By Carey Wedler
A former Swiss banker-turned-whistleblower has accused the CIA of playing a key role the Panama Papers leak, which implicated numerous foreign leaders, companies, organizations and individuals in offshore tax evasion, among other offenses. Bradley Birkenfeld, a former American banker for Swiss firm UBS, told CNBC “the CIA I’m sure is behind this, in my opinion,” in an interviewconducted Tuesday from Munich.
Birkenfeld originally blew the whistle on American tax evaders using Swiss bank accounts to divert their funds away from the reach of U.S. authorities. He served two-and-a-half years for his involvement and was released from prison in 2012. Pursuant to whistleblower policy, Birkenfeld was awarded $104 million of the $780 million settlement UBS was forced to pay as a result of his cooperation with authorities. Since his release from prison in 2012, he has said he wants “to force the government to explain why it was so aggressive in prosecuting him, but let nearly everyone else involved in the scam get off with light penalties or none at all.”
Focusing on the CIA on Tuesday, Birkenfeld was careful to note his comments were his “opinion,” but nonetheless offered strong observations on the scope of the data leak, which is the biggest in history.
“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 U.S. name. Why is that?” Birkenfeld said. “Quite frankly, my feeling is that this is certainly an intelligence agency operation.”
Asked why a U.S. spy agency would release information that damages U.S. allies, like David Cameron, Birkenfeld said he was likely “collateral damage” in the purported overarching scheme to smear American adversaries.
He suggested the CIA had a calculated role in the way the leak was presented to the public:
“If you’ve got NSA and CIA spying on foreign governments they can certainly get into a law firm like this,” Birkenfeld said. “But they selectively bring the information to the public domain that doesn’t hurt the U.S. in any shape or form. That’s wrong. And there’s something seriously sinister here behind this.”
Birkenfeld’s comments seem even more perceptive considering German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported Tuesday that “secret agents and their informants have made wide use of [Mossack Fonseca’s] services,” as translated by Raw Story. Sueddeutsche Zeitung originally received the leaked data from an anonymous whistleblower before handing it over to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
“Agents have opened shell companies to conceal their activities… Among them are close intermediaries of the CIA,” the German publication noted. Other individuals reportedly mentioned in the leaks included players in the infamous 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, in which the CIA was involved. The Iran-Contra scheme involved the U.S. selling weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, then using the profits to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.
Though the CIA was not explicitly named in Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s report, their “intermediaries” were. Regardless, these revelations taken alongside Birkenfeld’s suspicions can mean one of two things: either Birkenfeld is wrong, or the CIA actually is involved with the Panama Papers and considered reports on their “intermediaries” to be “collateral damage,” as Birkenfeld suggested of Cameron.
Regardless, the Panama Papers leak has faced scrutiny beyond Birkenfeld’s. Wikileaks has called on the ICIJ to make all data from the 11,500 leaked pages available to the public.
Wikileaks also said, “If you censor more than 99% of the documents you are engaged in 1% journalism by definition.”
Gerard Ryle, Director of the ICIJ, has said, “We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly,” and the ICIJ has noted it will not release all of the data. However, it will continue to release parts of the leak in the coming months.
Wikileaks also took to Twitter to accuse the ICIJ of being a “Washington DC based Ford, Soros funded soft-power tax-dodge” that “has a WikiLeaks problem.”
Further, the publishing organization accused ICIJ and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, with whom ICIJ shared the data, of launching an attack against Russian president Vladimir Putin:
“Putin attack was produced by OCCRP which targets Russia & former USSR and was funded by USAID & Soros,” Wikileaks tweeted. Another Twitter post later clarified the Panama Papers were not an “attack” against Putin, but that “DC organization [ICIJ] & USAID money tilt coverage.” USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been previously accused of corruption. Billionaire George Soros has been accused of influencing narratives in the mainstream media.
Regardless of who was behind the leak — and who may or may not be clandestinely pulling the strings on the flow of information — the CIA has faced similar accusations of media manipulation before. Otto Ulfkotte, the former editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a large German publication, said he was bribed by the CIA to write pro-American stories.
“It is not right what I have done in the past. To manipulate people and make propaganda,” he said in 2014. “I was bribed by billionaires, I was bribed by the Americans not to report exactly the truth.” Explaining how this relationship began, he said:
“Germany is still kind of a colony of the United States… And being a colony it is very easy to approach young journalists from transatlantic organizations.”
Noting that “all journalists from really respected and recommended big German newspapers” tend to be members of such transatlantic organizations, he said:
“They invite you [to see] the U.S. They pay for that, they pay all your expenses and everything, so you are bribed, you get more and more corrupt, because they make you good contacts. You won’t know that those good contacts are, let’s say, ‘non-official’ covers or officially people working for Central Intelligence Agency or other American intelligence agencies… so you make friends, you think you are friends, and you cooperate with them. They ask you, ‘Well, could you do me this favor? Could you do me that favor?’ And so your brain is more and more brainwashed.”
He said many reporters in countries around the world “play the [role of] respected journalists but if you look behind them you’ll find they are puppets on the string of the CIA.”
Though some may discount Ulfkotte’s account because it was not corroborated by a third party — and the interview aired on Russia Today, Russia’s state-funded news agency — the CIA has been known to work with other newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, to manipulate news stories in their favor.
Regardless of whether or not Birkenfeld is correct in his assessment of the CIA’s role in the leaks, his statements on CNBC provide, at the very least, cause for continued skepticism among the many interests and motivations driving the ongoing leak.