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Journalist Explains How Panama Papers Opened Up The World's Illicit Money Networks


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Before Donald Trump was elected president, some of his business partners on Trump-branded hotels and condos and the Miss Universe pageant were oligarchs from Russia and former Soviet bloc countries who kept a lot of their money hidden in the secret world of shell companies. Those business partnerships are the subject of the final chapter of my guest, Jake Bernstein's new book, "Secrecy World."

The book is about illicit money networks and the global elite. A lot of the book is based on the Panama Papers, the 11.5 million documents leaked to journalists from a law firm in Panama that created shell companies in which large corporations and wealthy individuals from around the world parked their money out of the view of their governments and their governments' tax collectors. To dig through and report on these pages, a group of 300 reporters from six continents worked together through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Bernstein was a senior reporter with the Consortium, and before that worked at ProPublica. This month, the Consortium broke another story, the so-called Paradise Papers. These are leaked documents from a law firm in Bermuda that created shell companies. Among the people whose offshore interests are revealed in these documents are 13 Trump administration members, advisers and major donors.

Jake Bernstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start by just pulling back a little bit. What's the purpose of the offshore accounts that have been revealed in the Paradise and Panama Papers?

JAKE BERNSTEIN: I mean, ultimately the purpose is secrecy. The purpose is to hide your activities or your money and to take advantage of certain benefits that you get from having stuff offshore, having anonymous companies. These are - there are tax benefits. There are benefits that one gets from being able to move money around in sort of secret ways. And so that's - ultimately, it's about tax avoidance or tax evasion and keeping your activities - your business activities - secret.

GROSS: Especially if they're illegal activities.

BERNSTEIN: Yes - very helpful to keep those secret.

GROSS: So these are called shell companies. What does that mean?

BERNSTEIN: Well, shell companies are - the idea is that this is an empty shell. So you get a name - a company name, and you create this entity. And you can do with it whatever you want. You can fill it with money or with, you know, different activities. It's basically like a vehicle that you can use to do all kinds of things.

GROSS: So it's almost like an investment vehicle or, like, a hidden bank account with the name of a company?

BERNSTEIN: Well, it's interesting that you say that because, really, these companies are not terribly useful unless you have a bank account attached to them. So a lot of, you know, secret bank accounts also have anonymous shell companies. They're opened by anonymous shell companies. And in fact someone told me during the course of research on this book that in Cyprus, for example, they would actually sell companies with bank accounts attached to them so that you wouldn't even need to open a bank account because your anonymous shell company would come with a bank account already ready to go.

GROSS: Kind of like one-stop shopping.

BERNSTEIN: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: So why is it important to uncover? And I'm asking you this as a journalist. Why is it important to uncover these hidden companies and hidden money?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I mean, the reality is that we're living with the consequences of this secrecy world, all of us, all the time. You know, the richest 1 percent of the world's population now owns more than half of all global wealth, and that income growth has not been equal, right? The fortunes of billionaires have grown by an average of 7, 8 percent a year, while total wealth has grown at just 3 percent. And part of the reason is this secrecy world. And the people who use the secrecy world live by different rules. You know, as Leona Helmsley infamously said, we don't pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes. And this global elite lives by this different set of rules than the rest of us. You know, and they can do so because of the secrecy world. So most people are largely oblivious to it, and that's by design.

You know, the United States loses something like $70 billion a year due to the shifting of corporate taxes to tax havens. And that's money that could go to schools that could go to infrastructure. I could go to police. It could go to health care. But it's not. Instead, it's disappearing in the Caymans or the Bahamas or Bermuda or places like that.

GROSS: So you reported on the Panama Papers as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Your new book is about the Panama Papers. And these are the shell companies that were - I don't know what word to use - run by, sold by, hidden by a company known as MossFon. Like, what is - what word should I use? The language here is going to be very...

BERNSTEIN: ...Created by?

GROSS: ...Created by - the language is going to be very confounding to me. So bear with me on this.

BERNSTEIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: OK. So they were created by MossFon. So what is MossFon?

BERNSTEIN: Mossack Fonseca was a law firm. It was created by these two guys, Ramon Fonseca and Jurgen Mossack. And they were based in Panama. They're lawyers. And they really were sort of audacious in their approach. They wanted to make anonymous companies available to the masses, sort of - they saw themselves in a way as a kind of McDonald's for the offshore world - you know, cheap products at high volume. And they succeeded. I mean, they ended up flooding the world with more than 200,000 companies.

