Sitting in the mist just north of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains in Wilderswil, I watched the momentary afternoon sun concede to the onslaught of rain that soaked me earlier in the day. The dense fog erased the glaciers, then the rocky crags, and then the nubile clouds dropped curtains of rain blocking everything beyond the closest tree-line. Shrouded in their watery vapor, these sentinel mountains vanished. Switzerland’s notoriety as a state of discretion and secrecy was, in modern times, highly valued as the 1934 Swiss Banking Act shielded countless assets from “enemies” of the Nazi state – notably continental European corporate and Jewish deposits from occupied countries. Secrecy and privacy as constitutional rights under Article 13 of the Swiss Federal Constitution affords absolute protection of citizens’ “private and family life”. Swiss banking and securities professionals are prohibited from breaching confidential client information (Article 47 of the Banking Act and Article 43 of the Federal Act on Stock Exchanges and Securities Trading).
Swiss secrecy predated the scourge of Nazi Germany by several hundred years. Swiss cantons were both the sanctuary and crucible for 16th century religious reformers who, together with their patrons, sought to move life and wealth to safety in the mountain state. On the lam arising from charges of ecclesiastical treason and heresy, Swiss resident John Calvin opened the door to equitable usury which created an ethical loophole for Protestant bankers to exploit. Catholic and Protestant bankers alike all found this more expansive interpretation of canonical sin desirable. Discretion regarding the identities of their valued depositors during a period of religious and political upheaval was a helpful corollary to solidify the Swiss primacy of fiduciary secrecy.
Reminiscent of the conditions giving rise to Swiss secrecy in the era of Calvin and Zwingli, and the codification of the same on the eve of war, secrecy and treason have once again vaulted onto the awkward international stage. The Swiss National Council just rejected “Lex USA” – a bill that would have aligned Swiss rules with demands in the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). While the U.S. will undoubtedly pierce the Swiss veil to go after tax evaders (together with their EU taxation counterparties), one cannot avoid the paradoxical timing of this simmering conflict. The U.S. wants disclosure of information from Swiss bankers at the same time it seeks to prosecute information disclosure by Booz Allen Hamilton former employee turned temporary Moscow airport resident Edward Snowden. Apparently the “self-evident Truths” version of “truth” and “TRUTH” are not compatible. If it serves the corporate objectives of Obama’s “powers that be”, then we want as much information as possible. If it could incriminate them for treasonous acts against the U.S. national interests (like disclosing intelligence cover operations and covert financing), then we want to lock-up the leaker.
Incoming National Security Advisor Susan Rice assured the public that Snowden’s activities had “not weakened the President.” That’s true. Given that many of the programs outlined in Snowden’s leaky goodie bag likely predate this Administration, it’s reasonable to assume that Obama’s Guantanamo-perpetuating, willy-nilly drone assassination reputation won’t be further tarnished. Maybe she hasn’t been fully briefed on what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey seem to know. But in a time when the Internal Revenue Service is rushing to deal with damage control on its identity targeting; with the President justifying violations to fundamental Constitutional rights; and, with a runner in Moscow with secrets that are either trivial or of dire consequence if leaked, I’m fascinated by the myth and mystique of secrets.
What’s in a secret? And why do we presume that they are a necessary component of the social order? The notion that a democratic, representational power – such as a country – can only secure itself through opacity is oxymoronic. Undercover representational government is somewhere between offensively elitist and fascist. It is contrary to the principles of commerce (willing buyers and sellers informed of all material facts), contract (fully-informed counterparties), and community (consensus to an established, stated order). There’s no surprise then that it is fiduciary interests, not representational governments that need secrecy. Our paternalistic lords know that if they were operating in full transparency, neither they nor their benefactors would enjoy the benign endorsement of the taxed and governed.
For Switzerland, there’s a fraction of 10.3% of its economy derived from the financial sector (CHF 59.4 billion) that’s riding on secrecy. For the U.S., there’s at least that much or more riding on keeping the national defense and central intelligence budget (and their contractors) secret. And for We The People, it may be time to actually step into the light and break the tyrannical illusion that secrecy is in our interest. As long as we espouse its merits, we’re subject to its oppression and misuse. Prioritizing transparency and accountability within ourselves and our communities will diminish the value of opacity. And lest I be misinterpreted, I’m not suggesting that discretion and privacy need to be abandoned in inter-personal relationships. But in positions of stewarded power and accountability, secrecy should have no quarter for in its precinct thrives treachery and treason which knows no rank, office, or distinction.