WASHINGTON – The cascade of WikiLeaks-style revelations shedding light on the often murky world of offshore tax havens began when Gerard Ryle received a mysterious letter in the post.
The experienced investigative journalist had been busy trying to unravel the details of a large financial fraud in his native Australia when the prospect of an even bigger scoop landed on his doormat.
The letter contained part of a hard drive with the details of 2.5 million digital files, a treasure trove that would ultimately yield information on 120,000 offshore companies and nearly 130,000 individuals.
Ryle, who moved to Washington to head the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) soon after receiving the hard drive, admits he was not entirely sure what he was dealing with at first.
“My instinct told me it was big but you do not know,” Ryle said. Technical problems also frustrated his early attempts to pore over the information he had received.
“The files were almost impossible to read, they kept crashing my computer,” Ryle said. “I’ve seen a lot of names from all around the world; they were people that meant nothing to me.
“I just did what any reporter would do — you just go on the Internet and you Google them.”
In his capacity as head of the ICIJ, a non-governmental organization founded in 1997 to help coordinate the work of reporters seeking to uncover corruption, Ryle set about mobilizing a worldwide army of journalists to help mine the rich seam of information he had received.
“It’s always been on my mind to get some help from reporters all around the world,” Ryle said. “The ICIJ was the perfect vehicle.”
The ICIJ coordinated a 15-month-long probe that involved 86 investigative journalists in 46 countries to compile a series of reports it began releasing around the world this week, using a strategy similar to that used by WikiLeaks when it released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables in 2010.
So far, the revelations have made waves in several countries, causing embarrassment to French President Francois Hollande’s former campaign treasurer Jean-Jacques Augier, as well as the family of the president of Azerbaijan.
Ryle cautioned, however, that many of the individuals brought to his attention by the hard drive may not have broken any laws.
“What you first realize is that you can’t accuse people of doing something wrong because you don’t have the full story, you don’t know what they’ve declared in taxes,” he noted.
“You kept asking yourself: Where’s the story here? Is it illegal? Your instinct tells you it’s a story but you need to find it, you need to look for patterns, for trends.”
Recruiting foreign journalists to decipher the information was necessary because of the vast amounts of detail in the hard drive, estimated as being 160 times larger than the cache released by WikiLeaks, totaling some 260 gigabytes of data.
Ryle acknowledged that the sheer scale of the global investigation went against the instincts of many of the journalists involved.
“I wanted to encourage collaboration among journalists, something that we, investigative journalists, normally don’t like to do. We like to work on our own and keep our secrets,” Ryle said.
Other revelations are set to be released on April 15, while the ICIJ promises further reports later this year.
“We’re pretty confident we have a lot more because it’s so vast and it takes a long time to understand,” Ryle said, adding that he was not concerned about whether the revelations ultimately lead to criminal prosecutions.
“It’s not our duty — our duty is to report and to let other worry about that,” he said. “Our job is to inform the public about something they didn’t know and what people or authorities do afterwards is up to them.”