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The Swiss intelligence service is considered to be a small and "intellectual" secret service that makes a name for itself with embarrassing amateur mistakes rather than bloody actions. A short portrait in ten questions and answers.

This content was published on March 12, 2019 - 1:00 p.m.

Do you spy in Switzerland?

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Yes, and how! Switzerland was and is a stronghold for foreign spies. During the Second World War, spies from the Nazis and the Allies cavorted in Bern, during the Cold War spies from the Eastern Bloc countries.

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Spies

Today Switzerland is interesting because of the presence of numerous international organizations. Intelligence expert Clement GuittonExterner Link believes that the real extent of espionage by foreign agents in Switzerland is not known. "It is also questionable whether the intelligence service itself has a good picture of what is happening - and for a specific reason. Switzerland has an ambivalent relationship with the fight against espionage."

As a small country, Switzerland had tried for years to establish itself as a negotiating venue for diplomatic talks and to compete directly with Vienna and New York. "Of course, Switzerland wants its guests to feel welcome and safe." If it were made public that espionage had taken place in Switzerland, it would spoil their reputation as a host and a safe place to negotiate.

Switzerland must therefore carry out a cost-benefit analysis. "In other words: counter-espionage is not the top priority for Switzerland." According to Guitton, Switzerland should rather concentrate on those agents who tried to spy on Switzerland and its companies.

And it does: When Russian espionage reached an unusual level last year with the attempt to spy on the laboratory in Spiez and the anti-doping agency in Lausanne, the Federal Council (state government) Externer Link and the Foreign Ministry intervened. And the head of the intelligence service said at a press conference that the red line had been crossed: "We have to show the Russian authorities that we are up to date and that from time to time there is a lot of fun."

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Chief news service

How big is the Swiss intelligence service?

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Not very large. In 2017, the workforce of the Swiss intelligence service was 303 full-time positionsExterner Link, in 2018 there were around 314 full-time positions. In 2015 there were 266. Compared to other countriesExterner Link, the Swiss intelligence service still has rather few staff. "The FIS is a small but effective and efficient intelligence service," says the website of the Swiss intelligence serviceExterner Link.

How much does the Swiss intelligence service cost?

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In 2017, expenditures for the Swiss intelligence service (expenses and investments) amounted to 74.5 million francs according to the state accounts. In 2018 it was 77.2 million. Almost 80 million francs are estimated for the year 2019External Link.

What is the Swiss intelligence service allowed to do?

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Compared to the services of other countries: Not very much. Which is one of the reasons why Switzerland is so interesting for foreign spies: "The liberal climate in neutral Switzerland has always been valued by spies. One can enter and leave the country very easily and is hardly ever monitored," said the former Swiss secret service chief Peter Regli opposite the Neue Zürcher Zeitung external link.

"Before the new Intelligence Service Act came into force in 2017, the Swiss intelligence service was clearly lagging behind most European services in terms of powers," confirms Guitton. "It's different now - at least in theory." The new law gives the secret service more monitoring options: For example, the intelligence service can bug private apartments, tap phone calls or break into computers.

This goes too far for critics: "The law contains a number of provisions that are unconstitutional and unlawful because they exceed the limits set by the highest courts," says the emeritus law professor Rainer J. SchweizerExterner Link. "There is no right to information and only very exceptionally a way to a court. This is very questionable for the protection of fundamental and human rights."

What are the biggest espionage scandals in Switzerland?

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In 1989 the so-called "Fichenskandal" became public. Since the turn of the century, Switzerland had created dossiers ("fiches") for 900,000 people - for every 20th Swiss citizen and every third foreigner - without a legal basis.

Under the pretext of national security, particularly leftists, trade unionists, army critics and opponents of nuclear power plants were spied on.

The banality of the entries proved that most of the people were completely harmless: for example, one member of parliament said: "Likes to have a beer in the evening." External link

In 2010 there was another scandal when the secret service was accused of having created files of over 200,000 people in a database - without having complied with the legal provisions.

Again, many of the entries were irrelevant. After a reprimand from the supervisory authority, the intelligence service promised to delete unnecessary entries.

What are the most embarrassing anecdotes for the Swiss secret service?

