When the Swiss Aren’t Neutral: Chocolates and the CIA

Switzerland believes its reputation as an independent mountain-fortress and refuge is being eroded by American meddling

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Gianluca Colla / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Swiss national flag flies above buildings in Zurich on Dec. 12, 2011

On Sept. 25, Switzerland’s highest court brought a long-winded case to a close, convicting three Swiss engineers — a father and his two sons — of selling nuclear equipment to Libya. The Swiss were scandalized, but not by what you’d think.

Friedrich Tinner, 74, and his sons, Marco, 43, and Urs, 46,were arrested in 2004 and sentenced to 24, 41 and 50 months respectively. They were immediately released, taking into account the time they already served in detention, as well as their cooperation with the CIA, which led to the dismantling of the network they had been a part of.

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But what the Swiss remember most about the case is not that the Tinners worked for the network operated by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the notorious “father” of the Pakistani atom bomb, who supplied Libya, North Korea and Iran with the nuclear-weapons technology. What they recall is a widespread rumor that the CIA ordered the shredding of tens of thousands of pages of the Tinners’ documents in 2007 to hide its involvement in the case.

The allegation was never proved, and Swiss authorities said at the time that they destroyed the documents because the blueprints and plans posed a security risk. But the implication that a foreign government might have meddled in Switzerland’s affairs riled up the citizens more than the shredding itself. “We are not the stooges of the CIA or the United States,” fumed Christoph Blocher, who served as the Justice Minister at the time.

This kind of outrage flares up every time a foreign government intrudes in Switzerland’s affairs — which has happened often lately — and reflects the mentality of its people: fiercely independent, protective of their rights, proud and even smug sometimes — the characteristics borne out of living comfortably in a stable and prosperous economy, with the government that is responsive to the grassroots needs. “The feeling that they can decide everything by themselves is deeply rooted in the Swiss tradition of direct democracy,” says Georg Lutz, director of the Social Science Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland.

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Through frequent referendums on all kinds of national and local issues, the Swiss believe they have hands-on control over what happens in their country, “and they believe that outside interventions jeopardize this right to self-determination,” Lutz adds. In fact, the fear of having to comply with E.U. laws that would compromise Switzerland’s political and economic independence was one of the reasons the country refused to join.

Unfortunately, in the past several years, repeated intrusions — mostly from the U.S. — have challenged Switzerland’s view of itself. For example, in its search for tax evaders, the Internal Revenue Service has pressured Swiss banks to release the names of American account holders or face hefty fines and even a ban from doing business in the U.S. Though the Swiss finally caved in, the demands have sparked widespread criticism of Washington’s strong-arm tactics.

Adding fuel to the fire, earlier this month inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration demanded access to Switzerland’s chocolate factories to rule out any bioterrorism risk that Swiss-produced chocolate might pose when sold in the U.S. Not surprisingly, chocolate manufacturers are not sugarcoating their reaction. “The fact that a foreign authority is involved in our Swiss businesses is unseemly,” Daniel Bloch of Chocolats Camille Bloch, told the Handelszeitung newspaper.

Faced with a ban on exports to the U.S., chocolate makers, like the bankers, have given in to the pressure, but this acceptance is far from sweet for some Swiss. “Imagine if a Swiss delegation showed up at Hershey, demanding the inspection of their premises,” said one caller to a radio show. “We’d be kicked out of there so fast. But we, as a nation, allow ourselves to be bullied.”

It may not be a matter of choice. The lack of reciprocity might be frustrating, but for all their ornery pride and sense of independence, the Swiss have little recourse against larger nations. “In the globalized world, size does matter,” Lutz says. “Switzerland tends to overestimate its importance and that anybody actually cares about its particularities.”

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