As head of the German soccer federation, Theo Zwanziger was among his sport’s most prominent critics of the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. He publicly attacked the energy-rich Gulf nation’s human rights record. He questioned the wisdom of staging the world’s most popular sporting event in searing desert heat.
“The infinite wealth of this small country of Qatar spreads almost like a cancer through football and sport,” Zwanziger once said. A member of FIFA’s executive committee, he urged world soccer’s governing body to reverse its 2010 decision.
The Qatari government was so concerned by Zwanziger’s criticism that it took action. It paid more than $10 million to a company staffed by former CIA operatives for a multi-year covered influence operation codenamed “Project Riverbed,” according to internal company documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
The records indicate that the goal of the operation was to use spycraft to silence Zwanziger. It failed.
“It’s a very, very strange feeling when you’re involved in sport and committed to the values of sport, to be followed and influenced,” Zwanziger told the AP in an interview last week.
The Qatar World Cup, now scheduled to start in November, is the culmination of more than a dozen years of effort and untold billions spent to help propel the tiny desert nation onto the world stage.
The effort has long been dogged by allegations of corruption and wrongdoing. US prosecutors said in 2020 that bribes were paid to FIFA executive committee members to gain their votes. Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.
Documents reviewed by AP provide new details about Qatar’s efforts to win and hold onto the tournament, specifically the country’s work with former CIA officer Kevin Chalker and company, Global Risk Advisors. The documents build on AP’s previous reporting about Chalker’s work for Qatar.
Qatari officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Chalker acknowledged in a statement that GRA did work on a Project Riverbed, but said it was only “a media monitoring project staffed by interns and supervised by one full-time employee, who were responsible for reading and summarizing news articles.”
“The AP’s reporting for this article is based on false information from unidentified sources,” Chalker’s statement said.
Chalker’s spokesman David Wells said he was not at liberty to say who the client was for Project Riverbed or provide other details, like how long it ran or the name of the employees who worked for on it. Chalker’s attorney, Brian Ascher, said Zwanziger was never the subject of a covert influence campaign by GRA.
The records reviewed by AP indicate otherwise.
“The primary objective of Project Riverbed was to neutralize the effectiveness of Theo Zwanziger’s criticism of the 2022 Qatar World Cup and his attempts to compel FIFA to take the World Cup from Qatar,” a GRA document reviewed by the AP said.
The AP reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from Chalker’s companies, including a final report, memos and budget documents. Multiple sources with authorized access provided the 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, such as former Chalker associates, and examining electronic documents’ metadata, or digital history, where available, to confirm who made the documents and when.
The Riverbed documents highlight the muscular spying efforts that private contractors like Chalker can provide to wealthy countries like Qatar that lack a robust intelligence agency of their own. It’s a trend that has prompted some members of Congress to propose new controls on what kind of work US intelligence officials can do post-retirement.
Elliott Broidy, a one-time fundraiser for former US President Donald Trump, is suing Chalker and has accused him of mounting a widespread hacking and spying campaign at Qatar’s direction. Broidy has alleged in court filings that Chalker and GRA targeted Zwanziger with a covert influence campaign like the one described in the documents reviewed by the AP. Chalker’s legal team has argued the lawsuit is meritless, and a judge dismissed Broidy’s overall complaint, while leaving the door open for the case to continue.
Project Riverbed ran from January 2012 to mid-2014 and “successfully employed complex traditional intelligence tradecraft to target individuals within Zwanziger’s circle of influence and modify sentiment associated with the Qatar World Cup,” according to one document summarizing the Riverbed effort reviewed by the AP.
In reality, this amounted to creating an “influencer network” made up of people close to the German soccer official who would pass on views to him that were favorable toward Qatar hosting the World Cup. To do this, GRA would send a “source” or “throwaway” to speak to the influencers in a way they would not suspect was a concerted messaging campaign, according to internal documents.
“These various interactions lasted seconds, minutes, or hours,” the report said. “Regardless of the time invested, the interaction always portrayed a consistent message: the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was good for business, brought together the Middle East and the West, and was good for the world.”
GRA said in a report that there were “thousands” of these interactions with Zwanziger’s network, and that it employed 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 the pro-Qatar message on to Zwanziger.
“This is certainly something that goes well beyond any lobbying we expected,” Zwanziger’s attorney, Hans-Jörg Metz, told the AP.
Given his key role in soccer’s governing bodies, Zwanziger was a ripe target. A lawyer by trade, he was highly respected for leading reforms of the German soccer federation, one of the biggest sports associations in the world.
When it came to the subject of Qatar hosting the World Cup, he had strong opinions and did not hold back on sharing them, even going so far as to question morals of FIFA officials amid allegations of vote-buying and corruption.
“I could never understand this decision. It’s one of the biggest mistakes ever made in sport,” Zwanziger said in a 2013 interview.
Zwanziger was not the only high-level FIFA official that was the target of Qatar-funded spying.
Chalker also helped oversee spying on former FIFA executive committee member Amos Adamu during the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, according to new records reviewed by the AP. That effort involved using multiple surveillance teams to follow and secretly photograph Adamu and people he met with for several days, the new records show. The effort also included obtaining Adamu’s cell phone records and recruiting a hotel security guard and a local journalist as sources, the records show.
Adamu, who has twice been banned by FIFA for unethical conduct, declined to comment.
Chalker denied ever being involved in an effort to spy on Adamu.
For Project Riverbed, Chalker hired case officers and project managers in Germany and London, including some who had previously worked for the CIA, the documents show.
The GRA records are full of opaque, florid language seemingly plucked from the pages of a spy novel: GRA would set up “Cover for Action” entities that could be used by GRA staff to work undercover, as well as “White” and “Black ” — official and non-official — offices to handle administrative tasks. Broidy has also alleged in his lawsuit that such efforts at subterfuge were used against Zwanziger.
GRA’s records said Project Riverbed was initially approved for a $27 million budget and that Qatar had been late with payments and did not provide all of the funds. The lack of money led to staff turnover and wasted expenditures, such as legal and administrative fees for setting up offices that were never used, the documents say.
Despite the fiscal constraints, GRA said Riverbed was a success.
The executive report said the project had “softened Zwanziger’s criticism” and altered the German lawyer’s “sentiment to a point where he is no longer a threat to Qatar’s retention of the 2022 World Cup.”
“Zwanziger now believes Qatar should retain the 2022 World Cup so that the international community will become more aware of migrant workers’ conditions in Qatar and push for extensive reform of Qatari human and workers’ rights,” GRA says in its executive summary.
The company was wrong.
“Riverbed came to the conclusion: we’ve now brought Zwanziger to our side. Inwardly, of course, I never was,” Zwanziger said in the interview with AP.
In a radio interview with a German station in June 2015 — a year after the supposed completion of “Project Riverbed” — Zwanziger repeated his claim that Qatar is “a cancer of world football.”
It prompted the Qatar Football Association to file a civil lawsuit against Zwanziger in a bid to stop him from making such comments in the future. The case was dismissed by Düsseldorf’s regional court, which ruled Zwanziger was within his right to free speech.
Zwanziger had more legal difficulties later when he and members of the German 2006 World Cup organizing committee faced corruption probes in Frankfurt and Switzerland. Zwanziger denied any wrongdoing and in August 2019 accused Swiss prosecutors of deliberately misinterpreting evidence. The Swiss trial ended in April 2020 without a judgement.
Zwanziger said it’s vindicating to now learn that he was the target of a failed manipulation campaign.
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.