Crypto Affair: Neutrality at risk?

Former Ambassador Paul Widmer classifies the events from the perspective of neutrality policy

mw. The Zug-based company Crypto AG is suddenly in all the media. Foreign secret services (CIA, BND) would have sold manipulated ciphering devices via the Swiss company, and the Crypto AG would have even been in possession of secret services for a time. This was reported by the Swiss television SRF on 12 February 2020. For neutral Switzerland it is important whether and which Swiss politicians knew anything about the espionage operation. Various media outbid each other with speculations on these and other questions about the Crypto affair. According to its press release of 14 February, the Federal Council had already been informed about the case in November and recently launched an investigation to clarify the facts, some of which are far in the past. The results are expected in June.1

In the “Tagesgespräch” of 14 February on Radio SRF 4 News, long-time Ambassador Paul Widmer classifies the matter from the point of view of the policy of neutrality and also comments on the question of a sensible further course of action. Some key statements from this conversation are reproduced here.

“We should analyse the matter boldly, coolly, soberly”

Paul Widmer: “Neutrality is Switzerland’s most important foreign policy guideline and is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Swiss. It is therefore natural to be worried when one hears such news. On the other hand, I do not share the view that Swiss neutrality has been ‘insanely damaged’. We should analyse the matter boldly, coolly, soberly.” – “Something like this must be investigated because it lies at the heart of our neutrality.”

Already at the Congress of Vienna code-breaking was commonplace

According to Paul Widmer, the Crypto AG case is a big issue in Switzerland, but hardly an issue abroad. “The ‘International New York Times’ has not yet reported a  single sentence about it, while the ‘Washington Post’ – which, together with ZDF and SRF, has raised the matter – states in its main title that the CIA was able to listen in on dozens of codes, that’s the big news. The fact that it’s a Swiss company comes second.” The Swiss government was only mentioned in a small note in so far as it ordered an investigation. The fact that governments obtain information by all possible means is, according to Widmer, nothing new. Even the Austrian statesman Metternich boasted at the Vienna Congress that he had cracked eighty secret service codes.

As ambassador, Widmer had once asked a member of the Federal Intelligence Service whether he had to expect that his conversations in the Swiss embassy would be bugged. Paul Widmer: “The answer was: with one hundred per cent certainty.”

When asked by the interviewer whether Paul Widmer, as ambassador, also communicated in encrypted form, the latter explained that it had happened from time to time that a ciphertelex had been used, but very rarely. Today, communication is mainly done by e-mail, sometimes encrypted, or traditionally by letters that are carried from country to country in a courier bag.

Questions about the investigation

Various options for investigating the case have already been mentioned. The Federal Council has commissioned former federal judge Niklaus Oberholzer to investigate the case. Which instrument would be most suitable? “The best way is certainly not to have too many duplications. Logically, the Control delegation should deal with it.” [The Control Delegation of the Federal Parliament supervises activities in the field of state security and the intelligence services2] Because, according to Paul Widmer, there is a danger that several investigative bodies will not come to exactly the same conclusions. “This would not be conducive to clarifying the situation if one wants to achieve a good result.” On the question of Marc Lehmann, SRF, whether the Federal Council should not communicate its steps to the public instead of just pointing to the report expected in June: “Would that really be a good idea? Let’s give the bodies charged with this task the time and opportunity to do their job properly. Once the results are available, the Federal Council should go public and announce what conclusions Switzerland must draw from them.

Lehmann: “The aim of the current clarifications should be to dispel doubts about Switzerland’s credibility as a mediator. In concrete terms, Switzerland is part of various diplomatic actions, for example with postman services between Washington and Tehran, which have no diplomatic relations with each other. If Iran, which has also used the encrypted machines of Crypto AG, were to conclude that Switzerland can no longer be trusted, could there be consequences?”

Widmer: “We have to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again, but we must not forget: Crypto is not a company of the Swiss state, but a private company based in Switzerland. [...] [emphasis mw]” Lehmann: “But with ‘Made in Switzerland’ you already benefit from the idea of neutrality.” Widmer: “Yes, and that’s an abuse that was clearly perpetrated here, so we must clear it up.” – “The best thing is to pursue a policy that we can stand by.” 

No external activism

Asked by the interviewer if Switzerland should approach those governments that might feel affected, for example in private talks at the Security Conference in Munich, Paul Widmer replies: “At the Security Conference in Munich, there is certainly no need for action. This is where professionals meet who are not surprised by what has happened. What we have to do, on the other hand, is to take domestic political steps: This is not what we want to happen in our country. Externally, I would advise calm, not activism. As far as I know, so far not a single state has protested.”

