FBI Busts FIFA, but No Jail Time for Crooked Bankers

The FBI has cracked down on corruption in world football. When will it arrest the powerful American individuals known to be involved in crimes like financial fraud, market manipulation and torture?

Fifa-CCRRio de Janeiro: Remember that scene from the war-for-oil movie Syriana where Danny Dalton, a fixer in Washington DC, tells another one of his breed why corruption works for the system. “Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win,” Dalton tells his buddy.

Corruption makes big headlines. It makes villains. And it makes heroes.

In the aftermath of the arrest of seven FIFA officials on corruption charges on May 27, 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe is getting bigger by the day.

The probe is no longer about bribes and money laundering. Now, the FBI is looking at the whole process through which two future World Cups – Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) – were awarded. The Americans are also sniffing about to find out if the South Africans and Brazilians greased some palms to get the World Cup staging rights in 2010 and 2014 respectively. There are already hints that Sepp Blatter, who has decided to quit as FIFA boss, would be canned sometime soon. Washington is buzzing with rumours of diplomats from these countries being under the scanner. Probably, the US will one day knock at the doors of some politicians in these countries. That will open a can of worms.

The FIFA war is not over yet. It has just begun.

Last Wednesday, after the Zurich raids, FBI director James Comey said that the “work will continue until all of the corruption is uncovered and a message is sent around the world.”

That message is clear: there is corruption in the body that runs the world’s most popular sport; almost everyone, especially folks from the developing world, are swimming in the sludge of graft money; and only the Americans can clean it all up. In a matter of days, from newspaper columns to cafes to social media, football lovers around the world have started thanking the FBI for cracking down on corruption in the Beautiful Game.

This is a soft-power booster shot the US desperately needed.

The war on corruption … and encryption

In June 2013, when US National Security Agency (NSA) system administrator Edward Snowden leaked a number of top-secret documents showing how American agencies were spying on everyone – from foreign governments to public corporations to private citizens – America’s image as a “defender” of individual freedom and democracy took a big hit.

Except in Hollywood movies, US agencies are globally seen as institutions that violate national sovereignty and individual privacy on an unprecedented scale. Now, by busting FIFA, the Washington establishment has tried to regain lost ground, even as it pursues a political agenda both at home and abroad with more aggression.

On May 27, after the FIFA arrests, US attorney-general Loretta Lynch and FBI chief Comey blasted the culture of “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption in the world football federation at a press meet. As reporters rushed to write sugary eulogies for Lynch’s “bold move” against FIFA, the US official quickly jumped to her favourite topic: national security. Demanding a ban on encrypted technologies, which have grown globally in the wake of Snowden disclosures, the US attorney-general spoke of how secure communications technology give her “grave concerns” about law enforcement’s “ability to have eyes on people whose sworn duty is to harm Americans here and abroad.”

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announcing the indictment of FIFA officials on May 27. Image: C-Span

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announcing the indictment of FIFA officials on May 27. Image: C-Span

Lynch’s attack on encryption came in the wake of a UN report on the right to encryption as a human right and reports that firms like Apple, Facebook and Google, which have been losing the rust of their users because of privacy violations, are planning to offer encryption to their chat and email clients. Then Comey jumped in, attacking encryption as something that helps Islamic State sympathisers in the US.

As revealed by Snowden, US surveillance has little to do with terror threats. But the FBI continues to use terrorism as an excuse to spy on US citizens. Just a couple of days after the bust-up in Zurich, an Associated Press investigation revealed how the FBI has been using some 13 fake firms with aircraft “to fly low-and-slow aerial spy missions over US cities, capturing video and sometimes cellular signals from 30 cities in 11 states in a recent month”. The surveillance equipment on these aircraft, several of which appeared over Baltimore during recent protests by African-American groups rallying against the killing of an unarmed man, is generally used without a judge’s approval, the AP report said. Though the FBI accepted that it was operating those aircraft, it has no plans to give up the surveillance.

