A novel by Jarrod Miller
It was actually a pretty big news story, but just in Switzerland. No single incident prevented the story from breaking internationally; in fact, it was a series of things, any of which would have made for busy times at a network bureau. But in 1979, there was a perfect storm of newsworthy events that effectively buried the story on assignment desks worldwide. Somewhere between the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island, the Camp David Peace Accords, and a couple of major airline crashes and a catastrophic train derailment in Canada thrown in for good measure, the story of a security breach at the U.S. Embassy in Bern just never had a chance. Less than a year later, fledgling twenty four hour news outlet CNN would have had the time to bring it to the world, but this was still the age when all the news of the day was compressed to a thirty-minute whirlwind tour, watched by millions as they ate their TV dinners.
The crime went down in the Office of Military Affiliation, a little-known division of the Embassy, located several blocks off the Sulgeneckstrasse in a tidy, quiet neighborhood, away from the bustle of the other embassies and annexes. So uncharacteristic of the careful Swiss, that an unlocked door was discovered to be the cause. Several computers and thousands of files were stolen from a suite of rooms in the OMA archive wing, located underground. The theft wasn’t even discovered for two full days. Heads rolled. Blame was passed around from the top down, and a full overhaul of security procedures for the OMA and the U.S. Embassy was ordered, some of which are still in effect today. The precise contents of what was stolen were never completely nailed down, but after years of investigative wrangling, the Embassy admitted that the missing files included classified information about Allied military personnel who ended up in Switzerland during World War Two. Escaped prisoners of war, the places they hid, and the routes they took. Countless transcripts of debriefings and descriptions of German troop placements and strategic positions around occupied France and Italy were among the files. Information which the Allies had then used for strategic bombings and other operations that ultimately had helped win the war. Along the way, certain Swiss financial institutions had come under investigation after some were accused of hiding Nazi loot. Numerous files gathered exhaustively by Allied agents during the war years containing sensitive information about certain banks and their various security protocols and inner workings went missing, and were therefore compromised. In many cases, those banks were never even notified. One member of the Embassy brass, who ended up being the spokesperson for the whole mess, spent a great deal of air time downplaying the theft. He went on camera and assured the public that anyone who would bother to steal files that lengthy and dull would have to wade through hundreds of thousands of pages just to get to the good stuff. Who had time for such a task? That, combined with the juvenile nature of the crime, led him and others to believe that the theft was little more than a prank of opportunity, aimed at muddying the face of anything American. Protests, sometimes violent, by Communist groups were common across Europe that year, particularly in Bern with its sizeable American population, and its geographic proximity to Bonn, the West German capital.