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How Switzerland hopes to shut down foreign spies

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How Switzerland hopes to shut down foreign spies
File photo of the Deltalis Swiss Mountain Data Center, a former Swiss Army bunker. Photo: AFP
14:40 CET+01:00
Switzerland's reputation as international hub for espionage has been bolstered in recent years with foreign intelligence services using locations around the country to exchange sensitive political, economic and military information.

“The Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) is aware that Switzerland is also a venue for third-country meetings,” agency spokesperson Isabelle Graber told national daily NZZ recently, referring to encounters between agent controllers and agents of two different foreign countries on Swiss soil.

Graber said the reasons for this phenomenon include the country's central location, its infrastructure, its status as a Schengen nation and its high levels of public security. She also noted that the presence of large numbers of tourists and business travellers meant members of the intelligence community could go unnoticed. In addition, the relative scarcity of law enforcement controls played a role.

“The number of third-country meetings has continued to rise in the last few years. This includes everyone from security agency employees to freelancers,” said one source who asked not to be named. Meanwhile, another unnamed source said “the market in secret information has exploded” leading to an increase in the number of meetings aimed at the exchange of information and payment.

Tougher legal framework

But there is another reason for the popularity of Switzerland among foreign intelligence agents: until recently they had little fear of exposure by Swiss authorities. National laws meant the FIS was, for years, hamstrung when it came to taking action against foreign agents.

The FIS 2014 annual report highlighted the fact that Switzerland's tools for investigating and combatting foreign espionage were more “limited than in other countries”.

“In this respect, Switzerland offers foreign services a better framework than some other countries, in which criminal penalties and political consequences are more severe or more difficult to predict,” the report stated.

But new rules brought in last September give the FIS more elbow room: the agency can now, under certain circumstances, hack into computers, carry out wire taps and track individuals.

“We are working hard to clear up third-country meetings. The goal is to prevent these from happening or at least disrupt them,” says Graber of the new powers.

The agency spokesperson also said the FIS was working with partner agencies in foreign countries to prevent such meetings, saying that interests of Switzerland and such partners was “reciprocal”.

Graber went on to note that the FIS passed on relevant information on meetings to judicial authorities, although how often this happens remains a secret. But she also clarified that only meetings carried out by military secret services were liable for prosecution. All other meetings – apart from those on issues related to Swiss interests – were not forbidden however much much they might be undesirable.

“They (such meetings) are in violation of Swiss sovereignty and can lead to operations against the interests of the nation,” said Graber.

However, the statistics show that even when such cases do end up in the courts, the suspects and their backers usually remain unfound and go unpunished.

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