Recruited by West Germany: Former Stasi Cryptographers Now Develop Technology for NATO

By and Holger Stark

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West Germans were desperate to prevent the Stasi's top codebreakers from falling into the wrong hands and set up a company to hire the East German cryptographers. Now the former Stasi scientists develop technology used by Angela Merkel and NATO.

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Every morning, while going to his office in Berlin's Adlershof district, Ralph W. passes a reminder of his own past, a small museum that occupies a room on the ground floor of the building. The museum could easily double as a command center run by the class enemy in an old James Bond film. A display of coding devices from various decades includes the T-310, a green metal machine roughly the size of a huge refrigerator, which East German officials used to encode their telex messages.

The device was the pride of the Stasi, the feared East German secret police, which was W.'s former employer. Today he works as a cryptologist with Rohde & Schwarz SIT GmbH (SIT), a subsidiary of Rohde & Schwarz, a Munich-based company specializing in testing equipment, broadcasting and secure communications. W. and his colleagues encode sensitive information to ensure that it can only be read or heard by authorized individuals. Their most important customers are NATO and the German government.

Rohde & Schwarz is something of an unofficial supplier of choice to the German government. Among other things, the company develops bugproof mobile phones for official use. Since 2004, its Berlin-based subsidiary SIT, which specializes in encryption solutions, has been classified as a "security partner" to the German Interior Ministry, which recently ordered a few thousand encoding devices for mobile phones, at about €1,250 ($1,675) apiece. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has used phones equipped with SIT's encryption technology. In other words, the Stasi's former cryptographers are now Merkel's cryptographers.

Secret Operation

The transfer of Ralph W. and other cryptologists from the East German Ministry for State Security, as the Stasi was officially known, to West Germany was handled both seamlessly and discreetly. West German officials were determined to make sure that no one would find out about the integration of East Germany's top cryptologists into the west. The operation was so secret, in fact, that it has remained unknown to this day.

Only a handful of officials were involved in the operation, which was planned at the West German Interior Ministry in Bonn. In January 1991, Rohde & Schwarz SIT GmbH was founded. The company was established primarily to provide employment for particularly talented Stasi cryptologists that the Bonn government wanted to keep in key positions.

Ralph W. is one of those specialists. W., who holds a doctorate in mathematics, signed a declaration of commitment to the Stasi on Sept. 1, 1982. By the end of his time with the Stasi, he was making 22,550 East German marks a year -- an excellent salary by East German standards. And when he was promoted to the rank of captain in June 1987, his superior characterized W. as one of the "most capable comrades in the collective." While with the Stasi, W. worked in Department XI, which also boasted the name "Central Cryptology Agency" (ZCO).

Looking for the Top Performers

The story begins during the heady days of the East German revolution in 1990. Officially, the East German government, under its last communist premier, Hans Modrow, had established a government committee to dissolve the Ministry for State Security which reported to the new East German interior minister, Peter-Michael Diestel. In reality, the West German government was already playing a key role in particularly sensitive matters. Then-West German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (who is the current German finance minister) had instructed two senior Interior Ministry officials, Hans Neusel and Eckart Werthebach, to take care of the most politically sensitive remnants of the 40-year intelligence war between the two Germanys.

The government of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl was interested in more than just the politically explosive material contained in some of the Stasi's files. It also had its eye on the top performers in the former East German spy agency. The cryptologists were of particular interest to the Kohl government, which recognized that experts capable of developing good codes would also be adept at breaking them. The Stasi cryptologists were proven experts in both fields.

Documents from the Stasi records department indicate that the one of the Stasi cryptologists' achievements was to break Vericrypt and Cryptophon standards that had been used until the 1980s. This meant that they were capable of decoding encrypted radio transmissions by the two main West German intelligence agencies -- the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) -- and the West German border police. The East Germans even managed to decode the BND's orders to members of the clandestine "Gladio" group, which was intended to continue anti-communist operations in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe.

The West German government was determined to prevent these highly trained East German experts from entering the free market. The idea that specialists who had spent decades working with West German encryption methods and had successfully cracked West German intelligence's codes could defect to Middle Eastern countries like Syria was a nightmare. Until then, the BND had had no difficulties listening in on intelligence communications in the Middle East, an ability the potential defection of Stasi experts would likely have compromised. Bonn also hoped to use their skills to break into regions where its own agents were making no headway. All of this meant that the Stasi experts had to be brought on board in the West -- even if it involved unconventional methods.

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