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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Qatar Takes Drastic Measures to Blunt German’s World Cup Criticism

Theo Zwanziger, the chairman of the German soccer association, was one of the most outspoken detractors of Qatar’s choice to host the 2022 World Cup. He made a public attack on the Gulf nation’s human rights record. He questioned if it was wise to hold the world’s most popular athletic event amid the scorching heat of the desert.

Zwanziger famously stated, “The enormous riches of this little country of Qatar spreads almost like a disease via football and sport.” He encouraged FIFA to rescind their judgment from 2010. He is a member of FIFA’s executive committee.

The Qatari administration was so alarmed by Zwanziger’s remarks that it retaliated. According to internal corporate records seen by The Associated Press, it spent more than $10 million to a company headed by former CIA officers for a multi-year covert influence effort nicknamed “Project Riverbed.”

According to the archives, the operation’s purpose was to utilize espionage to silence Zwanziger. It was a flop.

In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Zwanziger said, “It’s a really peculiar sensation to be watched and influenced when you’re interested in sport and devoted to the principles of sport.”

The World Cup in Qatar, which will begin in November, is the result of more than a decade of effort and billions of dollars invested to help thrust the tiny desert nation onto the international arena.

Accusations of corruption and misconduct have haunted the project for years. Bribes were given to FIFA executive committee members to secure their votes, according to US prosecutors in 2020. Qatar has categorically rejected any wrongdoing.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press provide fresh information about Qatar’s attempts to win and retain the tournament, including the country’s collaboration with former CIA officer Kevin Chalker and his firm, Global Risk Advisors. The records add to the Associated Press’ past coverage of Chalker’s work for Qatar.

Requests for reaction from Qatari officials were not returned.

GRA did work on Initiative Riverbed, according to Chalker’s statement, but it was just “a media monitoring project staffed by interns and managed by one full-time employee, who were responsible for reading and summarizing news pieces.”

According to Chalker’s statement, “the AP’s reporting for this item is based on inaccurate information from anonymous sources.”

David Wells, a spokesperson for Chalker, said he couldn’t reveal who Project Riverbed’s customer was or any other specifics about the project, such as how long it lasted or who worked on it. According to Chalker’s attorney, Brian Ascher, Zwanziger was never the target of a GRA smear campaign.

According to a GRA document acquired by the AP, “the major purpose of Project Riverbed was to neutralize the efficacy of Theo Zwanziger’s criticism of the 2022 Qatar World Cup and his attempts to force FIFA to move the World Cup away from Qatar.”

Hundreds of pages of records from Chalker’s firms were reviewed by the AP, including a final report, notes, and budget documents. The materials were handed to the AP by multiple persons with authorized access. The individuals expressed concern about Chalker’s work for Qatar and want to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

The Associated Press took many procedures to ensure that the papers were genuine. This includes verifying the details of various papers with multiple sources, such as former Chalker associates, and checking electronic documents’ metadata, or digital history, when accessible, to determine who created the documents and when.

Private contractors like Chalker may give powerful eavesdropping operations to affluent governments like Qatar that lack their own intelligence agencies, according to the Riverbed papers. This trend has spurred some members of Congress to seek additional restrictions on the kind of work that U.S. intelligence personnel can pursue when they retire.

Chalker is being sued by Elliott Broidy, a prominent fundraiser for former US President Donald Trump, who accuses him of conducting a global hacking and surveillance effort on Qatar’s behalf. In court papers, Broidy claims that Chalker and GRA used a clandestine influence campaign against Zwanziger, similar to the one outlined in the materials seen by the AP. Chalker’s legal team claimed that the action is without merit, and a court rejected Broidy’s overarching complaint while allowing the case to proceed.

According to one document outlining the Riverbed operation acquired by the AP, the project “effectively leveraged complicated conventional intelligence tradecraft to target persons inside Zwanziger’s circle of influence and change sentiment linked with the Qatar World Cup.”

In actuality, this amounted to the establishment of a “influencer network” comprised of persons close to the German soccer official who would convey to him views favorable to Qatar hosting the World Cup. According to internal papers, GRA would send a “source” or “throwaway” to talk to the influencers in a way that they would not guess was part of a coordinated messaging effort.

“These exchanges lasted seconds, minutes, or hours,” according to the study. “Regardless of the amount of time spent, the interaction always sent the same message: Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 Globe Cup was excellent for business, brought the Middle East and the West together, and was beneficial for the world.”

GRA said in a report that it had “thousands” of interactions with Zwanziger’s network, and that it used a “multi-pronged approach” focused on four targets – FIFA and its associates, the German soccer federation and associates, the international football community, and Zwanziger’s own family – who would then unwittingly pass on the pro-Qatar message to Zwanziger.

“This is much above whatever lobbying we imagined,” Zwanziger’s lawyer, Hans-Jörg Metz, told the Associated Press.

Zwanziger was an easy target because of his significant involvement in soccer’s regulatory body. He was a lawyer by trade, and he was well-known for driving changes of the German soccer federation, one of the world’s largest sports organizations.

When it came to the World Cup being held in Qatar, he had strong feelings and didn’t hold back in expressing them, even questioning the integrity of FIFA executives amid suspicions of vote-buying and corruption.

“I’ll never understand why this choice was made.” In a 2013 interview, Zwanziger observed, “It’s one of the worst blunders ever done in sport.”

The surveillance on Zwanziger was not the only high-ranking FIFA official paid by Qatar.

According to fresh data examined by the Associated Press, Chalker also assisted in the surveillance on former FIFA executive committee member Amos Adamu during the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg. According to the new documents, various surveillance teams followed and discreetly photographed Adamu and the persons he met for several days. According to the records, the endeavor also involved getting Adamu’s mobile phone data and enlisting the help of a hotel security officer and a local journalist as sources.

Adamu, who has been sanctioned by FIFA twice for unethical behavior, has declined to comment.

Chalker denied ever being a part of a plot to assassinate Adamu.

According to the records, Chalker employed case officers and project managers in Germany and London for Project Riverbed, including those who had previously worked for the CIA.

GRA would establish up “Cover for Action” businesses that could be utilized by GRA employees to work covertly, as well as “White” and “Black” — official and non-official — offices to execute administrative chores, according to the GRA data. In his case, Broidy also claims that such deception was employed against Zwanziger.

According to GRA’s records, Project Riverbed was approved for a $27 million budget, however Qatar was late with payments and did not give all of the cash. According to the records, a shortage of funds resulted in personnel turnover and squandered expenses such as legal and administrative costs for setting up offices that were never used.

Despite the financial restrictions, Riverbed was deemed a success by GRA.

The initiative “softened Zwanziger’s criticism” and changed the German lawyer’s “sentiment to the point where he is no longer a threat to Qatar’s retention of the 2022 World Cup,” according to the executive report.

In its executive summary, GRA states, “Zwanziger now believes Qatar should keep the 2022 World Cup so that the world community becomes more aware of migrant workers’ situation in Qatar and pushes for comprehensive reform of Qatari human and workers’ rights.”

The firm was incorrect.

“Riverbed has come to the conclusion that Zwanziger is now on our side. Inwardly, of course, I was never,” Zwanziger said in an interview with the Associated Press.

In a June 2015 radio interview with a German station, Zwanziger reiterated his allegation that Qatar is “a cancer of international football,” a year after “Project Riverbed” was ostensibly completed.

The Qatar Football Association responded by filing a legal case against Zwanziger in order to prevent him from making such statements in the future. Düsseldorf’s regional court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Zwanziger was exercising his right to free expression.

Later, Zwanziger and other members of the German 2006 World Cup organizing committee were investigated for corruption in Frankfurt and Switzerland. Zwanziger denied any wrongdoing and accused Swiss prosecutors of purposefully misinterpreting evidence in August 2019. In April 2020, the Swiss trial came to a close without a verdict.

It’s reassuring to realize that Zwanziger was the object of a botched manipulation campaign, he remarked.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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