Swiss Bank to Reveal Account Holders to U.S.

Lawyers for the United States government and the Swiss bank UBS AG have announced that they have reached a deal on releasing to the U.S. the names of UBS account holders. No new details of the agreement have been released, other than what was previously speculated on a week ago.

I will be watching for and examining details that are released. Whatever deal is reached, the Obama administration’s conduct in the case, disregarding both privacy interests and the sovereignty of other nations, has been deplorable. It has set a precedent that could endanger U.S. competitiveness as well as civil liberties throughout the world.

As Competitive Enterprise Institute President Fred Smith and I had explained in a Washington Times Op-Ed, after UBS, with the Swiss government’s full cooperation, turned over the names of 250 customers suspected of violating U.S. tax laws, the U.S. government turned around and asked for a whopping 52,000 names. The Swiss government objected to such a fishing expedition as violating the nation’s privacy laws.

Switzerland rightly argued that such a large volume of names could not be justified by probable cause or “reasonable suspicion,” a condition of the tax treaty Switzerland had negotiated with the U.S. In addition, such a fishing expedition goes against the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from “unreasonable searches.” A forensic analysis commissioned by UBS from Alix Partners found that many international students, diplomats, and Americans who work in Switzerland — and banked in Switzerland by necessity — could have been swept up in this dragnet.

It’s far from clear that if a foreign country were to demand the names of 52,000 customers of an American bank, the U.S. would have complied. The United States Model Income Tax Convention of 2006, used as a template by the U.S. to negotiate tax treaties, states that no country should be required to honor “a request in which a Contracting State simply asked for information regarding all bank accounts maintained by residents of that Contracting State in the other Contracting State, or even all accounts maintained by its residents with respect to a particular bank.”

Previous reports had indicated that UBS would surrender 5,000 names, a large amount but still less than a 10th of what the U.S. had originally called for. It will be important to scrutinize if there is indeed “reasonable suspicion” for however large the volume of names that are released. American civil liberties advocates on whatever side of the political fence should be alarmed by the U.S. government’s sweeping disregard of privacy interests in its demands to the Swiss, and should encourage their home country to never treat privacy and another country’s sovereignty so cavalierly again.