Belmont Club

Ye Olde Shelle Gayme

What do you mean there's no pea?

One narrative emerging since the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists leaked the Panama Papers —  which lists a large number of politically exposed persons who have offshore accounts established through shell companies — is it is payback for Wikileaks. “Wikileaks has accused USAID and billionaire George Soros of engaging in a conspiracy to besmirch Russian President Vladimir Putin through the recent Panama Papers leak.”

Wikileaks, which was founded by fugitive and alleged sex offender Julian Assange, made its initial accusation Tuesday via twitter. The group claims that Soros and USAID, via the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), directly funded the Panama Papers’ report which claimed to unveil the system in which Putin and his cronies shuffle money and power, along with similar behavior from a vast array of political and economic players.

Shortly after the initial Wikileaks tweets, the Russian-funded RT news reported the allegations at face value.

The circumstantial evidence for this claim lies in the nature of the data itself. The targets are largely, though not wholly, on the administration’s s**t list.  The Panama papers list the possible whereabouts of US$2 billion in Putin’s moneyreveal the offshore holdings of at “least eight members of the top leadership of China’s Communist Party”, blows the lid off the accounts of FIFA officials (targets of the FBI), the money conduits of North Korea, HSBC’s link to the fortunes of the Syrian inner circle, and even embarasses British Prime Minister David Cameron.   Obama blamed Cameron, you will remember, for letting him down in Libya and Syria.

It has also been noted that there are no prominent Americans, save for an author on women’s financial planning, in the list of leaked names. NBC explains this by noting that “The United States is a tax haven … Two states, Delaware or Nevada, along with the U.S. Virgin Islands, are known in particular for loose regulations and low taxes, making them attractive for people to hide their activities and assets behind a corporate facade” — a circumstance that tax activists like US PIRG want to change.

A total of 2.6 terrabyes of data was siphoned off from the Panamanian law firm starting in 2014 and farmed out to 400 journalists over a custom built encrypted file transfer and chat network system.  Through it they could coordinate queries and share resources.

The ICIJ’s developers then built a two-factor-authentication-protected search engine for the leaked documents, the URL for which they shared via encrypted email with scores of news outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, Fusion, and dozens of foreign-language media outlets. The site even featured a real-time chat system, so that reporters could exchange tips and find translation for documents in languages they couldn’t read. “If you wanted to look into the Brazilian documents, you could find a Brazilian reporter,” says Ryle. “You could see who was awake and working and communicate openly. We encouraged everyone to tell everyone what they were doing.” The different media outlets eventually held their own in-person meetings, too, in Washington, Munich, London, Johannesburg and Lillehammer, Ryle says.

The ICIJ has a development team? The ICIJ developers may turn out to be programmers hired by the European Pirate Party, who are part of the Greens-European alliance. All in all, the combination of content and slick technical expertise provoked the Kremlin to say that the Panama Papers were a conspiracy targeted at Russia and intended to discredit Mr Putin and destabilize the country before the next elections.  Putin might not be right in thinking that Obama and Soros conspired to do the dirty on him, but you can see why he would think that.

The probable scenario in the Kremlin’s mind is that the US, like Russia, created its own version of Wikileaks through the Soros NGOs aimed at taking down one of the main enablers of hybrid warfare in the world today — the shadowy world of money laundering. Burdened with the guilty knowledge of what they did, doubtless the Kremlin can imagine what Obama might have been up to. There is no doubt that money is the watering hole of shadowy characters and all manner of predators wait round it to see who shows up. Will Fitzgibbon of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists trots out decades-old stories surrounding Iran Contra to prove that where there are shell companies there are shady characters.

He might have been better off citing a more recent example of money laundering involving the Obama administration and Iran. The Washington Post recently published an article by Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claiming that American diplomats had greenlighted Tehran’s money laundering as part of the nuclear deal.

At a news conference Friday, Obama walked back reports that Iran would be allowed direct access to the U.S. dollar, saying, “That’s not actually the approach that we’re taking.” He did not, however, explicitly close the door to other steps that would give the regime access to U.S. dollars through offshore clearinghouses. In other words, Iran would be allowed to launder dollars while the administration looked the other way.

This is an alarming departure from the Obama administration’s position just months ago. Indeed, when selling the nuclear deal to the American people last year, the administration repeatedly stressed to Congress that key terrorism, missile and human rights sanctions against Iran would continue to be vigorously enforced.

But then not all money laundering is created equal. The Obama administration might let you wash lucre in a good cause, presumably in the furtherance of American diplomacy.  The West does not seem to be against shell companies and money laundering per se (as quite a lot of it occurs in Western countries) as much as to these activities in places they do not control. The New York Times described Panama “as the last big holdout” in the money tracking scheme spearheaded by the administration.

Panama has been more reluctant to follow a transparency initiative started in 2009 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. While most other international financial centers, like the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Singapore, quickly agreed to the initiative, Panama held back.

“Panama is the last major holdout that continues to allow funds to be hidden offshore from tax and law enforcement authorities,” the group’s secretary general, Angel Gurría, said in a statement on Monday.

But several tax experts pointed out that Panama, in its refusal to comply with international transparency standards, is in esteemed company: the United States.

Foreign nations have had trouble getting information about accounts their citizens hold in America as well.

“Panama isn’t the real story,” said Matt Gardner, the executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a research group based in Washington. “This leak is giving a window into a much broader world, but it should be understood as giving a window into how things work in the U.S. as well.”

Holdouts in every racket have to be brought into line.  That would leave the players with no alternative but to move money where the Feds can track it; where Obama can see it.  Like printing the international reserve currency, tracking the accounts of the world’s rich and famous is yet one more aspect of soft-superpowerdom, the kind of thing that both American political parties understand.

One of the reasons countries like Russia and North Korea are making hard-power threats is partly because the Obama-led Western alliance is giving them no place to put their stash.  The West is playing to its strength and Russia is countering with what remains to it, like increasing the number of its nuclear warheads.  Whether or not the Russian perception is correct, it seems apparent that a huge international struggle involving data surveillance, espionage, money laundering, cyber conflict and proxy warfare of which Wikileaks and the Panama Papers are merely a part, is going on.

Whatever you want to call this conflict, it is one that the administration believes needs no congressional approval.  In the months and years ahead we’ll see more of the same. Data thefts (OPM, health records), leaks on a large scale, terror attacks, drone warfare, SOF raids.  Daggers in the dark reported as happenstance.  In a word, more of everything that makes up the modern headline.

The Panama papers opens up a brief glimpse into the way the modern world works.  It is a ,world divided into the Republic of Money — and the great unconnected.  In the ROM the powerful (however they obtain their fortunes) live according to rules few of us understand and contend in ways calculated never to do each other harm.  The harm is for the peons; the guys who fight the war in secret, who get unemployed in secret and who keep looking under the shells, little realizing that it is missing peas, not peace that is the opposite of war.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter.


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