By Kathrin Ammann
The spying affair surrounding the Swiss company Crypto has also touched the heart of Swiss identity: neutrality. Swiss politicians, historians and the media are debating the possible consequences of the manipulated cipher devices for the country’s credibility.
It is still unclear who knew what and when about the activities of the CIA and West German intelligence services with the Zug-based encryption company.
This is the key question, because Switzerland is not responsible under international law for the actions of private companies on its territory, as historian Georg Kreis explains in an interview with the Tages-Anzeiger. But the situation would be different, he added, if the government or the secret service had been informed.
“Even the [Swiss] intelligence service must subordinate itself to the official doctrine of neutrality,” Kreis said. Otherwise, federal employees would have violated Switzerland’s neutrality – which appears to be the case.
For it is clear from the documents available to Swiss public television, SRF, among others, that the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) knew about the operation. Previous investigations had come to a different conclusion.
Leaders of political parties from left to right have expressed their shock.
“From the point of view of a neutral and sovereign small state, this is obviously absolutely unacceptable,” Albert Rösti, president of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, told SRF.
Christian Levrat, president of the left-wing Social Democratic Party, says the affair takes on a “different dimension” when “even allies of the United States have been bugged with Switzerland’s knowledge”.
Georg Kreis says it is common knowledge that Switzerland was a “Western neutral”. In general, he says, Switzerland’s neutrality policy has always been very elastic: “We’ve never been an absolutely neutral neutral.”
Jo Lang, a historian and left-wing politician, has dealt intensively in recent decades with surveillance, the keeping of files and Swiss neutrality. He believes that Switzerland must apologise to those countries that bought manipulated cipher machines under the guise of Swiss neutrality.
Kreis sees the political damage being greater at home than abroad, even though the affair might have damaged confidence in the good offices of Swiss diplomats. He says the revelations “clashed with the prevailing understanding of neutrality”.
It’s true that the Swiss people idealise the concept of neutrality, he adds, “but if the tensions with Realpolitik were to become too great, the people would no longer support the policy”.
“The revelation hurts,” writes Swiss newspaper Der Bund. “It shows that the neutrality that until now has been sacred to the Swiss people is often hypocritical.” In its editorial it describes neutrality as “a Swiss sham” and “a piece of folklore”.
Should it turn out that the espionage operation had the blessing of the Federal Council and that the FIS actively benefited from the information, it would be “a disaster for Switzerland’s neutral self-image”, writes the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “The aim now is to dispel all doubts about Switzerland’s credibility as a mediator in conflicts or as a reliable business location.”
We’ll know more by the end of June at the latest. Former federal judge Niklaus Oberholzer has been commissioned by the Federal Council to deliver an investigation report on the Crypto affair by then.
Parliament will also become involved. On Thursday it was announced that a parliamentary control delegation would investigate the matter to try to find out how much the authorities knew. Meanwhile, calls for a parliamentary commission of inquiry – which has only ever taken place four times in Swiss history, most recently in 1996 – are getting louder.