Qatar bugged Swiss Attorney General and FIFA President Infantino

An intelligence operation commissioned by Qatar targeted an informal meeting between Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber and FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Operatives on behalf of Qatar were already planning to recruit the Attorney General for their cause at the end of 2011.

Their meeting was secretly recorded in 2017 on behalf of Qatar: Gianni Infantino and Michael Lauber.

Their meeting was secretly recorded in 2017 on behalf of Qatar: Gianni Infantino and Michael Lauber.

Illustration: Hans-Jörg Walter

It was a secret meeting that former Attorney General Michael Lauber says he no longer remembers – and that ultimately cost him his job: On 16 June 2017, Lauber met with the FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Bern for an informal exchange, while he was, at the same time, conducting a range of cases against FIFA officials. No minutes of the meeting exist and Infantino also said he did not remember it. The meeting was so unusual that two special prosecutors are still investigating Lauber and Infantino in the matter.

The meeting was held in a building that has been owned by the State of Qatar since 2009. The secret session took place in Conference Room No. 3, just a few metres away from the Qatari Embassy, which was in the same corridor of the hotel.

A months-long investigation by NZZ am Sonntag reveals that the covert meeting was secretly recorded by intelligence operatives on behalf of Qatar. The gulf state nation was at the time worried that they would lose the hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022 due to corruption allegations and human rights violations. It therefore launched an international espionage and influence operation over several years, with the help of ex-CIA agents. FIFA officials were spied upon, and the Swiss Attorney General was likewise of particular interest for Qatar. This was because Lauber’s office was also responsible for investigations regarding irregularities in the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar.

The conference room in which Lauber and Infantino met each other was bugged. This newspaper has obtained official secret documents which prove the espionage action. And sources with direct knowledge of the incident described the operation – under the condition of anonymity, due to fear of reprisals. People who were aware of the espionage operation on Swiss soil shortly after it was carried out knew it under the code name «Project Matterhorn.»

According to the sources, the main goal of the action was to record incriminating material. In fact, the recording could have been used for blackmailing Lauber. The Attorney General had every reason to keep the meeting secret – as the reaction of the Federal Criminal Court later proved. Once the informal meetings between Lauber and Infantino became known, the judges sent Lauber into recusal at FIFA proceedings for reasons of bias.

Michael Lauber was Swiss Attorney General from 2012 to 2020. The secret meetings with Gianni Infantino led to Lauber eventually resigning from his post under pressure.

Michael Lauber was Swiss Attorney General from 2012 to 2020. The secret meetings with Gianni Infantino led to Lauber eventually resigning from his post under pressure.

Anthony Anex / KEYSTONE

First, two earlier secret meetings that took place in 2016 became public. At the time, Lauber was interrogated by the supervisory authority of the Attorney General’s office. The supervisory authority asked him directly if there had been other meetings with Infantino. Lauber said, «No. Never at the level of Attorney General.» The third meeting was ultimately exposed anyway, as a public prosecutor from Valais stumbled across relevant text messages by chance during proceedings. The Federal Administrative Court found that Lauber had not told the truth, and the Attorney General resigned.

«Implausible and in part factually incorrect»

Yet this means that there was a time period in which a foreign state could have uncovered an untrue statement made by the Attorney General to his supervisory authority. More leverage is hardly possible.

The supervisory authority later appeared baffled in its disciplinary decision about the choice of the Hotel Schweizerhof for the meeting. Lauber’s explanations for this did not convince the supervisory authority. He said the hotel near the train station was chosen so that Infantino would not be recognized because that could give rise to speculation. The supervisory authority considered this «implausible and in part factually incorrect».

A lawyer for Michael Lauber said in a statement that the former Attorney General has no knowledge of a bugging or a recording of the meeting at the Hotel Schweizerhof.

In addition, the lawyer said that Lauber had never been blackmailed and had never been approached by Qatari operatives. He still could not remember the June 16, 2017 meeting, the statement read. The State of Qatar, meanwhile, denied all accusations of espionage through a London law firm.

Gianni Infantino has been Fifa president since 2016. Criminal proceedings are underway against him as well because of the secret meetings with Lauber. Infantino is seeking re-election as Fifa president next week.

Gianni Infantino has been Fifa president since 2016. Criminal proceedings are underway against him as well because of the secret meetings with Lauber. Infantino is seeking re-election as Fifa president next week.

Aaron Chown / AP

Documents show that the intelligence operation around Lauber began long before 2017. Six years before this, at the end of 2011, operatives attempted to recruit Lauber as an intelligence asset on behalf of Qatar.

An espionage company called Global Risk Advisors from the USA was responsible for this. The same company also orchestrated the bugging of the secret meeting in the Hotel Schweizerhof. This is also shown by documents obtained by NZZ am Sonntag.

Global Risk Advisors consists mainly of former employees from US intelligence agencies. The company is run by the American Kevin Chalker, a former official of the US foreign intelligence service Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

On behalf of Qatar, his company set up an ever-expanding spy network around FIFA over several years, for hundreds of millions of dollars. The desert nation wanted to use this to covertly influence the association. Several international media organisations have reported on the existence of the Qatari spy network around Global Risk Advisors, including the news agency Associated Press. They revealed Chalker’s work for Qatar in the autumn of 2021.

