The Panama Papers on global tax evasion – described as the biggest media leak ever – were obviously primed for yet another political smear against Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was just the latest in a series of Western media campaigns to besmirch the Russian leader going back several years.
Putin the «new Hitler»; Putin the «downer of civilian airliners»; Putin the «gunslinger»; and now Putin «the money launderer».
But the smear has since turned into a political banana skin for Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been forced into admitting that he benefitted from offshore tax-free funds. He is now being assailed with accusations of «hypocrisy» and even calls for his resignation.
From the point of view of those who tried to smear Putin, how did it go wrong?
When the hacked data started to be published earlier this week, the Western news media ran lurid headlines implicating Putin in massive financial impropriety. This was despite the glaring anomaly that neither Putin nor any of his family were even mentioned in the leaked information. In short, it was another exercise by ropey Western journalism of inculpation by assertion, prejudice and innuendo.
The fact that one of the main sources of the Panama Papers information – the Washington DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – is funded by CIA-linked organizations immediately raised suspicion that the implications made against Putin were a politically motivated propaganda stunt.
It seems highly likely that the CIA and related anti-Putin groups like the George Soros-supported Open Societies Foundations were involved in at least trying to orchestrate the Putin smear. But how these shadowy entities became involved remains a curious question.
Several days after the so-called Panama Papers took global media by storm, it now appears that key US allies are coming under more serious scrutiny that Putin. The Kremlin has dismissed the allegations as «more fibs» and that aspect of the story appears to have died a death.
Not so for Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. He is struggling to fend off media queries about his own personal connections to tax dodging as a result of information disclosed in the leaked files.
Other world leaders allied to the US who have been fingered in the financial scandal include Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the newly elected rightwing president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, whom President Barack Obama showered with praise during a state visit only last month.
There are many other world leaders and public officials who have reportedly been identified as having stakes in notorious offshore tax havens. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was forced out of office this week after his name became linked to tax avoidance schemes.
The broad range of incriminated targets therefore raises questions about who is behind the leak. If it were simply a CIA-inspired dirty tricks operation to undermine Putin, then why have close political allies to Washington also been embroiled, and to a much more politically damaging extent?
Britain’s premier David Cameron is «dangerously exposed» reported the Guardian after it emerged that his late father, Ian, was the director of an investment firm that set up shell companies in the British Virgin Islands.
For over 30 years, Ian Cameron did not pay a penny in tax to the British exchequer even though he made millions by doing business in the British controlled Caribbean territory.
Strictly speaking, such tax evasion is not illegal under law. But for the British prime minister it is a huge political scandal, given that he has made such high-flown claims since he was first elected in 2010 to clamp down on offshore capital havens.
When Cameron’s father died in 2010, he inherited the equivalent of $500,000. As a student at the elitist Eton school and Oxford university, Cameron’s education would have been funded by proceeds from his father’s offshore funny money.
Downing Street this week has been roiled by awkward media questions and obliged to issue unconvincing denials that Cameron is a beneficiary of corporate tax avoidance. Notably one statement claimed that neither the prime minister nor his family would gain any benefits «in the future» from offshore funds. Which has only further whetted media queries about «the past».
Cameron, under duress, finally admitted that he had profited six years ago from the sale of shares in his father’s offshore company to the tune of $50,000. Opposition politicians are now calling for his resignation on grounds that he has not been transparent with the public.
Ironically, therefore, the British Conservative leader has ended up in much more hot water about financial impropriety than the Russian leader.
That makes the chain of this damaging media leak a curious conundrum.
What we know is that the deluge of information on offshore tax havens was obtained surreptitiously from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. The firm is said to be the fourth biggest international entity that specializes in setting up companies in tax havens for wealthy clients, such as business executives and banks based in Europe, the US and elsewhere.
The angry reaction by Mossack Fonseca over its privacy being breached indicates it was a genuine leak. The information contained in 11 million files is said to implicate over 200,000 client companies and 14,000 individuals, including «politicians, dictators, criminals, billionaires and celebrities», according to the New York Times.
Who actually carried out the initial breach is not known. The Washington Post reports that the trove of information was first delivered to two journalists at the prominent German publication Suddeutsche Zeitung.
That was more than a year ago. The two German journalists to this day say they do not know the identity of the person or persons who handed them the leaked data. They said that no money was sought for the transfer and the only instruction given to them was to «publicize the crimes».
Bastian Obermayer and his colleague Frederik Obermaier, the two reporters at Suddeutsche Zeitung, then began sharing the vast information with the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. That step seems plausible enough because the parties had already a working relationship on previous money-laundering investigations.
Also, the data in the so-called Panama Papers – enough to reportedly fill 38,000 medium-sized books – was clearly an overwhelming task for two individuals to dissect and disseminate.
The ICIJ is affiliated to the Center for Public Integrity and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. All three are based in Washington DC and are all sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers, and the Soros-linked Open Societies Foundation, among many others. Those sponsors have well documented working relations with the American Central Intelligence Agency in some cases going back to the agency’s inception in 1948.
For over a year, the ICIJ claims that its journalists and an international network of over 350 affiliated media colleagues in more than 70 countries worked on the Panama Papers to parse the many facets for public interest. Among the affiliated journalists were those belonging to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and state-owned BBC. McClatchy News in Washington is said to be another media collaborator in the project.
By no means can we say that all the journalists involved in preparing the Panama Papers for publication are in the pay of the CIA or its tentacle organizations. Nor does it seem that the original point of the data leak was a CIA-inspired political attack on Vladimir Putin.
If the latter were the case, then one would expect the leak to focus solely on trying to implicate Putin through citing Russian associates linked to offshore financial transactions.
However, the fact that the leaked information has turned out to be much more damaging to British Prime Minister David Cameron and other US allies – with specific details, not merely speculation – suggests that the leak was originally intended as a genuine whistleblower action.
Subsequently, CIA-linked organizations and politically friendly Western media outlets appear to have tried to deflect the information towards smearing Putin. But the smear bid has not gained traction against Putin because the claims are not supported by the actual information contained in the leaks.
The same cannot be said for David Cameron and several other world leaders aligned with Washington. They are seriously implicated in white collar crime, along with bank robbers, drug dealers and money-launders. And the Western media cannot but fail to report on this «real story» despite their initial willingness to go along with the trumped-up Putin hatchet job.
How the smear bid against Putin from the Panama Papers has played out – and indeed now badly rebounded – has perhaps provided this unintended revelation. It shows just how malleable and serviceable Western news organizations are in the hands of the CIA.
FINIAN CUNNINGHAM | SCF