Panama Papers: Links revealed to spies and Iran-Contra affair
Documents show ex-CIA gun-runners, contractors use offshore firms for personal gain
Adnan Khashoggi: Saudi billionaire negotiated billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and played “a central role for the US government” with CIA operatives in selling guns to Iran, according to a 1992 US Senate report co-written by then-Senator John Kerry, now the US secretary of state. Photograph: Getty Images
One day during his presidential re-election campaign in September 1996, Bill Clinton walked into a room in Westin Crown Center hotel in Kansas City. At stake was a quarter-million dollars in campaign fundraising. Clinton turned to his generous host, Farhad Azima, and led the guests in song.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you....”
Azima, an Iranian-born American charter airline executive, had long donated to Democratic and Republican administrations. He visited the Clinton White House 10 times between October 1995 and December 1996, including private afternoon coffees with the president. Years later, as Hillary Clinton stood for election to the Senate in December 1999, Azima hosted her and 40 guests for a private dinner that raised $2,500 a head.
Azima’s Democratic fundraising activities provided an interesting twist in the career of a man who has found himself in a media storm of one of America’s major political scandals, the Iran-Contra affair, during the Republican Reagan Administration.
In the mid-1980s, senior Reagan administration officials secretly arranged to sell weapons to Iran to help free seven American hostages then use the sale proceeds to fund right-wing Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras. On a mission to Tehran in 1985, one of Azima’s Boeing 707 cargo planes delivered 23 tons of military equipment, the New York Times reported. Azima has always claimed to know nothing about the flight or even if it happened.
“I’ve had nothing to do with Iran-Contra,” Azima told ICIJ. “I was investigated by every known agency in the US and they decided there was absolutely nothing there,” said Azima. “It was a wild goose chase. The law enforcement and regulators fell for it.”
Now, records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media partners including The Irish Times reveal new details about one of America’s most colourful political donors. The records also disclose offshore deals made by another Iran-Contra figure, the Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi.
The more than 11 million documents – which stretch from 1977 to December 2015 – show the inner workings of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that specializes in building labyrinthine corporate structures that sometimes blur the line between legitimate business and the cloak-and-dagger world of international espionage.
Spies’ Offshore Dealings
The documents also pull back the curtain on hundreds of details about how former CIA gun-runners and contractors use offshore companies for personal and private gain. Further, they illuminate the workings of a host of other characters who used offshore companies during or after their work as spy chiefs, secret agents or operatives for the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
“You can’t exactly walk around saying that you’re a spy,” says Loch K Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia, in explaining the cover that offshore firms offer. Johnson, a former aide to a US Senate committee’s intelligence inquiries, has spent decades studying CIA “front” companies.
The documents reveal that Mossack Fonseca’s clients included Saudi Arabia’s first intelligence chief who was named by a US Senate committee as the CIA’s “principal liaison for the entire the Middle East from the mid-1960s through 1979”, Sheikh Kamal Adham, who controlled offshore companies later involved in a US banking scandal; Colombia’s former chief of air intelligence, retired maj gen Ricardo Rubianogroot, who was a shareholder of an aviation and logistics company; and Brig Gen Emmanuel Ndahiro, doctor-turned-spy-chief to Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame.
Adham died in 1999. Ndahiro did not respond to requests for comment. Rubianogroot confirmed to ICIJ partner and Colombian investigative journalism organisation, Consejo de Redacción, that he was a small shareholder in West Tech Panama, which was created to buy an American avionics company. The company is in liquidation.
“We conduct thorough due diligence on all new and prospective clients that often exceeds in stringency the existing rules and standards to which we and others are bound,” said Mossack Fonseca in a statement. “Many of our clients come through established and reputable law firms and financial institutions across the world, including the major correspondent banks . . . If a new client/entity is not willing and/or able to provide to us the appropriate documentation indicating who they are, and (when applicable) from where their funds are derived, we will not work with that client/entity.”
Even wannabe spooks can be found.
“I’ll suggest a name like ‘World Insurance Services Limited’ or maybe ‘Universal Exports’ after the company used in the early James Bond stories but I don’t know if we’d get away with that!” wrote one financier to Mossack Fonseca in 2010 on behalf of a client creating a front company in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Universal Exports was a fictional company used by the British Secret Service in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
The files further show that Mossack Fonseca also incorporated companies named Goldfinger, SkyFall, GoldenEye, Moonraker, Spectre and Blofeld after James Bond movie titles and villains and was asked to do the same for Octopussy. There is correspondence from a man named Austin Powers, apparently his real name and not the movie character, and Jack Bauer, whom a Mossack Fonseca employee entered into the firm’s database as a client and not the television character after the employee “met him at a pub.”