GROSS: So now we've been reading about the Paradise Papers. These are the papers that were leaked from another law firm that created a lot of shell companies, not nearly as many as MossFon did. But what's the difference between the Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers?

BERNSTEIN: Well, at the firm that's at the center of the Paradise Papers is a firm called Appleby Global. It's based in the Bahamas. And they were a little bit more professional than MossFon. Their client was a little bit more high-end. They were more sophisticated. And they didn't skirt the law quite as much as Mossack Fonseca did. So there's a lot more Americans who used Appleby in part because Appleby is based in Bermuda, which is sort of culturally more acceptable, I think, to the Americans than Panama was - which is where Mossack Fonseca was based. But essentially, they're doing the same thing, you know? They're using the offshore world to hide money, to move it around, to avoid taxes. You know, it's the same MO.

GROSS: Can I ask you, before we get to more details, to basically do a roll call of some of the names and some of the corporations - some of the individuals and corporations who hid a lot of money in these offshore accounts?

BERNSTEIN: It's an extraordinary who's who of the powerful and the wealthy. So for example, in the Panama Papers, you have the prime ministers of Iceland and of Pakistan. You had, in Spain, the ministry of - the minister of industry. You had the children of the president of Azerbaijan. And then you had all these incredibly wealthy people. For example, in the Paradise Papers, you have Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce for Donald Trump. You had major corporations like Apple and Nike. So there's all kinds of people who use this system. But primarily, it's for the very wealthy or multinational corporations.

GROSS: And go deeper into the Trump administration - again, just a roll call of people who have had these offshore accounts that were uncovered in the Paradise or Panama Papers.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, it's quite interesting because - and in some ways not terribly surprising, the people who use this world are real estate developers. They're hedge fund managers. They're private equity investors. And those are people who either did business with Donald Trump or were campaign contributors. So you have the Mercers - show up in the Paradise Papers and other big donors such as Steve Wynn, the head of the Golden Nugget. And then you have Sheldon Adelson who is a big Trump supporter and mega-gambling tycoon.

And then you also have all of these people who actually did business with Donald Trump. And what's so remarkable about the constellation of Trump's business partners found in these leaks, you know, as well as the people connected to his family, funders and campaign staff, is how much they all have in common. You know, they all seem to embrace a sort of dynastic approach. You know, accumulate as much money and power as possible and then hand it off to your children.

So a great example are the Mammadovs in Azerbaijan. You know, the son, Anar, started a company while he was still a teenager and a full-time student in London. And then it grows huge on no-bid contracts from the Azerbaijani transport ministry, which happens to be run by his father, the minister of transportation. You know, and pretty soon, they've cornered the market on taxis and buses. And they didn't discriminate when it came to making money. They did hotel deals with Donald Trump and worked with a former general in the Iranian national guard.

You know, and then you have the Agalarovs, who were Russian father and son real estate developers who were Trump business partners on the beauty pageant in Moscow. The younger Agalarov was married for a time to the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan, who along with her siblings racked up an impressive string of monopolies in banking and communications in Azerbaijan and real estate holdings that were held through this secret offshore system.

And these are kind of - it's almost better to think of these as mergers than marriages, right? So, you know, Kirill Shamalov, who became one of the world's youngest billionaires overnight after marrying Vladimir Putin's daughter, went to do business with a shipping company that was secretly owned by Wilbur Ross, Trump's commerce secretary. So it's interesting. There's a lot of Putin connections in both of these leaks.

GROSS: These things seem just so interconnected in complicated, fascinating ways.

BERNSTEIN: It really is in sort of oligarch nation.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BERNSTEIN: You know, these people are very much connected in this place that doesn't respect or follow national rules, you know? They live on their private jets, and they have places in Paris and London and Miami and New York. And they're not bound by the rules that the rest of us are bound by. And they can do all of this because they're funneling their assets through these tax havens, through Bermuda, through the British Virgin Islands. And so they're not really beholden to the countries in which they're born and where they make their fortunes.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Jake Bernstein. And his new book is called "Secrecy World: Inside The Panama Papers Investigation Of Illicit Money Networks And The Global Elite." And he was a senior reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which did the Panama Papers investigation. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jake Bernstein, author of the new book "Secrecy World: Inside The Panama Papers Investigation Of Illicit Money Networks And The Global Elite." And Bernstein was a senior reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. And this is the group that was leaked the Panama Papers. And these were papers from a law firm based in Panama that created a lot of shell companies and secret accounts that housed money in secret. And this is money from companies and leaders from around the world.

