If you didn’t know much about international finance, you probably didn’t see the journalistic project known as The Panama Papers as a retaliatory move against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Wikileaks did immediately. Although the tweet was since deleted, the political warfare operation took to Russia Today to complain that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists wasn’t being ethical about their leaks, which made Vladimir Putin look corrupt. Somewhere between Rossiya Bank, Cyprus, and Panama, Putin had around $2 billion dollars stashed away.
Courtesy of The Guardian, this handy graph depicts the flow of what investor Bill Browder recently testified to be money stolen from the Russian people themselves.
Based on hacking that exfiltratrated 2.6 terabytes of financial data, the Panama Papers was the largest leak in a string of such “journalistic” endeavors kicked off by the Russian military intelligence front Wikileaks.
When the Panama Papers hit the news in April 2016, it wasn’t well understood that Vladimir Putin may have been the main target. Sure, the cast of Harry Potter had some money flowing through as well, but that was more light scandal than strategic strike. The New York Times published an article that explained which entities had been most exposed by the leaks:
Among others, the documents named close associates of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the father of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and relatives of President Xi Jinping of China and members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee. Articles published by news organizations in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists also named King Salman of Saudi Arabia; Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who resigned as prime minister of Icelandafter the revelations; President Mauricio Macri of Argentina; and the soccer star Lionel Messi, one of the world’s wealthiest athletes.
Other soccer players; officials from FIFA, the sport’s world governing body; and UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, were also tied to firms incorporated offshore through the Panamanian firm.
A couple of names stick out: Vladimir Putin, and officials from FIFA, an organization whose Mr. Chuck Blazer used to reside in Trump Tower.
The New York Times also made clear who was conspicuously absent from the Panama Papers:
It is not clear how many United States citizens may have been involved. So far, the documents cited in news reports have not connected any prominent American politicians or other influential Americans to Mossack Fonseca.
It’s not that Americans do not avail themselves of offshore banking regimes. As I explored in The Atlantic back when Mitt Romney’s financial disclosures were in the news, the Cayman Islands are a popular place for American financiers to reduce taxation. Each section of the world has their favorites: England tends toward its Channel Islands, everybody loves Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore are Asia’s go-to financial hubs.
But this round of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism focused on a favorite of Russia’s.
The Panama Papers reporting team began work in early 2015. Members of the team published and broadcast their first stories in April 2016 and continued producing stories throughout 2016. They pored over millions of confidential emails and corporate documents written in French, English, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic and used shoe-leather reporting to track down additional documents and verify facts on six continents.
One thing remains opaque about the work begun in early 2015 – who obtained the hacked data in the first place? The Infosec Institute speculated in detail about the how, but the who remained still shrouded in mystery – as it does to this day.
Though we might take an educated guess about who would have the motivation…
Were the Panama Papers a warning shot aimed at Putin?
There are a lot of moving parts here, but let us take two issues: the relationship between Russia and West, and cyberwarfare that dramatically intensified after Edward Snowden exfiltrated data from the National Security Agency and gave it to Russia. In 2014, Russia launched an attack on the information systems of the U.S. Department of State. In 2015, Russia nearly crippled the information systems of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. America is now in a long state of emergency as it deals with a “political Pearl Harbor” assault on the 2016 elections, attacks aimed at every possible aspect of its political system.
We might now better understand why, in the middle of 2016, stories begin emerging from 2015 hacks that exposed, among other things, how Putin used Cyprus and Panama to traffic billions of ill-gotten gains. It also showed how Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort used Panamanian offshore banking to funnel payments from Ukraine back to the United States.
Conspiratorial minds might notice that the Panama Papers were published less than one week after Paul Manafort was named chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign.
Current reports tell us that the United States and its allies became aware of Putin’s plans to hack America’s elections as early as 2015. And true to their forecasts, the political Pearl Harbor arrived on our shores. The story may seem disconnected, but the Panama Papers perhaps show that the U.S. Government planned to expose these covert attacks, and the root of all this evil: Russian money and its flow around the world.
More surprises will come the deeper we go into this story. Though Russia’s attacks on America’s elections will receive the scrutiny and condemnation they deserve, the world may learn more than it expected about the flows of power and money beneath the surface of our public institutions. Russia will surely not be the only country implicated. This will probably result in a mix of reform and crisis.
Then again, it is usually crisis that produces the opportunity for reform.