A former CIA officer who spied on Qatar’s rivals to help the tiny Arab country land this year’s World Cup is now under FBI scrutiny and newly obtained documents show he offered clandestine services that went beyond soccer to try to influence US policy, an Associated Press investigation found.
The months-long FBI probe focuses on whether Kevin Chalker’s work for Qatar broke laws related to foreign lobbying, surveillance and exporting sensitive technologies and tradecraft, said two people with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss it.
Chalker’s goal, AP found, was to burnish Qatar’s image among American decision-makers while undermining critics who have accused the Persian Gulf monarchy of financing terrorists and other wrongdoing.
Federal investigators have focused increasing scrutiny in recent years on Qatar’s influence efforts, including those alleged to involve former US national security officials.
AP’s reporting in the past year has detailed how Chalker and his company, Global Risk Advisors, sought to help Qatar host the 2022 World Cup by spying on soccer officials in rival countries.
That included deploying a Facebook “honeypot” in which an attractive woman is used to get close to a target, having someone pose as a photojournalist to keep tabs on one nation’s bid and, after the decision was announced in 2010, waging a failed two-year campaign to get a top German soccer official to soften his criticism of Qatar.
Sprawling covert influence operation
New AP reporting based on internal Global Risk Advisors records and interviews with Chalker’s associates shows much of his work in the years since has focused on seeking to strengthen Qatar’s influence in the US.
That included attempting to set up high-level meetings between Qatari officials and top CIA leaders and pitching a sprawling covert influence operation to damage the reputations of US officials perceived as Qatar’s enemies.
The company even boasted in internal records of using spycraft to try and gather information on a congressman who sponsored legislation Qatar opposed.
Global Risk Advisors “has consistently protected Qatar by attacking the attackers,” the company said in one internal document.
Long and lucrative relationship
Carroll, said Global Risk Advisors had never engaged in any unlawful activity and was unaware of any federal investigation.
The FBI said it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. Qatar did not respond to requests for comment.
Qatar, an energy-rich sheikdom that is home to a massive US military base, has spent billions in recent years to successfully fend off attempts by its neighbouring rivals – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – to isolate the country and sour its relationship with the US.
Chalker began a long and lucrative relationship with Qatar after working as an undercover operations officer for the CIA in the 2000s. His work on the World Cup helped Qatar become Global Risk Advisors’ main client, allowing it to open offices in New York, Washington, London and Doha.
“GRA is on the cusp of rapid expansion,” said a 2014 memo to employees, adding that the company “has been pursuing a number of extraordinary projects.”
The company’s work included a covert information campaign against Qatar’s rivals that involved helping make a 2018 film called “Enemies of Peace” that was highly critical of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, according to two former Chalker associates.
The film’s director told the AP he was unaware an advisor on the film was working for GRA.
Global Risk Advisors and its affiliates also provided military and intelligence training for several years to Qatari officials, including members of the royal family, interviews and records show. Courses ranged from hostage rescue to how to operate undercover.
“Essentially, he wants us to conduct mini-Farm courses both for ops and for tech ops,” said an internal Global Risk Advisors’ document describing a Qatari official’s request for training. “The Farm” is the nickname given to the CIA’s covert training facility in Virginia.
One member of the Qatari royal family received a perfect score of 100 in a “technical surveillance countermeasures” course despite missing much of the instruction and not showing “a genuine desire to learn the material,” according to a company document.
Federal law prohibits sharing certain tactics the US government teaches its own soldiers and spies, and some former Chalker employees said they were concerned that some of the Qatari trainings crossed the line.
Chalker’s attorney said Global Risk Advisors has received proper authorisation from the US government whenever its work has required it.
AP’s reporting was based on hundreds of pages of documents provided by former Chalker associates who requested anonymity because they feared retaliation.
Several of those sources described Chalker as a chaotic and mercurial boss whose priorities constantly shifted, with many projects ultimately going nowhere.
They said Chalker prized secrecy, regularly used codenames -- his own was “Hercules” -- and often kept employees in the dark about the work Global Risk Advisors did for Qatar or the research reports it produced.
“Nobody really knew who these were going to, why they were being produced, what the real driver was — other than they were what Kevin wants us to work on,” said one former employee.
Company records and interviews show Chalker consulted with and received advice on some of his proposals from then-CIA employee Denis Mandich, who worked as an agency liaison to Silicon Valley.