A new leak of papers from a different law firm that created a lot of shell companies, a law firm that was based in Bermuda, revealed a lot of secret offshore accounts from American corporations and individuals. And those papers are known as the Paradise Papers.

Paul Manafort did have ties to Russian oligarchs who had money in these offshore accounts. So tell us a little bit about that kind of relationship.

BERNSTEIN: So Paul Manafort absolutely used this system. He had bank accounts in Cyprus and in offshore accounts that he was using to sort of funnel money. And according to the Mueller indictment, this was a - money laundering - alleged money laundering. And he was in business with a number of Russian oligarchs - Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who were absolutely, you know, practiced hands at using the secrecy world to move money around and to hide their activities.

And one of them was a guy named Oleg Deripaska, who is a mining magnate in Russia, a billionaire who - very close to Putin - who had business dealings with Manafort and who shows up in both the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. In the Panama Papers he's got companies that are doing mining deals in Africa. And in the Paradise Papers, he's using Appleby Global, the law firm, to avoid taxes on private jets.

So these guys probably use lots of different intermediaries to do their business. They don't just work with one because their businesses are so far-flung, and they have so many companies and are doing so many different things.

GROSS: So did Deripaska have financial relationships with anybody else in the Trump administration?

BERNSTEIN: Well, that's a good question. I mean, I think we're still finding that stuff out. You know, the connections between the Trump administration - I mean, it is the wealthiest cabinet in American history. You know, these people have lots of far-flung business dealings with all kinds of people. And you know, there has been a surprising amount of Russian money that has flowed to Trump cabinet members. So it's entirely possible that Deripaska or others, you know, also had business dealings with other cabinet members. We just don't know.

GROSS: So apparently President Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, did not follow the law in disclosing all his financial dealings because he had secret financial dealings that were revealed in either the Panama or Paradise...

BERNSTEIN: Paradise, Paradise...

GROSS: ...Papers or both - the Paradise Papers.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, the Paradise...

GROSS: So what was revealed there?

BERNSTEIN: You know, it's interesting about Ross because he revealed some of this in his disclosure forms. But they were not truly revealed, right? They were very hard to suss out. You had to know what you were seeing and looking at.

What is - you know, when Ross made a big show in his confirmation hearing of saying that he was going to divest from a lot of his business activities so that there wouldn't be conflicts because he's the secretary of commerce, he's promoting business deals for the United States - and there was concern among U.S. senators in the confirmation process that he would be doing stuff that would directly benefit himself. And what the Paradise Papers show is that he did not divest his holdings in a shipping company. And the shipping company did business with a Russian company that was co-owned by a person who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government and also by Vladimir Putin's son-in-law.

GROSS: Russia again.

BERNSTEIN: Russia again - Russia is like a vein that runs through both the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. Russians have been...

GROSS: And part of the Trump administration.

BERNSTEIN: And part of the Trump administration - yes.

GROSS: Do you think that's in part because the Russian oligarchs have, like, so much money and there's so much criminal activity in Russia and criminal activity inside the world of those oligarchs?

BERNSTEIN: I think part of it is the fact that the Russians have been offshoring for a long time. The - it's important to go back to the fall of the Soviet Union where there was this mad rush for state assets because everything was sort of owned by the state. And the people who ended up with a lot of these state assets were former KGB officers, people like Vladimir Putin and criminals, you know, mafia people. And you had these sort of oligarchs being created almost overnight. And a lot of this money had already been hidden offshore, you know, but it was state money. It was the party's money or the KGB's money. And so they just sort of took it over.

But these guys have been using this secrecy world, I mean, since the Cold War. They're very good at it. And so it's not surprising that they show up in these leaks. It's a little bit more surprising that they show up so much with the Trump administration. And part of that, I think, is just the way Trump and the people around him have operated for years. They have not been particularly discerning about where the money comes for their projects. And they'll do business with anybody.

