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Secret-service leak seen as storm in teacup

A Swiss surveillance satellite monitors global communications Keystone

A leading British security expert tells swissinfo that Swiss politicians are getting unnecessarily "hot under the collar" about news of a secret-service leak.

Sir Timothy Garden does not believe that the publication of alleged documentary evidence of the existence of CIA terror cells in Europe will discredit the Swiss intelligence agencies.

Garden was speaking after politicians expressed concern that the SonntagsBlick newspaper had acted irresponsibly by publishing what it claimed was a top-secret fax intercepted by Swiss surveillance officers.

The paper alleged that the document – sent by Egypt’s foreign ministry to the country’s embassy in London – confirms the existence of secret prisons in Europe.

Swiss parliamentarians believe the leak could seriously undermine the work of the country’s security services.

swissinfo: Are you surprised to hear about this leak?

Timothy Garden: No, I think there is a great deal of concern at the moment about [what the United States refers to as] extraordinary renditions. In every country you will find people who are unhappy if they find themselves in some way complicit in these activities and if they can’t use the normal system in order to get them stopped, they will use systems like leaking.

Switzerland may well have had a very good control system of its information in the past, but it is now finding out that it’s having the same problems as other democracies. We’re certainly very used to [leaks of this sort] in Britain. They are becoming more and more the nature of the game.

swissinfo: Some politicians fear that leaks of this kind can undermine an intelligence service’s credibility…

T.G.: That reaction is understandable. But the problem is that these days the communication system around the world is so transparent and easy that it is very difficult – I’m happy to say – to do illegal things without them coming to light.

Politicians can and will worry about classified information being leaked. But as we’ve found in Britain, when it comes to court trials of people who have been leaking classified information citing reasons of public interest, juries are normally pretty sympathetic. So it is becoming quite difficult to prosecute people.

swissinfo: What do you make of the concern that security services in other countries may be less likely to work with their Swiss counterparts following this leak?

T.G.: This is an issue that needs to be considered, and it’s something that worries all intelligence services. You hear of particular prejudices that some nations have against others, to the extent that they won’t share classified information. And some countries have special sharing arrangements with others who they see as their most reliable allies.

But leaking happens even among reliable allies. I think everybody’s grown up enough to know that these things happen and I don’t think a single issue of one leak is going to make much difference.

swissinfo: So no lasting damage to Switzerland’s reputation?

T.G.: I don’t think so. I think everybody will be slightly surprised that Switzerland is getting so hot under the collar given that other nations have had to put up with a lot of this kind of thing in recent months.

swissinfo: What sort of reputation do the Swiss security services have?

T.G.: To be frank with you, Switzerland’s intelligence services had not greatly impinged on my consciousness until this interview. That could mean one of two things: one is that they don’t do a great deal in this new world and the other is that they are incredibly good at keeping themselves secret.

swissinfo-interview: Ramsey Zarifeh

Sir Timothy Garden has worked at Britain’s Defence Ministry and served as director of the Royal College of Defence Studies.
He lectures on global security and intelligence issues and has undertaken projects for the British government, the US Defense Department and Nato.
He is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR