The tiny Arab nation of Qatar has for years employed a former CIA officer to help spy on soccer officials as part of a no-expense-spared effort to win and hold on to the 2022 World Cup tournament, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.
It’s part of a trend of former US intelligence officers going to work for foreign governments with questionable human rights records that is worrying officials in Washington and prompting calls from some members of Congress for greater scrutiny of an opaque and lucrative market.
The World Cup is the planet’s most popular sports tournament. It’s also a chance for Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, to have a coming-out party on the world stage.
The AP’s investigation found Qatar sought an edge in securing hosting rights by hiring former CIA officer turned private contractor Kevin Chalker to spy on rival bid teams and key soccer officials who picked the winner in 2010.
Chalker also worked for Qatar in the years that followed to keep tabs on the country’s critics in the soccer world, the AP found.
The AP’s investigation is based on interviews with Chalker’s former associates as well as contracts, invoices, emails, and a review of business documents.
The surveillance work included having someone pose as a photojournalist to keep tabs on a rival nation’s bid and deploying a Facebook honeypot, in which someone posed online as an attractive woman, to get close to a target, a review of the records show.
Operatives working for Chalker and the Persian Gulf sheikhdom also sought cell phone call logs of at least one top FIFA official ahead of the 2010 vote, a review of the records show.
Chalker also promised he could help the country “maintain dominance” over its large population of foreign workers, an internal document from one of Chalker’s companies reviewed by the AP shows.
Qatar — a country with a population of 2.8 million, of whom only 300,000 are citizens — is heavily reliant on foreign-born labour to build the stadiums and other infrastructure needed for the tournament.
Qatari government officials did not respond to requests for comment. FIFA also declined to comment.
Read more: Qatar says ‘no delays’ in 2022 FIFA World Cup despite crisis
Chalker, who opened an office in Doha and had a Qatari government email account, said in a statement provided by a representative that he and his companies would not “ever engage in illegal surveillance.”
Chalker declined requests for an interview or to answer detailed questions about his work for the Qatari government. He also claimed that some of the documents reviewed by the AP were forgeries.
The AP reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from Chalker’s companies, including a 2013 project update report that had several photos of Chalker’s staff meeting with various soccer officials.
Multiple sources with authorised access provided documents to the AP. The sources said they were troubled by Chalker’s work for Qatar and requested anonymity because they feared retaliation.
The AP took several steps to verify the documents’ authenticity. That includes confirming details of various documents with different sources, including former Chalker associates and soccer officials; cross-checking contents of documents with contemporaneous news accounts and publicly available business records; and examining electronic documents’ metadata, or digital history, where available, to confirm who made the documents and when.
Chalker did not provide to the AP any evidence to support his position that some of the documents in question had been forged.
Ex-CIA officer in hot waters
Many of the documents reviewed by the AP outlining work undertaken by Chalker and his companies on behalf of Qatar are also described in a lawsuit filed by Elliott Broidy, a one-time fundraiser for former US President Donald Trump.
Broidy is suing Chalker and has accused him of mounting a widespread hacking and spying campaign at Qatar’s direction that includes using former western intelligence officers to surveil FIFA officials.
Broidy’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment. Chalker’s legal team has argued the lawsuit is meritless.
Former associates say Chalker’s companies have provided a variety of services to Qatar in addition to intelligence work.
His company Global Risk Advisors bills itself as “an international strategic consultancy specialising in cybersecurity, military and law enforcement training, and intelligence-based advisory services” and its affiliates have won small contracts with the FBI for a rope-training course and tech consulting work for the Democratic National Committee.
Chalker worked at the CIA as an operations officer for about five years, according to former associates.
Operations officers typically work undercover trying to recruit assets to spy on behalf of the United States. The CIA declined to comment and does not usually discuss its former officers.
Chalker’s background in the CIA was attractive to Qatari officials, said former associates.
“That was part of his mystique. All these young wealthy Qataris are playing spy games with this guy and he’s selling them,” said one former associate, who like others interviewed by the AP, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution for revealing the spying efforts of Qatar.
Rise of information war
The private surveillance business has flourished in the last decade in the Persian Gulf as the region saw the rise of an information war using state-sponsored hacking operations that have coincided with the run-up to the World Cup.
Three former US intelligence and military officials recently admitted to providing hacking services for a UAE-based company, which was called DarkMatter, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department.
A Reuters investigation from 2019 reported that DarkMatter hacked phones and computers of Qatar’s Emir, his brother, and FIFA officials.
Work abroad by ex-US intelligence officials has not always aligned with US interests. The United States was Qatar’s biggest rival to win the 2022 World Cup, and former US President Bill Clinton and other celebrities were part of the bid effort.
One Global Risk Advisors document lists the United States as a “threat” to Qatar while Russia, one of the US’s biggest geopolitical rivals and the host of the 2018 World Cup, was listed as an “opportunity.”