GROSS: Well - and as you point out in your book about the Panama Papers, it became hard - it became difficult for Donald Trump to get funding from U.S. banks because of his bankruptcies or near bankruptcies and because of all the money he spent in civil suits. So he looked to other places. And I guess Russia was one of those places. The oligarchs were among those people he turned to.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, he absolutely, you know, hungered for that money. And he was doing business with people who were very much in that orbit, you know, people like Tevfik Arif who is - had a company called Bayrock and worked with Trump on the Trump SoHo, which Trump gave naming rights to and did other stuff for you. And Tevfik Arif is a guy who made - his family made their initial fortune the fall of the Soviet Union. They ended up with a bunch of chemical factories that had been privatized.

So, I mean, Trump went where the money was and where people wouldn't ask questions too much. And a lot of that was Soviet bloc - you know, former Soviet bloc money. Now, that becomes a problem later on, of course, when he becomes president of the United States.

GROSS: And because Donald Trump has not released his tax forms, there's a lot we don't know about his finances.

BERNSTEIN: And he's sort of deliberately throughout his career tried to hide his activities. I mean, he admitted on the campaign trail that he had 515 separate companies. And 378 of them were registered in Delaware. So, I mean, he has - you know, like so many people in real estate, they deliberately silo, you know, each business deal, in part for tax avoidance and in part for liability reasons. But it makes it very hard to sort of figure out who they're doing business with and what they're up to.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Bernstein, author of the new book "Secrecy World." After a break, we'll talk more about Donald Trump's business associates whose shell companies were revealed in the Panama Papers. And John Powers will review a new book about the life and work of writer Joseph Conrad. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jake Bernstein. Author of the new book "Secrecy World" about illicit money networks and the global elite. It's based on the Panama Papers, the millions of documents leaked to journalists from a law firm in Panama that created shell companies in which large corporations and wealthy individuals from around the world parked their money out of the view of their governments and tax collectors. The final chapter is about Trump business associates, including Russian oligarchs who had money in these shell companies.

So let's get back to President Trump and his connections with people who have had large secret offshore accounts that were revealed in the Panama Papers, which you wrote this book about. Let's start with Trump SoHo, which was to be a 46-floor hotel and condominium. So who did Donald Trump get funding from for this that had offshore accounts revealed by the Panama Papers?

BERNSTEIN: So the company behind this was called Bayrock. And the person behind Bayrock was Tevfik Arif who is a - originally a Russian guy - Eastern bloc guy who comes to America and starts doing real estate deals. And he had extensive business with Trump. He had - his office is actually in Trump Tower, you know, right below Trump's office in Trump Tower at the very top of the building. And Tevfik Arif is a guy who has some questionable moments in his past, including he was ensnared in a prostitution sting in Turkey that ultimately goes nowhere because none of the young girls would testify. And Arif also received money from a shady Icelandic conglomerate with questionable revenue sources funneled through the secrecy world.

One of the partners of Tevfik Arif is a guy named Felix Sater, who also has an interesting history. He had been prosecuted for mob activities and went to jail for shoving a broken margarita glass in the face of someone in a bar fight. So these were sort of Trump's partners and the quality of Trump's business associates during this period before he's elected president.

GROSS: So how'd he get connected to Bayrock?

BERNSTEIN: I mean, I think that there were people in the former Soviet republics and in Russia who really admired Donald Trump. I mean, it's a sort of similar style of flashy opulence. And they - and it was sort of - you know, the Trump brand became sort of shorthand for a certain kind of wealth that a lot of people in Russia and Eastern Europe and, frankly, in other places around the world aspire to.

So in some ways, it was a very natural marriage. I mean, Trump stopped building buildings himself largely and began to sort of license his name and then sort of run these hotel-condominium projects. And in order to do that, he needed partners who had lots of cash. And these Eastern bloc developers had lots of cash.

The question is sort of where that cash came from. And a lot of it was funneled through the secrecy world, so it was really difficult to know. And I don't think Trump was really asking where the money came from. He didn't care. He now pretends that he didn't know or maybe he never knew. And it just all sort of washed through this offshore system.

GROSS: So another investor in Trump SoHo through Bayrock was Alexander Mashkevich, a Ukrainian billionaire. Who's he?

