30 Jul 2022  |   06:30am IST

Panama Papers whistleblower exposes Putin playbook of using shell companies to fund his war

The Panama Papers leak is in many ways bigger than Water Gate, and John Doe is the modern-day ‘Deep Throat’. But his fears are much more, and says he will reveal himself only on his death bed

Sujay Gupta

The “person” behind the biggest information leak of this century, the Panama papers spoke very recently, for the first time to two German reporters Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, who now work for Germany’s Der Spiegel.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, (ICIJ) and The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) have extensively decoded this, primarily due to the alarming facts that Whistleblower who calls him/her self John Doe has revealed, putting Russian President  Vladamir Putin as the source of alarm and fear.

ICIJ states “To ensure anonymity, the Der Spiegel reporters spoke to John Doe on an internet call, using software that read out the whistleblower’s answers”, thereby masking his gender and his voice

The reasons why one chose this column space to focus on the interview are threefold. Firstly, Putin has made the theater of war and territorial dominance not as a Ukraine take-over project but introduced as a trailer to his war playbook. Second, the big takeaway is that Putin having access to a bottomless pit of funds through shell companies could make him the pivot many of the world leaders may leverage. This, in turn, could lead to indirect control over world markets economies trade, and corporate governance across countries. The alarm hit home when John Doe said he is in serious danger of being killed and cited the murders of investigative journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak as the par-for-the-course treatment of anyone who came in the way of reporting and exposing this playbook prematurely.

Speaking with German reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier in his first interview since 2016, John Doe, and said he still “feared retribution for his part in exposing the financial secrets of some of the world’s most powerful and dangerous people”

“It’s a risk that I live with, given that the Russian government has expressed the fact that it wants me dead,” he said in the interview, conducted for German news outlet DER SPIEGEL. Putin clearly is and  will be the centrist figure in a world order whose lines will be drawn by him


And why does Doe fear Putin before anyone else? Read and absorb this. After Russia attacked Ukraine it aired a two-part Panama Papers docudrama featuring a "John Doe" character who suffered a torture-induced head injury during the opening credits, after which a cartoon boat sailed through the pool of his blood, as though it were the Panama Canal.


“Putin is more of a threat to the United States than Hitler ever was, and shell companies are his best friend,” he said. “Shell companies funding the Russian military are what kill innocent civilians in Ukraine as Putin’s missiles target shopping centers.”

Far from Putin running out of money, Doe says that the “secretive financial system that props up autocrats and enables people like Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch a war in Ukraine with little accountability”

John Doe first reached out to Obermayer, then a reporter with Süddeutsche Zeitung, in 2015 and offered a trove of data from inside Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that specialist zed in setting up offshore companies in tax havens. 

This was shared by ICIJ, which brought together more than 370 journalists from all around the world to investigate the 11.5 million-file dataset — one of the largest leaks of financial data in history. ICIJ writes “That became known as the Panama Papers was published in April 2016, and quickly became the most talked-about story in the world. Investigations from more than 100 media outlets exposed the secret offshore dealings of 140 politicians, as well as a bevy of celebrities, criminals and more, including some of Putin’s closest allies. Within hours protests had broken out on the streets of multiple countries, and the ensuing scandal led to the ouster of numerous officials and leaders, including the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan. Authorities around the world have launched hundreds of investigations, and have clawed back more than $1.36 billion in lost tax revenue as a result.

Clearly, for us journalists who are from the post-Watergate era, the Panama Papers is our Watergate. Here’s why (excerpt from the John Doe interview)

DER SPIEGEL: Many experts compare the Panama Papers with Watergate. The most important Watergate source was Associate FBI Director Mark Felt, who went under the name "Deep Throat" and finally revealed his identity 33 years after Watergate …

Doe: I have thought about Mark Felt from time to time and the types of risks he faced. My risk profile looks a bit different than his. I may have to wait until I'm on my death bed.

DER SPIEGEL: Why is that?

Doe: The Panama Papers involve so many different transnational criminal organizations, some of them with links to governments, that it's difficult to imagine how it could ever be safe to identify myself. Felt primarily had to worry about Richard Nixon and his cronies, and Nixon resigned just a little more than two years after the break-in, rendering him powerless. Even in 50 years, it's likely some of the groups I worry about will still be with us.

He chillingly outlines why the western world took far too long to understand the danger Putin possesses “I think the Western world viewed Vladimir Putin as a nuisance for a long time, but one that they could control with economic incentives. Obviously, that has not worked. It would take a truly extraordinary effort, a kind of modern-day Manhattan Project, where the goal would be the untangling of the enigmas of the offshore world. Certainly, the computational capacity to do this exists. The question is whether the political will does. So far, I have not seen much evidence.

ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle said post this interview, quite easily the most significant  of the year and perhaps even this era “Stories like the Panama Papers and Pandora Papers have brought global scrutiny to a secretive financial system that has thrived in the shadows for far too long”

Stressing the need for collaborative journalism across the world he said “ICIJ’s model brings together hundreds of the world’s best reporters to do what authorities can sometimes struggle to pull off — meaningful, unfettered collaboration across borders. Reporters working together can expose wrongdoing in a way that has a genuine impact and gives the world an opportunity to right wrongs and change things for the better.”


Idhar Udhar