This week’s massive Pandora Papers leak has laid bare stunning details about the tax-dodging and wealth-hoarding habits of the global elite, including former and sitting world leaders, and it has already prompted legislative action and investigations around the world.
It also might be a CIA op.
Before we get into exactly how you should feel about this possibility, take a moment to consider the case in favor. For one, there’s the curious and almost total absence of US politicians, corporations, and superrich in the nearly twelve million records from fourteen different offshore firms. Experts and observers have speculated this could be a result of already-low US tax rates and widespread tax evasion within the country, or that the enormous leak didn’t include the offshore services that US nationals tend to use — a definite possibility, but a highly convenient one, too.
Then consider that Washington’s political adversaries haven’t gotten off so lightly. At the top of the list is Russia: the country has the dubious honor of having the highest number of nationals named in the leak, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that received the tranche of papers, including fifty-two Russian billionaires (Brazil is a distant second with fifteen), and nineteen politicians — the second-highest number of politicians named for any country.
This includes not just Konstantin Ernst, Vladimir Putin’s “unofficial minister of propaganda,” and other Russian officials and figures connected to the Russian president, but, most embarrassingly, Putin himself. One of the major revelations of the leak is that a woman alleged to have been Putin’s mistress and the mother of his third child, then working as a cleaner, suddenly got hold of a range of assets worth roughly $100 million around the beginning of the new millennium.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, which has had strained relations with a Washington frustrated with the pace of anti-corruption efforts in the country, featured prominently in the leaks: thirty-eight of its politicians were named, the most of any country, including president Volodymyr Zelensky and his and his allies’ secret network of offshore companies. China, too, has been ensnared, accounting for among the largest number of owners of offshore companies named in the documents, along with Russia, Argentina, and the UK, including one of its politicians.
Back when the Panama Papers were released in 2016, similarly embarrassing Russia and China’s leadership while leaving the United States relatively untouched, financial whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld made this very case. “The very fact that we see all these names surface that are the direct, quote, unquote, enemies of the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, Argentina, and we don’t see one US name. Why is that?” he asked then, speculating that the damage done to friendly leaders like then British prime minister David Cameron was simply collateral damage. “Quite frankly, my feeling is that this is certainly an intelligence agency operation.”
Recall, too, that not only are such hack-and-leak operations a typical Washington practice — agencies like the FBI had so many informants within hacker groups to carry out operations against foreign governments that a Guardian investigation estimated one in every four hackers was compromised — but that they’re now more likely. In 2018, Donald Trump handed the CIA a gift when he secretly loosened the rules around covert cyber operations. Besides cyberattacks on infrastructure, the order also made it easier for the CIA to “to engage in the kind of hack-and-dump operations that Russian hackers and WikiLeaks popularized, in which tranches of stolen documents or data are leaked to journalists or posted on the internet,” Yahoo News reported last year. The news outlet pointed to earlier reports on Russian cyberweapons revealed when the FSB, Russia’s equivalent to the FBI, was hacked and the contents were handed to media organizations.
This is, of course, just speculation, and there are entirely non-CIA explanations for both the existence of this leak and why some countries and governments are featured more than others. The ICIJ is staying appropriately tight-lipped about who its sources are and, if they even know, how they obtained the documents. But the point is that, in 2021, there’s a significantly-greater-than-zero chance that such a leak is part of an intelligence operation.
What’s striking, besides the rampant tax-dodging and financial corruption the leak has exposed among the world elite, is that there are no public vows from Washington to uncover the identity of the whistleblowers, no cries of “disinformation” or calls to be careful about playing into someone else’s nefarious game — not even any speculation about what the motives behind the leak are.
To be clear, this is entirely the correct attitude. With any leak, let alone one of this significance, there are really only two questions that need asking before you publish: Is it newsworthy, and is it true? The Pandora Papers easily clear both of these bars.
While this is heartening, it’s also a sharp reversal from the attitude of many in the US media during the last five years. Ever since news outlets reported on the highly newsworthy revelations about the Democratic Party and then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton contained in the 2016 email hack suspected to have been carried out by the Kremlin — or, in the New York Times’ self-flagellating parlance, ever since the US press acted as “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence” — there have been calls for reporters to, if anything, act as de facto arms of US intelligence.
Political scholar Norman Ornstein chided reporters “who eagerly, delightedly published, aired every stolen email” in the DNC and Clinton hacks for “being useful tools of Putin.” New York Times reporter Amy Chozick spent an entire chapter of her campaign memoir lamenting that she “became an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence,” while a different Times columnist praised the French media for not reporting on material that had been hacked from then presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron’s campaign, misleadingly underplaying the revelations in the Democratic emails.
The director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which, among other things, runs FactCheck.org, was praised for calling on reporters to use loaded and politically charged language when discussing the leaks, and to commit the journalistic cardinal sin of disclosing information about the sources of future leaks. Lawyer Nathaniel Zelinsky charged that the media had been “facilitating Russia’s cyber attacks” and that “journalists should voluntarily adopt a professional norm against publishing the contents of a hack.”
Shortly before the 2020 election, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron sent a memo to the paper’s newsroom saying that any coverage of leaked information “should emphasize what we know — or don’t know — about the source of the information and how that may fit into a foreign or domestic influence operation.” (Needless to say, despite noting the serious “political stakes for some of those named” in the Pandora Papers, including potential election losses, the Post has not taken this approach past the 2020 election).
All of this culminated in the astonishing spectacle of US media outlets outright refusing to report on the potentially scandalous contents of a laptop allegedly owned by Joe Biden’s son Hunter a month before the election, or baselessly labeling it “disinformation” on the word of former spies, a number of them documented liars and perjurers. Even more breathtaking, Twitter and Facebook blocked news articles about the leak from being shared on their platforms, with Twitter suspending the account of the newspaper that first broke the story. (The laptop’s contents have since been proven genuine).
Long before that, Washington has held to a bipartisan commitment to viciously uncover and prosecute whistleblowers, both as vindictive punishment and as a form of deterrence against future damaging leaks. It’s for this reason that Biden is continuing Trump’s dangerous attempt to extradite and prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, despite not only the clear perils to press freedoms but the chilling effect it could have globally on whistleblowers, such as those who may have been behind this particular leak. Perversely, Assange’s treatment by the US government has been either ignored or outright cheered on by members of the US press, though there’s little distinction between his disclosures and this latest leak, aside from which countries’ governments are caught in the fallout.
It’s a positive development that these profoundly un-journalistic attitudes have been jettisoned with the Pandora Papers leak. That’s as it should be. Though of course it would be newsworthy to know if US intelligence had a hand in spreading these documents — just as it was newsworthy to learn it was likely Russian intelligence that was responsible for the 2016 Democratic hacks — that question is utterly irrelevant to the decision to publish their contents now, and their importance.
There’s more than a good chance this is temporary: that regardless of how it came to be, the fact that these disclosures mostly embarrass US adversaries or other foreign governments means the often-nationalistic US press simply doesn’t care about applying all of its previous caveats about hacked or leaked materials to this situation. Regardless, the Pandora Papers are yet another reminder of why it’s important that the press reports on newsworthy disclosures regardless of their origin — and just how dangerous Washington’s ongoing war on whistleblowers is.