Revealed: the machine that spied for America

False friend: Because it was made in neutral Switzerland, the H-460 seemed trustworthy.

Was this the greatest intelligence coup ever? A coding device that was used for decades by scores of countries has been exposed as an American trick to read all their top secret messages.

For the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, 15 April 1986 was one of the grimmest days of his life.

American bombers had just launched an attack on his country – among the 40 casualties was his daughter Hana. The strike was in retaliation for the deaths of two US soldiers in a Berlin nightclub, where his agents had planted a bomb. But how had the Americans worked out that he was responsible?

The answer, according to an article today in the Washington Post, lay in a coding machine called H-460 used by Libyan intelligence.

Invented by a Swiss company, Crypto, it was supposed to make every message indecipherable. But Crypto was secretly owned by the CIA and the West German government, that could easily unscramble what was said. When the Libyan agents reported triumphantly on their mission, the CIA had irrefutable proof of their guilt.

The Libyans were not the only ones being spied on through Crypto. Over a period of 50 years, its machines were sold to 120 governments.

They included long-standing enemies of the US, such as Iran, but also Nato allies, such as Spain. In the 1980s, around 40% of all messages decoded by US intelligence were collected in this way.

In the long and tangled history of spying, is this quite simply the greatest intelligence coup ever?

Code read?

Some say that no spymaster could ask for a better tool. To be able to read an enemy’s most secret messages for decades, without them knowing, is what every intelligence service dreams of.

Others point out that there have been many other spectacular coups. In WW2, breaking Germany’s Enigma code changed the course of the war. Later, the Soviet Union was able to develop its nuclear-weapons programme thanks to secrets obtained by spies such as John Cairncross and Klaus Fuchs.

You Decide

  1. If you were called upon to serve your country as either a soldier or a spy, which would you choose?


  1. Divide into pairs. Agree on a code in which each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a different one. Write a three-sentence message in the code, warning your partner that the enemy is on their trail. Then swap your messages and decode them.

Some People Say...

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”

EM Forster (1879-1970), British novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Selling Crypto’s machines to unsuspecting governments made it possible for America and West Germany to decode a huge number of secret messages, over half a century. It allowed the US to follow the Iranian government’s thinking during the 1979 hostage crisis, and identify Libya as the country behind the Berlin nightclub bombing. Although some countries had suspicions about Crypto, the operation was not exposed and only abandoned as a result of new technology overtaking the H-460.
What do we not know?
Whether the operation collected more important information than some of the other great intelligence coups, such as the breaking of the Enigma code. We don’t know how well the intelligence gathered was used. Or how badly the discovery of the plot will affect America’s relationship with the supposedly friendly countries it spied on, such as Spain and Italy. It is uncertain if China will be able to achieve similar results by selling the Huawei 5G system to other countries.

Word Watch

Colonel Gaddafi
Ruler of Libya from 1969-2011.
Founded in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency is a foreign intelligence service of the US government, that gathers and analyses national security information from around the world, mainly from human intelligence, including spies.
In a way that shows great happiness or joy at a victory or achievement
Impossible to disprove.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is an international alliance that consists of 29 member states from North America and Europe. It was established at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949.
A great success; a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.
A complex code created by a machine, used by Nazi forces in WW2. It was broken by a British team based at Bletchley Park.
John Cairncross
A Scottish Communist who worked at Bletchley Park and told Russian intelligence in 1941 that Britain was starting a nuclear programme. He was exposed as a spy 10 years later, but never prosecuted.
Klaus Fuchs
A British physicist who worked on atomic-bomb research during WW2. He started passing secrets to the Soviet Union in 1943, and was sent to prison in 1950.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.