Politicians demand full truth about Swiss role in Crypto affair

Since 1970, the CIA and BND listened in on and read hundreds of thousands of messages between governments, embassies and military commands worldwide with the help of Swiss firm Crypto. Keystone / Matthias Schrader

Who knew what and when? Confirmation that the US and German intelligence services spied on other countries with manipulated encryption devices from Swiss company Crypto has triggered mixed reactions from Swiss politicians. But they all agree that Switzerland needs to get to the bottom of the matter, and quickly.

This content was published on February 12, 2020 minutes

RumoursExternal link had been swirling for years that a Swiss company was working with the CIA, but the details in the 280 pages reported yesterday by the Swiss public broadcaster SRF, German broadcaster ZDF and The Washington Post has caused Swiss parliamentarians to react with everything from unsurprise to outrage.

Balthasar GlättliExternal link from the left-wing Green Party told SRF it was “a politically explosive affair because it’s an operation which, according to the information available, was happening until 2018. This means the Swiss secret service was aware of these dealings”.

Other parliamentarians expressed less outrage over the fact that the CIA and Crypto were in cahoots but were more surprised by the sheer scale of the operation. Christa MarkwalderExternal link from the centre-right Radical-Liberal Party told SRF that her surprise was somewhat limited because she already knew about the issue.

“However, I had no idea how large the level of espionage really was and how many countries were supplied with these devices. This is a surprise,” she said.

Politicians from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party were also alarmed by the reports. “This is a gigantic case of espionage,” said representative Franz GrüterExternal link.

Accomplices or naive hosts?

Politicians from the left, right and centre all called for the truth to come out as to who in the Swiss government and intelligence service knew what and when. Glättli asked simply: “Did the government authorise this joint operation between the Swiss and American services?”

Politicians uniformly welcomed the commitment to a full investigation by the Swiss government, but some said that this wasn’t sufficient.

Glättli called for a parliamentary commission of inquiry (PUK) if government involvement were proven. The left-wing Social Democrats said they would support such an inquiry. Radical-Liberal Party President Petra GössiExternal link also said a PUK was “a serious option” for her party and that they were examining the option of proposing it at the spring parliamentary session. 

Social Democrat President Christian Levrat expressed a sense of urgency to get to the bottom of the affair, saying there were questions about the affair that needed to be answered now. “The Federal Council could have filed criminal charges against such people [working at Crypto] long ago,” he said.

Damage control

The affair is also leading to some self-reflection and a need to reassure partners of Switzerland’s commitment to neutrality.

If Swiss authorities permitted Crypto to engage with foreign intelligence services, they may not have violated any Swiss laws seeking to limit “unwelcome” espionage activities by foreign agents on its soil. However, Glättli from the Greens said “it would undermine the foundations of our political identity”.

Gössi said that “if only the core of these revelations is correct, it jeopardises our neutrality and the sovereignty of our country. Ultimately, it is also about trust in our political institutions”.

While the scandal was damaging, Markwalder said that much of the espionage took place during the Cold War and that Switzerland still has a strong reputation. “We must continue to make it clear to our partner countries that our neutrality and agreements apply.”

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