As Switzerland reels from revelations about a decades-old spying affair involving the CIA, here are some of the country’s most scandalous cases of espionage and data theft, from the Stasi-like Secret Files affair to Jean-Louis Jeanmaire, considered one of Switzerland’s worst traitors.
In 2018 two Russian agents were arrested in the Netherlands, apparently on their way to the Swiss town of Spiez, where a federal laboratory was investigating the poison attack on a Russian ex-spy in Salisbury. The Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) was involved in the arrest in order to “prevent illegal actions against a critical Swiss infrastructure”.
In November 2017 a Frankfurt court found Daniel M., a Swiss former police officer, security expert and private detective, guilty of spying on the tax authorities of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). He was fined and given a suspended prison sentence.
Daniel M. was accused of having placed a mole within the NRW tax authority in order to pinpoint for the FIS the inspectors who were tracking German clients of Swiss banks. He admitted to having undertaken missions on behalf of the FIS – for which he was paid – but denied that any mole had been placed.
In November 2015 former HSBC Switzerland worker and whistleblower Hervé Falciani was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for economic espionage. The French former IT worker stole details of client accounts held at HSBC’s private bank in Geneva in 2008 and passed them on to the French authorities. The data, which was believed to contain details of some 106,000 clients, was later passed to other countries by former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde – the so-called “Lagarde list”. Falciani fled to France and then to Spain, which in 2018 rejected a Swiss extradition request.
Then there's the story of Claude Covassi, asked by the FIS to spy on controversial imam Hani Ramadan at the Geneva Islamic Centre. His job was to find out whether the centre was a haven for Islamic fundamentalists. In 2006 he leaked information about his mission to the media and later reportedly converted to Islam. He was found dead aged 42 in 2013.
The Bellasi case
In 2003 Dino Bellasi, a former member of the Swiss secret service, was found guilty of siphoning off CHF8.8 million ($6.5 million at the time) in false claims between 1994 and 1999. He was sentenced to six years in prison. The charges against Bellasi included fraud, embezzlement, document falsification and money laundering, committed while he was balancing the books for the defence ministry. Most of the money was swindled through claims for fictitious army exercises.
The Secret Files scandal
The broadest example of espionage was exposed in 1989: the “Fichenskandal” (Secret Files scandal). It turned out that since 1900 some 900,000 individuals and organisations had been placed under surveillance by the federal police. A file had been created for every 20th Swiss citizen and every third foreigner: an index card on which “unSwiss behaviour” was recorded. Most of the people with files were on the political left.
The investigation into the Secret Files scandal also brought to light the covert Swiss Cold War paramilitary group, known as P26, and the secret intelligence agency P27. P26 had its roots in the 1950s when the Swiss military began assembling a secret guerrilla-style force to resist a Communist invasion. P26 was disbanded in 1990 after revelations of its existence prompted a public outcry.
In 2018 it was reported that the defence ministry “could not find” 27 unpublished folders and dossiers from an investigation into P26 three decades earlier. Critics expressed concern that the documents had been destroyed or intentionally misplaced to hide embarrassing details about neutral Switzerland’s surreptitious advances toward NATO or clandestine ties to foreign spy agencies. In 2019 a parliamentary commission confirmed the documents had disappeared.
The Jeanmaire affair
In 1977 a secret military court found Brigadier Jean-Louis Jeanmaireexternal link, then 67, guilty of passing vital defence information to Soviet diplomats in Bern between 1962 and 1975. The 18-year prison sentence was the stiffest ever given to a Swiss citizen for peacetime espionage. He served about two-thirds of his term, being released on probation for good behaviour.
Prosecutors said he had done “irreparable harm” and given away information of “highest importance”. A government report said he had betrayed mobilisation plans for Switzerland’s militia army. The case was said to have been broken by a tip from West German intelligence.