The plans to recruit the Attorney General were part of an operation code-named «Project Clockwork.» Internal documents from Global Risk Advisors indicate that the bugging of the Hotel Schweizerhof was also part of «Project Clockwork».

When the spies in Qatar’s service wanted to recruit the Attorney General at the end of 2011, they put in writing why: in order to influence future investigations surrounding FIFA. A planning document from inside the operation shows how specific the intentions were to make the Swiss Attorney General an asset of Qatar.

The document in question is a more than hundred-page long concept of operations dated December 2011, listing in detail what the spies are doing worldwide in Qatar’s interest. Sometimes in a cryptic manner, sometimes less so. The Attorney General is the subject of a page entitled: «Influencing Investigations».

The American Kevin Chalker is an ex-employee of the CIA. For the Qatari government, he orchestrated an espionage operation for years that also targeted the Swiss Attorney General.

The American Kevin Chalker is an ex-employee of the CIA. For the Qatari government, he orchestrated an espionage operation for years that also targeted the Swiss Attorney General.

First, it states: All FIFA criminal proceedings go through «S» – for «Switzerland». The next sentence is quite something: It ends with the initials of Michael Lauber. The spies write: «Developed an approach to cultivate ML».

Persons with knowledge of the occurrences confirmed to NZZ am Sonntag that the initials «ML» referred to Michael Lauber. The terms «develop an approach» and «cultivate» are intelligence jargon for a plan designed to recruit a covert human source. Yet «sources» do far more than it would appear at first glance. The aim is not just that they supply information, but that the source also acts in the interests of the spies and exerts influence behind the scenes with regard to the goals of the operation. In the intelligence world, this is known as an «asset».

Michael Lauber ("ML") was to be recruited as an asset for Qatar. This document of the spies from the end of 2011 shows that.

Michael Lauber (“ML”) was to be recruited as an asset for Qatar. This document of the spies from the end of 2011 shows that.

Michael Lauber’s lawyer says his client was never recruited or approached by Qatari operatives: «Any speculation to that effect is baseless.» The firm Global Risk Advisors denied the allegations when asked. In a letter from its lawyers, it calls the allegations «false».

The plan of the spies was designed to have a long-term effect. At the time, Lauber had been elected but had not yet taken up office. The passage regarding his recruitment is found in a chapter entitled: «Influencing the Future».

The document shows that the Qatari agents had already invested quite some planning energy in getting Lauber to cooperate secretly. The paper does not comment on the success or failure of the action. It was written when it was apparently not yet certain whether the attempted recruitment of the Attorney General would be successful. Following this, Lauber was the highest prosecutor in Switzerland for eight years, until he tripped over the secret meeting that was held a few metres from the Qatari Embassy.

About this investigation

The «NZZ am Sonntag» relies on several sources and hundreds of pages of secret documents containing information about a range of Qatari espionage operations. They come from several sources and were gathered over a period of months. This newspaper used various measures to verify the authenticity of the documents. For example, by interviewing people who knew the documents, cross-referencing them with public and non-public information, checking cross-references to other documents, and evaluating digital metadata. (lei)

The operations surrounding Lauber and Infantino are also explosive at the diplomatic level, dealing as they do with intelligence actions of a foreign state on Swiss soil – and with the highest law enforcement officer of the country as the target. And the highest representative of an international organisation.

The actions were presumably criminal. The secret recording of meetings is illegal and spying on behalf of a foreign country is prosecuted as «espionage» – this also includes the planned recruitment of the Swiss Attorney General. The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland is responsible for prosecuting such offences. Meanwhile, countering foreign espionage is the task of the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS). In response to specific questions, a spokeswoman merely stated that the FIS does not comment publicly on its operational activities.

On the Qatari government side, the action at Hotel Schweizerhof was the responsibility of a senior official: Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of the state «Supreme Committee,» the organizing committee for the World Cup. This committee was also responsible for the construction of infrastructure worth tens of billions of francs.

The chief spy Chalker commissioned by Qatar has extensive experience in the recruiting of sources using rugged methods. For the CIA, he was stationed undercover in New York at the United Nations. One of his preferred methods was to get foreign diplomats drunk and to photograph them in compromising situations, such as in strip clubs, as multiple sources related to «NZZ am Sonntag».

Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani rules the Gulf state of Qatar. The 2022 World Cup was his prestige project.

Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani rules the Gulf state of Qatar. The 2022 World Cup was his prestige project.

Jean Catuffe / Getty Images Europe

The operation in Hotel Schweizerhof was not aimed only at the Attorney General but also directly at FIFA President Gianni Infantino. In contrast to Lauber, he is still in office.

