BEING FRANK: Pulling off the biggest whistleblower leak
As published in Malay Mail today
By Frankie D'Cruz
Anonymous whistleblower: Hello, this is John Doe. Interested in data? Newspaper: We’re very interested.
That cryptic message from a source to Munich-based newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, led to a massive data leak implicating the world’s ultra rich who are playing by different rules.
The murky offshore money and transactions linked to a cagey and highly influential Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, provided an insight into global corruption and secrets of the rich and powerful.
So, how did reporters pull off the Panama Papers, the biggest leak in whistleblower history?
Pause. When Daniel Ellsberg photocopied and leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, those 7,000 pages of top secret Vietnam War documents represented what was then the biggest whistleblower leak in history — a couple dozen megabytes if it were contained in a modern text file.
Almost four decades later, WikiLeaks in 2010 published Cablegate, a world-shaking, 1.73 gigabyte collection of classified US State Department communications that was almost a hundred times bigger.
Now, the world is grappling with a whistleblower mega leak on a scale never seen before: 2.6 terabytes, well over a thousand-fold larger — pretty much every document from the law firm over 40 years.
Last Sunday, more than 100 media outlets worldwide, coordinated by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), released stories on the Panama Papers, a gargantuan collection of leaked documents exposing a widespread system of global tax evasion.
The leak includes a trove of more than 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files and 2.1 million PDFs from Mossack Fonseca.
The whistleblower apparently contacted Süddeutsche Zeitung a year ago because the newspaper had worked on several investigations into tax evasion and money laundering scandals.
A Suddeutsche Zeitung reporter, Bastian Obermayer, says that the source contacted him via encrypted chat offering some sort of data intended “to make these crimes public.”
But the source warned that his or her “life is in danger,” was only willing to communicate via encrypted channels, and refused to meet in person.
In the months that followed, the confidential source fed Süddeutsche’s reporters a steady stream of emails, scanned letters, photographs and client data ripped from the servers of Mossack Fonseca, that has been dogged for decades by investigations into its suspected connections to money laundering.
The German reporters worked for more than two months verifying the documents were genuine and trying to unravel the complex web of secret transactions.
But the sheer volume of data contained in the initial batch soon overwhelmed the newspaper’s five-person investigation team.
The paper turned for help to ICIJ, which had coordinated several previous global projects on financial data leaks.
Within weeks, ICIJ assembled an army of about 400 journalists from more than 100 news organisations in 80 countries.
Many of the same journalists had collaborated with the centre before on investigations into tax havens including the “Swiss Leaks” project in 2015 and the “Lux Leaks” series a year earlier.
The media partners dissected the mountain of data the Süddeutsche journalists received in several batches, each of which were forwarded to a secure ICIJ server.
The project was codenamed “Prometheus” after the Titan from Greek mythology who stole the secret of fire from the gods.
The constant stream of new material meant that reporters were regularly relying on each other to help them keep track of new details.
With such a large number of people trolling through the same database, the partners needed to agree early on with a common strategy for collaboration and for parsing out the research, as well as a joint promise to hold off on publishing until everyone was ready.
The partners held a series of secret meetings, some of which involved more than 100 people.
The first took place at a rented room of the National Press Club in Washington in June, followed by others in Munich, London and Lillehammer, Norway.
“The danger was always that if something happened in the world and the reporters in that country would get terribly excited and want to publish right away,” ICIJ director Gerard Ryle said.
About a dozen staffers at ICIJ, plus freelancers, devoted themselves entirely to the project, building the tools used by its partners while also preparing a dozen or so of its own stories on the leak.
Ryle and his deputy, Marina Walker Guevara, were in near-constant communication with what had become a sprawling team.
“This was not a story where the documents were the whole story,” Ryle said in an interview. “You had to work for it, you had to go outside of the documents. You could see a window, but you had go out and look.”
ICIJ made a number of powerful research tools available to the consortium that the group had developed for previous leak investigations.
Those included a secure, Facebook-type forum where reporters could post the fruits of their research, as well as database search programme called “Blacklight” that allowed the teams to hunt for specific names, countries or sources.
While the original documents were written in 25 different languages, most of the communication on the forum took place in English.
Each news organisation took their own precautions, restricting access to the secure computers that were used to connect to ICIJ’s servers and ensuring these were not accessible through their newsrooms’ regular networks.
Once specific names were found in the database, reporters dug deeper for any clues that might connect those individuals with a shell company, a bank account, or an ever-widening cast of characters.
News organisations used the Mossack Fonseca documents to expose the offshore accounts of political figures in countries like France, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as several international film stars and sports luminaries.
By Tuesday, the disclosures had already claimed their first high-level political victim. Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland announced his resignation after revelations he and his wife were clients of the Panamanian firm.
Many rich and powerful people who have accumulated a lot of wealth must be having a spasm of panic about now.
They are realising their banking secrets are not safe and email is not a private medium.
But beyond those revelations, and there will likely be more as the reporting around the Panama Papers continues, the leak represents an unprecedented story in itself — how an anonymous whistleblower was able to spirit out and sneakily send journalists a gigantic collection of files.
Is this a new golden age for investigative journalism? Is the new era of mega leaks underway?
FRANKIE is editor emeritus of Malay Mail. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dcruzfrankie