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A series of breakdowns from external links pervades the history of the Swiss intelligence service. Here are three particularly embarrassing examples: In 2012, an employee of the intelligence service stole highly sensitive data, including detailed information about cooperation with foreign secret services.

He wanted to sell the data dearly. The matter was only discovered thanks to attentive bank employees who informed the secret service when the man tried to open an account at UBS. The intelligence service itself had no risk management whatsoever.

Also in 2012 it became public that the cell phone number of the head of the secret service at the time, Markus Seiler, could be found on the Internet without any problems. Seiler had neglected to change his number when he switched to the secret service.

In 2016, the cyber head of the news service gave an interview in the media for the first time - while maintaining anonymity. But a simple Google search was enough to identify the man: the program of a conference revealed his name and role.

Particularly embarrassing: Of all people, this mistake was noticed and made public by the convert Qaasim Illi, who, as spokesman for the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland, was the focus of the Swiss intelligence service External Link.

What successes can the Swiss intelligence service have?

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The Swiss intelligence service does not want to confirm it, but according to media reports it prevented a kidnapping on Swiss soil in August 2016: allegedly a spy put knockout drops in a drink for a supporter of the Gülen movement so that the Turkish secret service could kidnap him could.

Apparently thanks to the observation of the Turkish agents by the Swiss intelligence service, this kidnapping could be thwarted. Further successes are likely, but - that is part of the nature of the institution - they remained secret.

What do the critics say?

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"I have considerable reservations about the Federal Intelligence Service (NDB)," says law professor Rainer J. Schweizer. This stemmed from the fact that he himself had had direct access to the work of the secret service at a supervisory authority for around ten years. "I've seen too many legal violations and arbitrary information processing."

Schweizer is also skeptical about the new powers of the Swiss intelligence service: "It no longer only takes care of the core tasks of a state security body, such as defense against espionage, the illegal arms trade, violent extremism and terrorism," said Schweizer. But also about relatively vague areas such as alleged threats to the Swiss financial center or all kinds of other threats.

"It is researched and judged here without even the slightest initial suspicion of illegal behavior, only on the basis of ultimately predominantly political criteria," said Schweizer. "And all of these activities remain completely secret and completely non-transparent, which is not the case from a democratic point of view."

How popular is the Swiss intelligence service?

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Actually, the Swiss secret service has what it takes to be the most popular service in the world: "We do not monitor opposition members and do not kill journalists like others do. We have a purely analytical, intellectual intelligence service that provides information for the Federal Council," said the former head of intelligence Peter Regli opposite the NZZExterner Link.

Nevertheless, an above-average level of skepticism can be felt among the Swiss population. Guitton attributes this to inaccurate or even untrue headlines in the media, combined with a lack of knowledge. "The fact that the Fichen affair is still used as a point of reference shows that many nuances are being lost - including the role of Parliament."

Like other countries, Switzerland needs a university chair for intelligence services and more books to be published in order to improve the public's understanding of secret service work.

Who oversees the Swiss intelligence service?

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"I am probably the most controlled man in Switzerland," said Swiss intelligence chiefExternal Link Jean-Philippe Gaudin at a press conference last autumn. And the former head of the secret service, Peter Regli, also told the NZZExterner Link: "Our intelligence service is the best-controlled in the world."

In fact, the supervision was strengthened and expanded with the new Intelligence Service Act. Numerous authorities are entrusted with the control: There is the independent supervisory authority of the intelligence service and the independent supervisory authority, the Federal Council controls the intelligence service in matters of high political importance, the Federal Data Protection Officer checks the legality of the personal data processing of the domestic procurement and the business audit delegation of the federal councils monitors the activities in terms of legality, appropriateness and effectiveness.

And then the secret service is also checked annually by the financial control department on behalf of the finance delegation of the federal councils.

Schweizer nevertheless has his doubts: The independent supervisory authority is located within the Department of Defense. "Although it is somewhat more independent than the previous department-internal control group, it cannot assert itself against the FIS in public."

So far, nothing has been heard from the supervisory authority. "What is really decisive is the work of the parliamentary business audit delegation, which has very few human resources, but works very well." That was shown in the processing of the affair around the Swiss spy Daniel M. External Link, who was supposed to sniff out German tax investigators.

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Spy Daniel M.

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