The espionage action could also be suitable to blackmail him, as he is still one of the accused in the criminal proceedings of the Special Prosecutors. They are investigating him for incitement to breach official secrecy and for incitement of assisting offenders. If criminal matters were discussed in the Hotel Schweizerhof – which is to be considered possible due to the criminal investigation – a recording of this discussion would be delicate for Infantino.

A FIFA President compromised by Qatar could have had massive consequences for world football in the last few years. Ultimately, Qatar was at the centre of various controversies with the hosting of the World Cup last autumn. As FIFA President, Gianni Infantino had to make several decisions which affected the interests of the small gulf state. Leverage in the hands of the Qataris could have influenced the freedom of action of the top man in world football. A lot of money has been at stake between Qatar and FIFA under Infantino in recent years. Publicly, Infantino caused irritation when he defended Qatar in a bizarre speech against European criticism of human rights violations – and said that he could empathise with migrant workers abused on World Cup building sites, as he had been bullied in Valais as a red-haired child with a migrant background. Infantino changed his residence at least temporarily to a villa in the Qatar capital Doha, as the newspaper Sonntagsblick revealed last year.

Gianni Infantino’s defense lawyer says the FIFA president had no knowledge of «any secret surveillance operations.» Further, «There has never been even a remote attempt by anyone to influence, let alone blackmail.»

Primary documents for download:

The documents on the espionage operation lead to further questions concerning the Office of the Attorney General. It is interesting to compare the behavior of the office with the plans of the spies.

In the mentioned document of December 2011 – directly below the sentence describing how an «approach» had been developed to gain Lauber as an asset, it says: «Leverage allies to divert from MBH and discredit our adversaries.» The abbreviation MBH stands for the Qatari football official Mohammed bin Hammam. This is also evident from other documents.

Enemies of Qatar charged

The specific combination of statements – distract from Bin Hammam and discredit Qatar’s opponents – makes one sit up and take notice. Because there is an event in which Bin Hammam apparently got off lightly and there were tough actions taken against Qatar critics.

In what was known at the time as the «Sommermärchen» proceedings. It was one of the few big FIFA cases which the Swiss Office of the Attorney General ever brought to court. The Office sued three German officials as well as the Swiss Urs Linsi. It concerned ten million Francs which Franz Beckenbauer loaned from a businessman during the 2006 German World Cup bid. When he did not pay it back, the German football association transferred the ten million to the businessman and thus repaid the debt. The Attorney General’s Office interpreted this as criminal mismanagement of the officials.

But Beckenbauer had transferred the borrowed money to Qatar. To accounts of the man with the initials MBH: Mohammed bin Hammam. However, the Office of the Attorney General never investigated him. After Qatar not surprisingly failed to respond to a request for legal assistance, the Office of the Attorney General was satisfied with the simple finding that the purpose of the payment was unexplained. However, at the time, it was suspected that the money might have been a bribe.

Zwanziger: «This confirms what I have always suspected»

But the Emir’s close ally remained untouched. He was not even listed as an accused person. Instead, Switzerland indicted the Germans. NZZ am Sonntag found two of the three accused officials who were still active in football in the 2010s explicitly mentioned in the documents as targets of the Qatari espionage operation during its investigation: Theo Zwanziger and Wolfgang Niersbach. Both were seen as opponents of Qatar by the masterminds of the espionage operation. Zwanziger was considered a Qatar critic from the very beginning and had also publicly campaigned against the World Cup in the desert state. He called Qatar a “cancer of world football”.

The German was such a big problem for the Qataris that they explicitly commissioned the spies from Global Risk Advisors with an espionage project against him. This cost the Gulf State ten million dollars, as the news agency Associated Press revealed last spring. The operation, known as «Project Riverbed», was aimed at neutralising Zwanziger as a vociferous critic. To this end, the spies attempted to covertly influence persons in Zwanziger’s environment and in his family.

The other German Qatar opponent Wolfgang Niersbach appears in a different document, which was also obtained by NZZ am Sonntag. Here, he is classified by the spies as a «threat» for the World Cup 2022.

The Attorney General’s Office stresses that «in its current composition» the office has no knowledge of the intelligence operations.

Both opponents of Qatar were ultimately listed as defendants by the Office of the Attorney General and indicted in 2019 – while «MBH», Mohammed bin Hammam, remained untouched. Just like the spies had planned it in 2011. The case became an embarrassment for the prosecutors. The charges lapsed before the trial could take place. The defendants received compensation from the Swiss state.

For ex-official Zwanziger, things have come full circle: «These operations and planning confirm what I always suspected», he says.

The Attorney General’s Office, under its current head Stefan Blättler, stresses that «in its current composition» the office has no knowledge of intelligence operations.

In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched an investigation into chief spy Kevin Chalker for his work for Qatar, as the Associated Press reported.

Gianni Infantino and Michael Lauber continue to be defendants in the proceedings of the Special Prosecutors Hans Maurer and Ulrich Weder. They have been appointed by the Parliament to clarify what the secret meetings were about – and whether the events were of a criminal nature.

FIFA President Infantino will fly to Africa in the next few days. In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, he seeks confirmation for another term as president. There are no opposing candidates.

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