BERNSTEIN: Alexander Mashkevich is - now sort of claims - even though he was on investor handouts for Trump SoHo, he claims that he never actually invested in it. So that's sort of an open question. But Mashkevich is part of a group of folks who are - do heavy - were heavy into mining in Africa and other places. There was quite a bit of controversy about their activities there. And they were sort of sketchy enough that even Mossack Fonseca had some red flags about their activities and had second thoughts about taking on companies from them. And Mashkevich, ironically, was on the same boat in Turkey with Tevfik Arif during this prostitution sting. Now, both men claim that it was not prostitution. They were just on this boat with a lot of young women. And it was completely, you know, above board, so to speak.

But this is, again, the kind of people that Trump was doing business with in his orbit. And it's these sort of billionaires - you know, Trump is - these are the people that Trump glorifies, you know, the moneyed elite who live by their own rules rather than those agreed upon by society. You know, Trump famously said that avoiding taxes made him smart and that companies should be allowed to commit bribery abroad. You know, he likes these people, you know, and what they represent.

GROSS: So although Donald Trump partnered with oligarchs from the former Soviet bloc for Trump SoHo and got a lot of - you know, a lot of cash involved with that, Trump SoHo never opened. What happened?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, this is interesting and, apparently, still being investigated because there were a number of lawsuits about this. Trump and his daughter Ivanka wildly oversold how well this building was doing. They claim that it was, you know, close to full occupancy and selling like hotcakes. And that was, in fact, not the case. There were lawsuits over it, and some people's deposits were returned. It ultimately ends up falling into bankruptcy and being taken over by someone else. And this seemed to happen a lot with Bayrock properties and with other Trump activities. They never quite came to fruition.

GROSS: Another real estate deal that you write about in your book "Secrecy World" is Trump's sale of a Palm Beach mansion to a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Rybolovlev. And this is a mansion that Trump bought at auction for $41.4 million. Then he sold it to this Russian oligarch four years later for $95 million. That's more than twice as much as Trump bought it for. So that's an interesting fact. Is it a significant fact?

BERNSTEIN: I think it could be a significant fact. And I suspect that this is one of the things that Mueller is looking at. You know, the question is was that property transaction a form of payment for something else? It might not be. It might have just been, you know, as Trump says, an incredibly canny business deal. Or it might have been something a little bit more untoward.

What's fascinating is that Rybolovlev never actually sets foot in the house it seems like. You know, he becomes embroiled in this nasty divorce after buying the property and had several companies with MossFon, which his wife accused him of using to hide how much money he had in this nasty divorce. And then they reach an undisclosed settlement, which is - you know, was probably quite hefty.

But the question becomes, you know, why would anyone do this? Why would a successful businessman, you know, overpay so wildly for a mansion that he never actually lives in or spends any time in? It's a big question mark. And it's the kind of thing that's - you know, we might never know. Or there might be someone somewhere who will talk to a prosecutor and explain what's really going on.

GROSS: So these connections that you've talked about between Trump and oligarchs from former Soviet bloc countries and from Russia - are these connections that would have been as clear had it not been for the leak of the Panama Papers?

BERNSTEIN: No. The Panama Papers I think shed a lot of light on who these people were, on the business activities of his business partners. And they create sort of a composite of what these business partners look like. And what is so interesting is how - the commonalities that they share - you know, their dynastic approach to business, you know? It's a family enterprise just like it is with Trump - their disdain for following the rules of any given nation and instead sort of embracing the anything-goes rules of the secrecy world, the fact that, you know, that - the deep Russian ties in this world.

So this is - you know, we wouldn't have really known a lot of this or been able to put the pieces together without these leaks. So I think it's been crucial. And then with the Paradise Papers, we can really see, you know, how the people who came later, the people who funded Trump's campaign, the people who are in Trump's cabinet - how they use the secrecy world, too, you know, because they're all incredibly wealthy. They are the American version of the Russian oligarch. And they're, you know, billionaires who are pushing their own agendas but hiding a lot of their money through the secrecy world.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Bernstein, author of the new book "Secrecy World." He's one of the reporters who broke the story of the Panama Papers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jake Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke the story of the Panama Papers, the leaked documents that revealed shell companies, offshore tax havens held by large corporations and wealthy individuals from around the world, including several oligarchs from Russia and former Soviet bloc countries who entered into business relationships with Donald Trump.

Has Putin taken advantage of the secrecy world?

BERNSTEIN: Well, this is a very good question because there have been estimates that Putin is one of the richest people in the world. You know, the U.S. government under Obama, you know, said that his salary was not at all a representation of his wealth. If this is true, if he is a multi-billionaire as many people suspect, then that money has almost certainly been funneled through the secrecy world, through foundations and through companies that then turned around and bought properties and shares in other companies.