The Sunday Times of London previously reported that unnamed ex-CIA agents helped Qatar’s 2010 bid team. But the AP’s investigation is the most detailed to date of Qatar’s use of former US spies and provides a rare look into the world of former Western spies working in the Gulf for autocratic governments.
“This is a problem for US national security,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, a watchdog group that tracks cyber-surveillance companies.
“It’s a really dangerous thing when people who handle the most sensitive secrets of our country are thinking in the back of their mind, ‘Man, I could really make a lot more money taking this technical knowledge that I’ve been trained in and putting it in the service of whoever will pay me.’”
When Qatar was picked as the surprise winner in 2010, there was jubilation in the country. Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, a prominent Islamic scholar said he was “filled with joy” at the announcement and said Qatar had humbled the United States.
But Qatar’s successful bid has long been dogged by allegations of corruption. US prosecutors said last year that bribes were paid to FIFA executive committee members to gain their votes for Qatar.
Qatar has denied wrongdoing but has also had to fend off allegations by labor watchdogs of worker abuses, and an effort by neighbouring countries to isolate, weaken and embarrass it through an economic boycott and informational warfare.
Chalker has pitched his companies, including Global Risk Advisors, as an aggressive private intelligence and security agency Qatar needs to fulfil its ambitions.
“The time for half-measures is over and serious consideration needs to be given to how important the 2022 World Cup is to Qatar,” one of Global Risk Advisors’ project documents from 2014, which also promised a “full-court press utilising unique, non-traditional capabilities against a wide-ranging set of targets.”
Qataris promised use of top field operatives
Chalker also promised the Qataris the use of IT and “technical collection specialists” as well as top field operatives with backgrounds in “highly sensitive US intelligence and military operations” who could “spot, assess, develop, recruit, and handle assets with access to persons and topics of interests” on Qatar’s behalf, company materials show.
He also emphasised aggression and discretion, saying his plans included “patsies,” and “lightning rods,” psychological operations, and “persistent and aggressive distractions and disruptions” aimed at Qatar’s enemies all while giving the country “full deniability,” company records show.
“The greatest achievement to date of Project MERCILESS … have come from successful penetration operations targeting vocal critics inside the FIFA organisation,” Global Risk Advisors said in one 2014 document describing a project whose minimum proposed budget was listed at $387 million over nine years. It’s unclear how much the Qataris ultimately paid the company.
Records show Chalker sometimes subcontracted with Diligence, a well-known private investigative firm in London founded by former western intelligence officers.
Diligence conducted surveillance in 2010 on the US bid team by having a fake photojournalist secretly report back on what was happening as FIFA officials toured stadiums in the US and met with the officials from the country’s bid team, a review of the records show.
Tasked with getting close to one unnamed individual, Diligence used a fake Facebook profile of an attractive young woman to communicate with the target, records show.
Just ahead of the 2010 bid, Chalker tasked Diligence to obtain communications and financial records of FIFA officials Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer, a review of the records show.
Blazer, a former top US soccer official who pleaded guilty to FIFA-related corruption charges and worked as an informant for the FBI, died in 2017.
Diligence did not respond to requests for comment. Its Swiss affiliate recently settled a lawsuit with Ghanem Nuseibeh, a London consultant who said his mail was stolen and his emails were hacked after he wrote a report critical of Qatar hosting the World Cup.
Diligence previously said in court records that it only conducted lawful surveillance on Nuseibeh.
David Downs, who was the executive director of the US bid effort in 2010, said he’s not surprised to learn that Qatar was spying on its rivals given how weak their bid was compared to others.
“It’s very telling that they would be hiring ex-CIA operatives to get inside information,” Downs said.
“A lot of what they did was either bending the rules or outright breaking the rules.”
Global Risk Advisor documents also highlight the company’s efforts to win over Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a key figure in the soccer world who ran unsuccessfully to be FIFA’s president in 2015 and 2016.
In a 2013 document, GRA recommended the Qataris give money to a soccer development organisation run by Ali, saying it would “help solidify Qatar’s reputation as a benevolent presence in world football.”
A representative for Ali said the prince “has always had a direct good personal relationship with Qatar’s rulers. He certainly wouldn’t need consultants to assist with that relationship.”
Qatar has a long history of providing favours and family benefits to key influencers within FIFA and European soccer.
Top European soccer official Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, paid a massive fine for “failing to declare two Rolex watches on his return to Germany from Qatar in 2013 — two years after he suggested there were “questions about the Qatari World Cup.” And the son of a top FIFA official, Belgium’s Michel D’Hooghe, was offered and accepted a job in Qatar shortly after the 2010 vote.
A FIFA ethics investigator did not connect the job offer to Qatar’s winning hosting rights and both Rummenigge, and D’Hooghe have denied any wrongdoing.
