Swiss president would back criminal probe against NSA leaker

GENEVA (Reuters) - Swiss President Ueli Maurer said on Sunday he doubted Edward Snowden’s claims about his activities as a CIA man in Geneva and would back a criminal investigation into the secrets leaker if Swiss prosecutors called for one.

Swiss President Ueli Maurer aims at a target at 300 metres (984.25 feet) distance during a shooting exercise together with the Foreign Diplomatic Corps in Switzerland during the 'Eidgenoessisches Feldschiessen' in St Ursen near Fribourg May 31, 2013. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Ex-CIA operative Snowden broke cover in spectacular fashion earlier this month, unmasking himself as the source of leaks about U.S. government surveillance programs.

He had previously worked in the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva between 2007 and 2009. He told the Guardian newspaper that he had a “formative” experience in the Swiss city when the CIA deliberately got a Swiss banker drunk and encouraged him to drive home. When he was arrested, a CIA operative offered to intervene and later recruited the banker.

“It does not seem to me that it is likely that this incident played out as it has been described by Snowden and by the media,” Maurer was quoted as saying in the Der Sonntag and SonntagsBlick newspapers.

“This would mean that the CIA successfully bribed the Geneva police and judiciary. With all due respect, I just can’t imagine it,” SonntagsBlick quoted him as saying.

He added that Snowden was just 23 at the time, and unlikely to have had knowledge of such an operation, and that the CIA usually dealt with terrorism rather than financial espionage.

Snowden’s revelations and his links to Switzerland surfaced at a sensitive moment for U.S.-Swiss relations.

After years of cat-and-mouse between U.S. justice officials and the Swiss banks whom they suspect of complicity in U.S. tax evasion, Switzerland may be about to pass a law that could end the U.S. investigation, at a price.

Switzerland’s upper house approved the draft law on Wednesday but passage through the lower house is expected to be far tougher. U.S. authorities already forced the closure of Switzerland’s oldest private bank, Wegelin & Co, earlier this year.

More than a dozen banks are under formal investigation, including Credit Suisse, Julius Baer, the Swiss arm of Britain’s HSBC, privately held Pictet in Geneva and local government-backed Zuercher Kantonalbank and Basler Kantonalbank.

If the law is not approved, U.S. investigators have a “death list” of five Swiss banks that could be hit by immediate indictments, Der Sonntag quoted an unnamed insider as saying.

However, the story of Snowden’s escapades in Switzerland was mainly media hype, Maurer said. The Swiss Foreign Ministry has asked the U.S. embassy in Bern to check what really happened.

Maurer told another Swiss Sunday paper, NZZ am Sonntag, that it was up to the judicial authorities to decide whether or not to launch a criminal investigation into Snowden, but the Swiss cabinet would back such a move as a formality, he said.

Reporting by Tom Miles