Those projects included a multibillion-dollar proposal in 2014 to have Global Risk Advisors invest in tech startups on Qatar’s behalf, pitched as a way to block the sale of potentially sensitive technology to its Persian Gulf rivals.
It’s unclear from company documents if that project moved forward and Mandich later left the agency and joined Global Risk Advisors to become one of Chalker’s top lieutenants. Mandich’s attorneys did not respond to questions about his work for GRA.
Global Risk Advisors also created a detailed security plan in 2014 to install a surveillance system in Qatar that could track mobile phones in the country “with extreme accuracy” and allow analysts to “isolate individual conversations and listen in real-time,” according to internal company records that include a draft contract.
That plan, dubbed Project Berlin, also suggested creating a World Cup 2022 mobile phone app that could record users’ location and movements.
Chalker indicated in internal company documents that Qatar gave preliminary approval to Project Berlin but it’s unknown whether it was ever implemented.
Chalker’s efforts at boosting Qatar’s ties with the US included an effort to set up a face-to-face meeting between top officials at the CIA and Qatar’s prime minister.
One Qatari official told Chalker that such a meeting help would provide a “golden stamp of approval” for Chalker’s various projects, company records show.
But those records show Chalker’s initial efforts to broker such a meeting failed despite his boasting of having unparalleled access to the highest levels of the Qatari government.
The CIA declined to comment.
Other company records showed Global Risk Advisors pushed to have oversight and control of Qatar’s US lobbying efforts, saying it could manage those efforts more productively.
A March 2017 proposal called “Project ENDGAME” said Qatar’s enemies were seeking to inject the country into proxy fights involving its “allies” such as the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group backed by Qatar.
In response to that threat, the company boasted in internal records that it had “developed an approach to a close contact of the congressman” who sponsored legislation that year to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. “Developed an approach” is intelligence jargon for seeking to recruit a potential asset.
Dominate the information battlefield
That congressman, Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, said he was unaware of such efforts and that he’s continued to sponsor similar legislation in the years since.
“The allegations that a former CIA officer is actively trying to influence an important national security bill on behalf of a foreign country are deeply disturbing,” Diaz-Balart told AP.
The “Project ENDGAME” proposal also warned that President Donald Trump was “unpredictable” and his inner circle was being co-opted by the UAE’s well-connected ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba.
The proposal suggested Qatar obtain “total information awareness” into Otaiba and his US allies and then spread damaging information through friendly media outlets.
“Now is the time to once again seize the initiative to dominate the information battlefield,” the proposal said.
In April 2017, Chalker and a Qatari government official signed a letter of intent that said Global Risk Advisors would provide Qatar with “enhanced tracking and monitoring, intelligence collection, predictive intelligence, information operations” and other spy services for $60 million over three years. Other records show a Gibraltar-based company owned by Chalker began receiving seven- and eight-figure payments from Qatar shortly afterwards.
No direct evidence
Anonymous hackers began leaking selectively curated copies of Otaiba’s emails in June 2017. Those emails included potentially embarrassing messages showing Otaiba’s close relationships with top US officials and significant influence at some think tanks.
There’s no direct evidence linking Global Risk Advisors to the release of Otaiba’s emails. Chalker has categorically denied playing any role in a hack-and-leak operation, and no former Chalker associates who spoke with the AP said they saw the company engage in such activities.
The hackers’ targets in the Otaiba leaks included a former Defense secretary, former high-ranking diplomats and intelligence officials, and two think tanks that had been critical of Qatar and were specifically named in the “Project Endgame” pitch document.
After going dormant for several months, the hackers released a new round of Otaiba emails in 2018 focused on Tom Barrack, a close Trump adviser who is currently on trial for allegedly working illegally for the UAE and whose hacked-and-leaked emails form part of the Justice Department’s case.
Former Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy has accused Chalker and Global Risk Advisors in an ongoing lawsuit of overseeing the Otaiba hack and leak on Qatar’s behalf as well as a similar operation targeting Broidy that began in early 2018. Chalker’s lawyers have called the lawsuit “baseless.”
Chalker associates say he has shifted his focus away from Global Risk Advisors in recent years to a quantum computing cybersecurity company he formed with Mandich called Qrpyt, which has signed a technology licensing agreement with the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
-Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia. Investigative reporter James LaPorta in Wilmington, North Carolina, contributed to this report.