FIFA officials targeted for hacking
Swiss prosecutors are currently pursuing corruption charges against Jerome Valcke — FIFA’s CEO-like secretary-general from 2007 to 2015 — in a case that involves his acquiring use of a Qatari-owned luxury villa on the Italian island of Sardinia.
Valcke, who has denied wrongdoing, oversaw or had input into all aspects of the soccer body’s dealings with Qatar for several years. He was listed as a “potential threat” in GRA documents from 2013.
The Broidy lawsuit also alleges that Valcke was one of several FIFA officials Chalker targeted for hacking and surveillance.
Valcke told the AP there “was no reason” for Qatar to identify him in such a way and said he never felt “any direct threats or pressure” in his dealings with the country.
In early 2017, the Qataris sent a request that Chalker submit a proposal to provide staff for a cybersecurity unit, as well as training to protect the royal family, conduct intelligence work and provide security in other areas, emails and other records show.
Chalker signed a master services agreement, a copy of which was reviewed by the AP, with Qatar in August 2017. The signed agreement specified that Chalker’s company could provide consulting on surveillance, counter-surveillance, and other areas to “intelligence collection organisations.”
Publicly available annual reports and balance sheets filed in Gibraltar show Chalker-owned shell companies saw large deposits that year and ended 2017 with about $46 million in funds.
The full scope of his work for Qatar is unclear but the AP reviewed a variety of projects Global Risk Advisors proposed between 2014 and 2017 show proposals not just directly related to the World Cup.
They included “Pickaxe ,” which promised to capture “personal information and biometrics” of migrants working in Qatar.
“Falconeye” was described as a plan to use drones to provide surveillance of ports and borders operations, as well as “controlling migrant worker populations centres.”
“By implementing background investigations and vetting program, Qatar will maintain dominance of migrant workers,” one company document said.
Qatar relied heavily on foreign workers to build stadiums and the necessary infrastructure for the tournament. It’s faced criticism for how the workers have been treated and have not provided full details and data on worker deaths.
Another project, “Viper” promised on-site or remote “mobile device exploitation,” which Global Risk Advisors said would deliver “critical intelligence” and enhance national security.
The use of such technology provided by private firms is well documented by autocratic countries around the world, including the Gulf.
In July 2017, a month after Qatar’s neighbours cut diplomatic ties and began a years-long boycott of the country, Chalker authored a proposal for “Project Deviant.”
It called for Global Risk Advisors to provide a robust spying and hacking training programme for employees at Qatar’s Ministry of Interior “based on the elite training undertaken by (Global Risk Advisors) officers from the US military and intelligence agencies.”
Deviant included a 47-week “field operations tradecraft course” that would include training on surveillance, disguises, interrogation techniques, asset recruitment, hand-to-hand combat, and other areas, a GRA proposal shows.
The 26-week “technical operations tradecraft course” promised to teach Qataris with just even just a basic IT background to become world-class hackers with the “necessary knowledge, skills and techniques to use highly restricted, cutting-edge tools to penetrate target systems and devices, collect and analyze bulk signals data, and to track and locate targets to ultra-precise locations,” records show.
The Broidy lawsuit also alleged that Chalker provided similar training to Qatar, noting that former intelligence officers are typically prohibited from such skills with foreign governments.
Specific spying and hacking methods the CIA and other US intelligence agencies teach their officers are classified and divulging techniques would be against the law. But there’s no general ban on working for foreign governments, and distinctions are not always clear between what methods are classified and what are not.
“That line can be hard to draw when it comes to tradecraft that is commonly used,” said Bobby Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who specializes in national security issues.
Wealthy countries in the Gulf have proven eager to hire ex-US intelligence officials.
A private company started by retired Gen. Keith Alexander, who once led the National Security Agency, signed a contract in 2018 with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman College of Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Technologies.
The country’s leader — and the school’s namesake — has been accused of using spyware against critics, journalists and others. Brian Bartlett, a spokesman for Alexander, said the contract has expired and was “focused on the development of the college’s educational efforts and its cybersecurity curriculum.”
The CIA sent a letter to former employees earlier this year warning of a “detrimental trend” of foreign governments hiring former intelligence officers “to build up their spying capabilities,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by the AP and first reported by the New York Times.
“We ask that you protect yourself and the CIA by safeguarding the classified tradecraft that underpins your enterprise,” wrote Sheetal Patel, the agency’s assistant director for counterintelligence.
US lawmakers too, are taking notice. Congress is advancing legislation that would put new reporting requirements on former US intelligence officers working overseas.
Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, said it was “absurd” that Qatar and the UAE had former US officials working the front lines of their information war and said it’s part of a broader problem about how influential those wealthy countries are in US politics and policymaking.
“There’s so much Gulf money flowing through Washington DC,” he said. “The amount of temptation there is immense, and it invariably entangles Americans in stuff we should not be entangled.”–AP