A Conspiracy Theory for Respectable People?

Conspiracy theories have a bad reputation, and deservedly so. They have long been the province of the paranoid, the political fringe and the dispossessed.

Thus, it is surprising that a respected expert on Russian affairs, writing for the prestigious Brookings Institution, should suggest that the Panama Papers is actually the secret doing of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Economist Clifton Gaddy, who authored the paper, put forth the idea with the kind of tentativeness reserved for ideas that could cause harm to one’s career in sober academia if presented with too much certainty or enthusiasm.

“It’s certainly not a theory, hardly even a ‘hypothesis,’” Gaddy writes, adding that it was “more a suggestion of something that ought to be seriously investigated.”

For evidence, he adduces the following points to ponder: A hacker backed by Moscow was the initial source of the leak; there’s very little in the Papers that could hurt Putin, he’s not even named, only associates of his are; other world leaders, such as the prime ministers of Iceland and the U.K., have been harmed.

The putative motive is simple: to embarrass and undermine Putin’s critics, who have been nagging the Russian strongman for years with charges of corruption and cronyism.

Furthermore, Gaddy notes how Putin has used financial secrets “to destroy or to control” people within Russia. It would be completely in character for Putin to use financial secrets to discomfit other world leaders.

The motive is somewhat credible, but the evidence is flimsy. No direct connection has been adduced between Putin and anyone involved in the disclosures.

To show just how easily conspiracies can be concocted and aimed in just about any direction, soon after the Panama Papers surfaced, a spokesman for Putin asserted the opposite theory: that the journalists who leaked the papers were former officials of the U.S. State Department and the CIA who sought to make trouble for the Russian president and his friends.

The fact that no Americans are named in the Panama Papers lends plausibility to the Kremlin spin. How else to explain the fact, other than that Americans were behind the leaks?

Actually, it’s easy to explain, since U.S. companies and citizens can easily avail themselves of the user-friendly banking laws in Delaware, Nevada and the U.S. Virgin Islands and have no need for Panama’s services. Not to mention that there are hundreds of other tax havens besides Mossack Fonseca and maybe the Americans with money to hide use them.

But a more likely scenario than either a Putin plot or a CIA plot is the never-ending plot of journalists against all the political and financial elites, wherever they are. It is the journalists who are plotting to bring down the occupants of the tax havens — specifically, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), some 400 journalists from 80 countries who have banded together to tear away the veil of secrecy that the tax havens provide for the rich elites around the world, including those in Russia and the U.S.

It is an undisguised fact that these journalists engineered the leak and are making as much as they can of it for their various news organizations. They are indisputably benefiting from it, irrespective of whether the main casualties are in Russia or the U.S., in the East or in the West.

Not that there is anything heinous in this. It is their job to keep the rich and powerful honest — as much as that is possible to do — by constant scrutiny of their actions.

Still, that doesn’t mean Gaddy is wrong. Not every conspiracy theorist is a crackpot, and not every theory is wrong. Putin could be the mastermind behind the Panama Papers.

One wonders: What if he is? So what? Would anything be gained by exposing his role in it? After all, whoever instigated it, the disclosure of these financial hideaways is a good thing. As President Barack Obama said the other day, when world leaders meet, they tell each other how important it is to deal with this problem.

If Putin is behind it, it will perhaps awaken Western leaders to the level of cunning of the man, and they will take him more seriously as an adversary. He’s not just a former KGB man, but a very smart one, too.

On the other hand, there is good reason to shun conspiracy theories as a rule. It has been suggested that totalitarianism was founded on such thinking, which drew on imaginary plots predicated on anti-Semitism, chauvinism or racism. One has only to think of the Nazi world-view, or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a product of the Russian secret police, still a best-seller in some parts of the world.

This is not to say that anyone who suggests or posits a conspiracy to explain an event is necessarily promoting totalitarianism. It does, however, indicate that unless there is a compelling reason, it would be best to stay away from it. And there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason in the case of the Panama Papers.