at its Washington headquarters. The records did not show up in any index so that the FBI would be able to deny any knowledge of the relevant documents should a parliamentary control commission ever start to ask questions.
Along with records of US eavesdropping on friendly states, Hoover also stashed away documents about Eastern Block spies or reports about the unusual sexual practices of senior Communist officials and politicians. There were so many documents that they began to threaten the vast official building’s structural mechanics. An internal FBI memo from September 1961 notes that secret papers had to be immediately transferred to other rooms due to the weight of Room 6527’s 26 filing cabinets. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, the SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche have gained access to these historic and previously unpublished intercept records.
FBI boss Hoover personally oversaw these bugging operations. The intelligence chief fed ciphers and codes from the Swiss embassies in Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Caracas and Rio de Janeiro to the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), a secret branch of the FBI located in South America (see document left). The US Army and Navy also set up major intelligence operations during World War II. Unlike the military, however, the FBI was not satisfied with simply recording and decoding telex and radio signals; Hoover’s agents employed covert tactics to gain access to foreign state secrets. Recently declassified documents suggest that the FBI even opened Swiss diplomatic correspondence.
Authorisation came from the very top. In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the FBI to collect and analyse any relevant information in the Western world. Hoover had a listening station built near Washington, from where agents monitored radio transmissions to Europe. FBI listening posts at Santa Ana and Portland on the west coast of the United States intercepted Swiss radio correspondence in Japan and the Far East. Hoover’s staff listened in on radio messages sent by the Swiss representative in Tokyo, Camille Gorgé, to Berne, Rome, Geneva and Bangkok. It was not just Switzerland that the US kept under surveillance - they did the same to many other countries.
A covert US operation managed to break through Swiss encryption. The declassified intelligence records offer proof of this, but exactly how the operation was carried out is not yet clear. It is plausible that the FBI systematically searched the Swiss diplomatic bag. In any event, FBI agents were extremely interested in the comings and goings of the Swiss diplomatic courier (see document right). An internal FBI memo from June 1942 says that a “top secret source” had managed to photograph documents containing instructions for encrypting Swiss diplomatic cables. The material contained “codes, tables and ciphers, as well as instructions for their use”, it says in a subsequent memo (see document below). This allowed the Americans to read encoded Swiss messages until 1950 at the earliest. Up until then, the Swiss Foreign Ministry had used an Enigma encoding machine (pictured top left), which was replaced by a Swiss-invented machine known as “Nema” (“new machine”). It is not known whether the Americans were able to read Nema-encoded messages. What is clear, though, is that from 1942 onwards the US worked closely with the British, who had cracked the German Enigma code. Britain provided the Americans with important information about how the Swiss machine worked.
The broken Swiss code comes into its own in 1946. There was a lot of money at stake for the Swiss in their negotiations with the US about the stolen Nazi gold. Led by Minister Walter Stucki, the Swiss negotiators agreed on a maximum offer of 250 million Swiss francs(the equivalent of 1.3 billion of today’s Swiss francs) via a secure telex line. The Americans did not relent until the Swiss had tabled what their zealous snoopers had informed them was Switzerland’s highest possible bid. The FBI eavesdroppers had to cast their net wide and intercepted a great deal of useless information. They deciphered and translated into English even routine consular affairs and details of Swiss nationals’ tax arrears as well as funds advanced to Swiss citizens in need.
The Swiss file in the Confidential File Room contains 160 pages of reports about the FBI’s attempts in 1942 to crack the code protecting Swiss diplomatic messages. A further 5000 pages of reports relate details of other countries’ codes. Further documents cover other subjects such as secret searches of diplomatic bags or the security of communications at US overseas bureaus.
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This website contains all the documents that the SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche have obtained from the US authorities through a Freedom of Information Act request and are now making available to researchers, the media and interested members of the public. Our partners Le Monde (France), the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany), L’Espresso (Italy) or Sveriges Radio (Sweden) are planning to publish their own findings and analysis of these documents in the coming days. Researchers will also be able to publish their papers here as part of our crowd-sourcing project.
SonntagsZeitung (23.2.2014) - PDF
Le Matin Dimanche (23.2.2014) - PDF
mtv.fi (24.2.2014) - Link - PDF (translation into English) - PDF (translation into German)
L'Espresso (28.2.2014) - Link - - PDF (translation into German)
Kathmerini (1.3.2014) - Link - PDF - Link (translation into English)
Süddeutsche Zeitung (4.3.2014) - Link - PDF
Aftenposten (5.3.2014) - Link - - PDF
Sverige Radio (5.3.2014) - Link