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Security leak could damage Swiss image

Hofmann is determined to investigate the leak Keystone

An embarrassing leak of secret information about alleged CIA detention centres in Europe could damage Swiss foreign relations, according to a senior politician.

This content was published on January 9, 2006 - 21:46

Hans Hofmann, who heads a parliamentary sub-committee investigating how the SonntagsBlick newspaper got hold of classified documents, says he is determined to plug the leak.

The newspaper claimed to have received a copy of a fax sent by Egypt's foreign ministry to the Egyptian embassy in London, intercepted by the Swiss intelligence service in November, confirming the existence of secret prisons in Europe.

"This leak could be extremely damaging to the reputation of Switzerland and our intelligence service," Hofmann told swissinfo.

"This document was clearly not intended to be made public and this may lead to a breakdown in trust between our intelligence service and other countries.

"We will conduct a very thorough inquiry to determine the source of this leak and will try to make sure that it does not happen again."

On Tuesday afternoon the parliamentary sub-committee released a statement in which it said Switzerland's credibility had been damaged and called on the government to act.

It said it was particularly concerned about relations with the United States, with which Switzerland is currently negotiating a free-trade accord. It also feared diplomatic tensions with Bulgaria and Romania.

The commission added that it was also looking into the working methods of the Swiss intelligence services and the media.

Bad timing

The timing of the story is embarrassing for a Swiss government that has consistently denied possessing any evidence of US jails for suspected terrorists on European soil.

Government ministers distanced themselves from the report that evidence has been available since November 10. Defence Minister Samuel Schmid, who was Swiss president last year, told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper that he might consider legal action against the SonntagsBlick.

British security expert Sir Timothy Garden believes the leak may have originated from a disgruntled intelligence service employee who felt not enough was being done to expose alleged secret prisons.

But he does not think the leak will damage Switzerland's reputation internationally.

"I think there is a great deal of concern at the moment about [what the US refers to as] extraordinary renditions," he told swissinfo.

"There will be those in every country 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 stop them, they will use systems like leaking.

"I think everybody will be slightly surprised that Switzerland gets so hot under the collar given that other nations have had to put up with a lot of this in recent months."

The US embassy in Bern declined to comment.

swissinfo

Key facts

June 2004: Human Rights Watch claims that the United States is detaining alleged terrorists at more than a dozen secret locations around the world.
November 2, 2005: The Washington Post reports that the CIA is detaining members of al-Qaeda in eight eastern European countries and Asia.
November 7: Swiss senator Dick Marty is named to head an inquiry into the allegations by the Council of Europe.
December 8: The American secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, refuses to answer questions on the subject during a tour of Europe.
December 14: The Swiss parliament demands a report from the government on alleged CIA transit flights through Switzerland.
January 8, 2006: The SonntagsBlick newspaper claims to have intercepted a fax from the Egyptian government confirming the detention centres.

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In brief

The fax was allegedly picked up by Switzerland's Onyx satellite listening system. The system is based at three sites in Zimmerwald and Heimenschwand in canton Bern and Leuk in canton Valais.

The Swiss authorities have asked Washington for explanations about four landings at Geneva airport and 30 flights in Swiss airspace that are alleged to have carried terrorist suspects to detention centres.

Hans Hofmann is president of a key parliamentary regulatory body that is conducting an investigation into the SonntagsBlick story.

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