But Mossack Fonseca’s connection to espionage is more often fact, not fiction.
Men in their flying machines
The secret documents show that Farhad Azima incorporated his first offshore company with Mossack Fonseca in the BVI in 2000. The company was called ALG (Asia & Pacific) Limited, a branch of his airline Aviation Leasing Group, a US-based private company with a fleet of more than 60 aircraft.
It was not until 2013 when the firm ran a routine background search on the shareholders of a new company that Mossack Fonseca discovered media articles on Azima’s alleged ties to the CIA. Among the allegations found in online articles shared by Mossack Fonseca employees were that he “supplied air and logistical support” to a company owned by former CIA agents who shipped arms to Libya. Another article quoted an FBI official who said he had been warned by the CIA that Azima was “off limits”.
The firm asked Azima’s representatives to confirm his identity. But it appears that Mossack Fonseca never received a reply. The files indicate that he remained a client and that internal surprises continued.
In 2014, one year after discovering online reports of his connections to the CIA, Hosshang Hosseinpour was cited by the US Treasury Department as helping companies move tens of millions of dollars for companies in Iran, which at the time was subject to economic sanctions.
The files show that Azima and Hosseinpour appeared on corporate documents of a company that planned to buy a hotel in the nation of Georgia in 2011. That was the same year treasury officials asserted that Hosseinpour, who co-founded the private airline FlyGeorgia, and two others first began to send millions of dollars into Iran, which led to sanctions being taken against him three years later.
The documents show that Hosseinpour briefly held shares in the company from November 2011. However, in February 2012 company administrators told Mossack Fonseca that he was not part of the company and his shares had been issued in an “administrative error”. The company, Eurasia Hotel Holdings Limited, changed its name to Eurasia Aviation Holdings and bought a Hawker Beechcraft 400XP corporate jet in 2012 for $1.625 million, files show.
Azima told ICIJ that the company was only used to buy an aircraft and that Hosseinpour had never been involved in the company.
The plane was not going to be used in the US, Azima said, so couldn’t be registered in the US and the choice of the BVI was not for tax purposes. “I’ve filed every tax known to mankind,” Azima told ICIJ.
Hosseinpour could not be reached for comment. In 2013, before the sanctions came into force, he told the Wall Street Journal that he had no connections to Iran and “nothing to do with evading sanctions.”
Another colourful connection to the CIA in the Mossack Fonseca files is Loftur Johannesson, now a wealthy silver-haired 85-year-old from Rekyavik, also known as The Icelander. Johannesson is widely reported in books and newspaper articles to have worked with the CIA in the 1970s and 1980s, supplying guns to anti-communist guerrillas in Afghanistan. With his CIA paychecks, The Icelander reportedly bought a home in Barbados and a vineyard in France.
Johannesson emerges in Mossack Fonseca’s files in September 2002, long after his retirement from secret service. He was connected to at least four offshore companies in the BVI and Panama linked to homes in high-priced locales, including one located behind London’s Westminster Cathedral and another in a beachfront Barbados complex where a similar home is now selling for $35 million. As recently as January 2015, Johannesson paid thousands of dollars to Mossack Fonseca for its services.
“Mr Johannesson has been an international businessman, mainly in aviation related activities, and he completely rejects your suggestions that he may have worked for any secret intelligence agencies,” a spokesman told ICIJ.
Agent Rocco and 008: license to incorporate
Another connection to the Iran-Contra scandal is Adnan Khashoggi. The Saudi billionaire, once thought to be the world’s most extravagant spender, negotiated billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and played “a central role for the US government” with CIA operatives in selling guns to Iran, according to a 1992 US Senate report co-written by then-Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is now the US secretary of state.
Khashoggi appears in the Mossack Fonseca files as early as 1978, when he became president of the Panamanian company ISIS Overseas S.A. Most of his business with Mossack Fonseca appears to have taken place between the 1980s and the 2000s through at least four other companies.
Mossack Fonseca’s files do not reveal the purpose of all Khashoggi’s companies. However, two of them, Tropicterrain SA, Panama, and Beachview Inc, were involved in mortgages for homes in Spain and the Grand Canaries islands.
There is no indication that Mossack Fonseca investigated Khashoggi’s past even though the firm processed payments from the Adnan Khashoggi Group in the same year that he made global news when the US charged him with helping Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines, loot millions. Khashoggi was later cleared. Mossack Fonseca’s files show the firm ceased business with Khashoggi around 2003.
The Mossack Fonseca files indicated the company did not discriminate between cold war foes.
