Editor’s Note: The following piece is part of an occasional series in which Fred Burton, our vice president of intelligence, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department.
Security professionals make it their business to be unseen. At concerts and sporting events, they are the ones standing unnoticed in corners and doorways, quietly blending into the walls while someone else takes center stage.
So it’s no surprise that with all the recent coverage of the FIFA scandal, more attention has been paid to Rolex-clad executives, ostensibly sitting in well-lit offices and allegedly taking bribes ahead of their next golf outing, than to a group that has enormous insight into the day-to-day dealings of FIFA’s administration: the security team. Someone from that team knows what meetings are happening when and where and with whom. Someone has access to his or her travel itineraries and hotel room numbers, business and personal schedules, phone records and emails — all vital evidence for the prosecution.
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Because of their unique visibility into the daily activities of the people they protect, FIFA’s security personnel will have a central role to play in the coming investigation. The great danger is that playing its role in the growing case against FIFA’s management may affect the global security team’s ability to perform their primary job: protecting players and fans.
Having been involved in multiple witch hunts within large bureaucracies, I know that when a scandal shakes an organization, everyone from the CEO right down to the janitor feels the effects. And when the scandal merits an investigation, every part of the organization grinds to a halt. My own experience with that kind of organizational breakdown comes from my time as a young special agent with the Department of State during the Iran-Contra affair. In 1985, it came to light that the National Security Council had made a back channel deal with the Israelis and Iranians to trade weapons for American hostages. As soon as the now infamous story broke, panic throughout the intelligence community brought everything to a standstill. Every agent who had been even tangentially involved in the hostage crisis, myself included, worried about their implication in the affair. We all wondered whether the next door the FBI knocked on would be ours.
As a member of the Hostage Location Task Force, I had been personally involved in debriefing American hostages recently released by Hezbollah. My colleagues and I knew nothing of the deal that was now the focus of international attention, a deal made by people far above us in our organization. Yet I found myself having flashbacks to every post, sifting through memories for even the smallest piece of evidence, wondering what I may have done wrong. I knew investigators would scrutinize every phone call and potential source of information.
Like the State Department and other intelligence agencies during the Iran-Contra scandal, FIFA will have a tense atmosphere in the coming months. FIFA’s security team will be anxious and preoccupied as they aid investigators and retrace their own steps. And there’s no doubt that this will affect their performance in securing arenas and planning events. It’s difficult to think about security perimeters for the 2018 World Cup when you’re busy trying to remember what you had for lunch at the same event in 2012. All the time you spend mulling over the events of the past robs the present of your attention.
Munich: A Gruesome Example
Within FIFA, this kind of distraction is particularly concerning — historically, sporting events have been ideal targets of militant attacks. They have a large, concentrated group of potential victims and ongoing news coverage. In other words, they offer a built-in global audience for violent religious or political statements.
Take the 1972 Summer Olympics as a particularly gruesome example. On Sept. 5 of that year, eight Palestinian terrorists from the Black September Organization carried out a spectacular attack in Munich, ultimately killing 11 Israeli athletes. By targeting an event that was already the center of international attention, the Palestinian terrorist group was able to broadcast its ideology to the world.
For international terrorist organizations, the World Cup is no less valuable a target, and groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State are no less a threat than Black September. In fact, Islamic State leaders are calling on adherents to conduct attacks across the globe, and the specter of tragedies like the Munich Olympics haunts every major sporting event.
FIFA’s security team needs to be preparing ahead of time to anticipate and prevent attacks accordingly. Black September operatives prepared for months leading up to the games, conducting surveillance of the Olympic Village and watching the construction of the buildings to identify structural weaknesses. In the time leading up to the 2018 tournament, jihadist organizations could be engaged in similar covert operations, and FIFA needs to be especially alert. But with FIFA itself embroiled in scandal, its executives potentially on trial, and its security staff assisting and being interviewed by federal agents, the pressure and emotional turmoil could compromise critical security protocols.
Today, the FIFA scandal is about corporate corruption, sponsorship and timeslots. But today’s articles about bribery charges could very well give way to grislier headlines if terrorist groups use the chaos and panic within the organization as an opportunity to strike. Let’s hope FIFA keeps their eye on the ball.