And it's - one of the sort of most startling findings from the Panama Papers was a network of offshore companies that was created by a bank called Bank Rossiya, which is a St. Petersburg based bank that Putin has been very close to and the U.S. government said was essentially - well, said of the majority shareholder that he was the cashier of Putin.

So this bank set up a network of offshore companies that move billions of dollars around. And one of the ostensible owners of a couple of these companies was this musician named Sergei Roldugin, who happens to be one of Putin's oldest and closest friends, a man who has no business dealings or had no business dealings really that we knew of, certainly has never professed to be involved in business. I mean, he's a renowned classical cellist, not a businessman, as he has said.

But his companies - these companies that were set up by this Russian bank tied to Putin - were doing these very complex, involved business dealings with, you know, a major car manufacturer in Russia and a media company. They were involved in all of these really interesting activities, and it was all hidden in the secrecy world.

GROSS: So you know, during this conversation, we've talked some about President Trump's business connections, his financial connections to oligarchs from Russia or former Soviet bloc countries. Those connections seem to be financial. They're about money. They're about, you know, business dealings. They're - don't seem to be ideological. At least we haven't talked about anything ideological. So what questions do these financial connections to Russian oligarchs and oligarchs from former Soviet bloc countries - what questions do they raise politically - because again, we're talking about financial dealings.

BERNSTEIN: I mean, politically, the question is, what obligations exist, you know? Is Trump or other people in his administration - are they indebted to Russian oligarchs or to Ukrainian oligarchs? You know, Paul Manafort offered to run the Trump campaign for free apparently (laughter). You know, why would he do that, you know? Well, he happened to have business relationships and owe a lot of money to Russian oligarchs closely tied to Vladimir Putin. Is that an important fact in understanding what was going on?

You know, we can't really suss out what the motivations are - of people are until we know what their financial relationships are. And unfortunately a lot of those financial relationships are still hidden. We have more insight thanks to these leaks, but it's really just a start. I mean, there's so much more that we don't know.

GROSS: Since there was so much money from Russian oligarchs and oligarchs from former Soviet bloc countries that were invested in the offshore accounts that we've been talking about, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in which you were a senior reporter, was reporting on these documents on these - and these secret accounts, it tried to get a comment from the Kremlin (laughter). And so pulling back for a second, what has the Russian reaction been to this, and has Putin had anything to say about all of these Russian-connected offshore accounts?

BERNSTEIN: Oh, this was quite remarkable. And we sent a list of questions to the Kremlin before we published of course in the Panama - the Panama Papers. Among the questions was whether Putin had had any role in the death of one of his top aides in a hotel room in Washington, D.C.

And what happened (laughter) was days before the release of the Panama Papers, the Kremlin held a press conference where they denounced the stories, which was something novel for me. I'd never seen a press conference where they denounced stories that didn't actually exist yet. But beyond that, they didn't. And they alluded to the questions we had sent them as honey-worded queries, which I always thought was quite the - a wonderful turn of phrase.

But since then, some more interesting details have emerged. You know, Putin of course claimed that, you know - or Putin's spokesman, rather, claimed that he didn't know the people who were involved in these companies, which might technically be true, although he certainly knows very well the people whose money was being moved around by these companies.

But since then, the U.S. intelligence has come to the conclusion - or one of the conclusions they came to in their assessment of the Russians' attack on our U.S. electoral system in 2016 was that Putin was so incensed by the publication of the Panama Papers. And he blamed the U.S. government for it, and that was one of the motivations for his attack on Hillary Clinton and on the Democrats.

GROSS: That's an interesting theory.

BERNSTEIN: It is. It's - I mean, it's quite interesting. And you know, you write these stories, and you do these investigations. And then you release them into the world, and you never really think about - or you can't really think too hard about what will happen. Nobody knows. But it never occurred to any of us (laughter) that writing a story about the secret business dealings of Putin's inner-circle and possibly Putin himself would then be a factor in the Russian government launching a massive cyberattack against the U.S. electoral process.

GROSS: Jake Bernstein, thank you so much for talking with us.

BERNSTEIN: Oh, it was a joy. Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Jake Bernstein is the author of the new book "Secrecy World." After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new book about the life and work of writer Joseph Conrad. This is FRESH AIR.

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