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The FIFA investigation makes the argument for transatlantic intelligence sharing

The US Department of Justice’s indictment of leading FIFA officials is likely the result of successful cooperation with between US and European authorities, and relied on robust data collection. This example of successful surveillance could do with a bit more fanfare.

(c) REUTERS/Nacho Doce

(c) REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The United States may yet become a major power in the world of international soccer.

Not on the field, of course – though the American team performed respectably in the 2014 World Cup, it cannot yet be called a threat to Brazil or Germany. Instead, the United States has done something seemingly impossible: it has taken steps to curb corruption at FIFA, the international organization responsible for governing worldwide soccer competitions.

FIFA is perhaps more famous for its questionable business practices than any role it plays in the sport itself. After it selected Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups despite the latter’s completely unsuitable environment and the former’s completely unsuitable government, accusations were made that the organization had accepted bribes from its would-be hosts – The Sunday Times reported two executive committee members offering to sell their votes to Qatar for $1.5 million, and Lord David Triesman, head of the British bid team competing with Russia, said that one committee member even asked to be knighted. The US Justice Department’s 47-count indictment of FIFA includes charges of racketeering, bribery, money laundering, and fraud.

What’s more interesting, though, is how the American investigation was carried out: while FIFA is headquartered in Zurich, it had ties to regional organizations in the Western hemisphere, and a great deal of its money passed through US banks. These international connections allowed the Justice Department to take action, and it did so in cooperation with Swiss authorities, who apparently seized electronic data from the organization’s headquarters to be used in their own parallel investigation. It seems likely that a significant amount of intelligence was shared between different organizations, some across international borders.

This sort of successful cooperation could use a little more fanfare. Since Edward Snowden’s June 2013 revelations about the American National Security Agency’s activities in Europe, much of the discussion about electronic intelligence collection has centered around its undesirability: it’s a tendril of the American empire in Europe, one that occasionally even reaches into the German chancellor’s pocket. The recent scandal in which the German intelligence agency – the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND – was shown to have worked with the American intelligence agencies for some time now proved that the impulse to snoop is not isolated to the US, but did little to improve opinion of the practice in general.

Intelligence sharing and robust data collection capabilities do, however, warrant a broader debate. Whether fighting FIFA or the Islamic State, the ability of security agencies to gather and compare data from a variety of sources will play a prominent role in the future of defense – as it must. It’s the responsibility of the public to discuss the appropriate limitations of that ability in a more nuanced way, one that acknowledges the benefits and costs of both security and privacy.

Efficient intelligence sharing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or even one counter to the values of liberal democracy: it’s also the most effective tool in combating extremism and differentiating the truly dangerous groups from the merely ambitious. (Germany’s recent experience with the rightwing National Socialist Underground extremist group testifies to that.) And in fact, there’s significant evidence that publics on both sides of the Atlantic support this sort of activity when it’s specifically targeted. The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey found, in September 2013, that 70 percent of Germans and slim majorities in Sweden, France, and the United States opposed their government “collecting the telephone and internet data of its citizens as part of the effort to protect national security”, and a Pew poll carried out in July 2014 echoed these results, with overwhelming majorities in Europe opposed to “monitoring communications, such as emails and phone calls, in the US and many other countries.” However, when Pew asked in the same poll about monitoring the communication of “individuals suspected of terrorist activities,” large majorities on both sides of the Atlantic were actually in favor – even in Germany.

Data collection and dissemination will need to be a part of security planning for the foreseeable future. It’s essential that transatlantic community discuss how exactly it should function and what its limits should be – along with what we want it to achieve.