Another customer was Sokratis Kokkalis, now a 76-year-old Greek billionaire once accused of spying for the East German Stasi under the alias “Agent Rocco.” A German parliamentary investigation found that in the early 1960s Kokkalis regularly informed on acquaintances and contacts during his time living in Germany and Russia. Until 2010, Kokkalis owned the Greek soccer club Olympiakos, and he now owns Greece’s largest telecommunications company.
Mossack Fonseca discovered Kokkalis’s connections to espionage in February 2015 as part of routine background checks of one of his companies, Upton International Group. Kokkalis “was accused by East German officials of espionage, fraud, and money laundering in the early sixties, but the case was acquitted”, an employee wrote colleagues after an Internet search. Mossack Fonseca’s files reveal that Kokkalis’ agent did not respond to the firm’s requests for details about Kokkalis and his company, including its purpose.
Khashoggi could not be reached for comment. Kokkalis, who did not respond to requests for comment, has previously denied charges and accused “political personalities” and newspapers of a “war” against him.
In 2005, Mossack Fonseca employees learned with some alarm that someone on their books went by the name of Francisco P Sánchez, who Mossack Fonseca employees assumed to be Francisco Paesa Sánchez, one of Spain’s most infamous secret agents. “The story . . . was really scary,” wrote the person who first discovered Paesa’s background. Mossack Fonseca had incorporated seven companies of which P Sanchez was a director.
Born in Madrid before the outbreak of the second World War, Paesa amassed a fortune hunting down separatists and a corrupt police chief before fleeing Spain with millions of dollars. In 1998, Paesa faked his own death; his family issued a death certificate that testified to a heart attack in Thailand. But in 2004, investigators tracked him down in Luxembourg. Paesa himself later explained that reports of his death had been a “misunderstanding”.
In December 2005, a Spanish magazine reported on what it called Paesa’s “business network” that built and owned hotels, casinos and a golf course in Morocco. Without mentioning Mossack Fonseca, the article listed the same seven companies incorporated in the BVI.
In October 2005, Mossack Fonseca had decided to distance itself from the companies of which P Sanchez was a director. “We are concern [sic] of the impact it may have in Mossfon’s image if any scandal arises,” the firm wrote an administrator to explain its decision to cut ties with P Sanchez’s companies.
“We believe in principle that when a client is not up front with us about any facts that are relevant for his or her dealings with us, especially their true identity and background, that this is sufficient reason to terminate our relationship with them,” wrote a senior employee.
Paesa could not be reached for comment.
Two Names, Nine Fingers
Another Internet search, this time in March 2015, alerted the firm that another of its clients – a “Claus Mollner” – had been a customer for nearly 30 years. Among unrelated results from Facebook, a family tree or two and an academic linguistic review, there was one article from the University of Delaware.
“Claus Möllner (the name that Werner Mauss always used to identify himself),” said the article.
Mollner or Mauss, also known as Agent 008 and “The Man of Nine Fingers,” thanks to the lost tip of an index finger, claims to be “Germany’s first undercover agent.” Now retired, Mauss’s website boasts of his role in “smashing 100 criminal groups”.
Colombian authorities briefly held Mauss in 1996 on charges, later dropped, that he conspired with guerillas to kidnap a woman and keep part of the ransom payment. Mauss claims the hostage takers were not rebels, that he never received ransom money and that “all operations carried out worldwide . . . have always been effected with the co-operation of German governmental agencies and authorities”.
While Mauss’s real name never appears in Mossack Fonseca’s files, hundreds of documents detail his network of companies in Panama. At least two companies held real estate in Germany.
Mauss did not personally own any offshore companies, Mauss’s lawyer told ICIJ partners Suddeutsche Zeitung and NDR public television. All companies and foundations connected to him were to “secure the personal financial interests of the Mauss family”, said Mauss’s lawyer, were disclosed and paid applicable taxes.
Mauss’s lawyer confirmed that some companies that appear in Mossack Fonseca’s files were used for “humanitarian operations” in peace and hostage negotiations “for forwarding of humanitarian goods such as hospitals, surgical instruments, large amounts of antibiotics etc”, in order to “neutralize” extortion.
In the files it appears that in March 2015, a Mossack Fonseca employee clicked on the Google search result that linked Mollner to Mauss. Yet there is no other suggestion that Mossack Fonseca discovered his true identity. His companies continued to be on Mossack Fonseca’s books into 2015.
It probably suited Mollner, or Mauss, just fine.
As a journalist who interviewed him in 1998 observed: “The secret of his real identity was always Werner Mauss’s capital.”