“We want our neutrality to have a good reputation. The most important thing is not that the secret service is working well; the most important thing is that our country’s reputation, its foreign policy reputation, is good. Therefore, this can only be damaging, but as I said, let’s not exaggerate, let’s see our country in the general concept of international relations. There the priorities are currently different.”

Has one Federal Councillor known about it or the Federal Council as a whole? A big difference

Who has known what? The focus is on former Federal Councillor Kaspar Villiger, Defence Minister in the 1990s. According to the interviewer, he is said to have known about the ownership of Crypto AG, which supplied its encryption devices all over the world. It makes no sense to speculate about this, says Paul Widmer.

Much more important is another question: “We have to distinguish precisely whether one Federal Councillor knew something or whether the Swiss government knew something. Because our government consists of seven Federal Councillors, not of one Councillor. If one knows about it, but did not inform the Federal Council as a whole, as a collegiate body, this would be a completely different situation.”

Using an example from the First World War, Ambassador Widmer explains that the Federal Council as a whole, i.e. the Confederation, is bound by the principle of neutrality. For example, a single Federal Councillor (then Foreign Minister Arthur Hoffmann) had to resign all of a sudden because he intended to mediate a separate peace between Germany and Russia (which was allied with France and Great Britain) in secret and without the knowledge of the entire Federal Council. When this came out, the two Western powers protested that it violated neutrality. The Federal Council then distanced itself from Hoffmann, who had to resign immediately. “The reaction was interesting. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Balfour, told the Swiss envoy: Due to Hoffmann’s resigning and by distancing itself from Hoffmann by the Federal Council, Switzerland has done what it had to do; as far as we’re concerned, the case is closed.”

Let’s get back to what our neutrality is and should be

“I very much hope that this whole affair will lead us to reflect more on what our neutrality is and should be. We have internationally recognised neutrality, as one of the very few countries in the world. Thanks to this we have been able to conduct a successful foreign policy. I think we should remember that this means a certain obligation for us, from left to right.

To the right, the following applies: even if the law of neutrality allows us to export arms anywhere as long as it is not the state that is doing it, we cannot, for example, afford to export arms to warring countries in the Middle East because our neutrality might suffer from it. To the left, we cannot teach lessons to the whole world. I believe we must remember that we have another task, namely to maintain international relations as fluidly as possible in difficult situations. For example, the closure of the Swiss embassy in Syria, just because we disagree with the policy there, was a mistake. Even if we are rightly disagreeing, we must maintain the embassy because we are a neutral country. This will enable us to provide a better service, also for the ICRC and the other aid organisations on the ground, which need an infrastructure”.       •

1  Von-Wattenwyl-talks from 14. Februar 2020. Press release by the Federal Council from 14 February 2020

Source: Lehmann, Marc. Die Crypto-Affäre und der Ruf der Schweiz: Paul Widmer ordnet ein. Tagesgespräch vom 14.2.2020 with former Ambassador Paul Widmer, Radio SRF 4 News

Dr phil. Paul Widmer is a historian, philosopher and political scientist. Since 1977 he has been active in the diplomatic service for Switzerland, as ambassador to Berlin, Croatia, New York and to the Holy See of Rome. From 2007 to 2011, he was the permanent representative for Switzerland in the European Council in Strasbourg. Since 2011, he is
a lecturer for International Relations at the School of Economics and Political Science, University of St. Gallen.

Crypto-Affair: Media-hype around Peter Regli comes to nothing

mw. Peter Regli directed the Swiss Secret Service from 1991 to 1999. After that he was mobbed to resign – which was later discovered, without factual basis.

It was logical, that the Swiss Media jumped all over Regli: Had he known of the Secret Service background of the Crypto AG? That sounds like that: “The former head of Secret Service, Peter Regli, breaks the silence”1 or “Crypto-Affair: no end in sight. Now the former Secret Service Chief will come clean.”2

What had Peter Regli really said? “If I were to be called up to the Control Delegation (CD), I would be ready to cooperate. I have great faith in the work of the CD.”3 In this way, Regli behaves, as such cases in Switzerland would be expected: according to the rules of a constitutional state. Or, as former Ambassador Paul Widmer would put it: “boldly, coolly, soberly.”

1  Honegger, Lorenz. CH Media online vom 21.2.2020
2  Raaflaub, Christian. «Heute in der Schweiz». vom 21.2.2020
3   Honegger, Lorenz. CH Media online vom 21.2.2020

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