Watching ordinary Americans is now the FBI’s main preoccupation. Even as Comey and Lynch push for the continuation of “bulk phone collection as useful tool” to the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts, a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General revealed last month that the agency collects data on individuals not suspected of any crime “by using [its] business-records authority [under the now defunct US Patriot Act]’ to obtain large collections of metadata’, such as ‘electronic communication transactional information.”

We are the world 

A spate of similar reports and revelations in recent years has damaged the image of the US government and its agencies worldwide. In Europe, where privacy and individual liberty is taken more seriously than the US, American agents appear as “good guys” only in Hollywood fantasies. But FIFA, plagued as it undoubtedly is by corruption and nepotism, gave the FBI – and the American establishment — a chance to reboot their image of a strong global policeman. Just imagine the propaganda value of a US agency flying into the heart of Europe to clean up a global organisation that runs a sport which is more important than life to millions across the people. This was a propaganda coup beyond the wildest imagination of a Hollywood screenplay writer.

And there were more messages in store. Following the Zurich raids, the FBI director said, “If you corrupt our shores with your corrupt enterprise, whether that is through meetings or using our world-class financial system, you will be held accountable for that corruption. Nobody is above or beyond the law.” With this, Comey not only justified the arrest of foreign nationals in a third country, he also told the world how good the US financial institutions were, notwithstanding the fact that the same “world class” US institutions and banks that wrecked the global economy in 2008.

But in the storm caused by the FBI – and fuelled by sections of the Western media – few can stand the heat. Since the charge against the arrested officials is corruption, a sensitive issue in most emerging countries, nobody will speak for the seven men facing extradition to the US. The truth about the charge of corruption will be established only in the courts, but the FBI – and the US government – have already launched a major propaganda war against Russia, the host of the 2018 World Cup, with the aim of stripping it of hosting rights.

Is the FIFA probe “another case of illegal exterritorial use of US law”, as the Russian foreign ministry alleged? John Shulman, a Harvard-educated lawyer who is an expert in mediation talks, said this week that the FBI intervention in FIFA affairs was not legal, but geopolitical. “With this action, the US sends two messages. To the world, we say that our legal system can get you if you’re doing something wrong. Internally, we show that we take the initiative to resolve the corruption of others,” Shulman told UOL Sport. He also noted the opportunity cost of the Zurich operation for the average US citizen:  “The logistics of an international operation of this size are simply not worth it, especially when there are a large number of victims in the US who need attention. There are companies in the US which are more corrupt than FIFA.”

No jail for bankers, torturers

But the US Justice Department has often let off such companies with a mild slap on the wrist. The British bank HSBC, which was caught running tax evasion and money-laundering operations estimated at $180 billion, was just penalized with a fine of a few million dollars. Nobody was arrested. The same thing happened in the case of six Wall Street banks – HSBC Holdings Plc, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc, UBS AG and Bank of America Corp –  which were accused of systematic rigging and manipulation of forex markets. The banks were fined $4.3 billion but no arrests were made. Swiss investigators have gathered evidence of big banks like UBS being involved in the manipulation of precious metals price benchmarks. But no FBI cavalry came charging up the Alps to arraign the bankers involved in that wonderful sport.

Corruption and justice at home, especially involving financial sector players, remain a low priority for Lynch and Comey. This double standard is being noticed and criticized. As the FBI hunted football’s bosses across the Atlantic, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a statement with the headline, “Dear Justice Department: How about investigating the CIA Torture Program after you are done with FIFA?” Posted under “#Priorities”, the message written by Vincent Warren of CCR said: “Remember the horrific accounts of CIA torture exposed in the executive summary of the Senate Torture Report? What will it take for President Obama to finally confront the CIA about these heinous crimes? Under US law, torture is a crime that can lead to life in prison – so why hasn’t it? The CIA has obfuscated and lied about the torture program every step of the way.”

Forget torture, banking frauds and injustice. The US is busy sorting out corruption in football. As Danny Dalton said, corruption is why they always win.

Shobhan Saxena is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. He has covered the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013 and the FIFA World Cup in 2014, besides writing extensively on Brazilian and South American football