(CNSNews.com) – The State Department on Thursday rejected allegations – by Russian President Vladimir Putin or anyone else – that the U.S. government had a hand in the leak of the so-called Panama Papers, millions of documents revealing the offshore holdings of politicians, businesspeople, and celebrities.
“I would reject the premise or the assertion that we’re in any way involved in the actual leak of these documents,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner, referring to 11.5 million files from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which claims the files were hacked, rather than leaked by an insider.
Several of Putin’s associates have been named in reports on the leaked documents, and on Thursday, Putin suggested his opponents were trying to weaken Russia from within by “spreading distrust for the ruling authorities.”
To back his insinuation that the U.S. was involved, Putin alluded to a tweet Wednesday from Wikileaks, which drew attention to the fact that one of the scores of media organizations involved in the Panama Papers investigation, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), gets funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
“We now know from WikiLeaks that officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this,” Putin said during a media forum in St. Petersburg.
He made the comment as part of a lengthy response to a question about the Panama Papers, and specifically about his close friend, renowned cellist Sergei Roldugin, who is linked in the leaked documents to offshore activities worth some $2 billion.
Putin suggested the leak was merely the latest attack by opponents, whom he painted as frustrated by the fact that Russia’s economy continues to grow, along with its military prowess – as evidenced in the recent Syrian mission.
“They are used to holding a monopoly on the international stage and do not want have to make way for anyone else,” he said.
“What worries our opponents the most is not even this [Russia’s economic and military gains], but the unity and cohesion of the Russian nation,” he said. “Attempts are made to weaken us from within, make us more acquiescent and make us toe their line. What is the easiest way of doing this? It is to spread distrust for the ruling authorities and the bodies of power within society and to set people against each other.”
Turning to the Panama Papers, Putin said those carrying out the “assignment” were faced by the fact that he was not himself implicated in the “offshore holding controversy,” and so had managed to find some of his friends, “and they fiddled around and knocked something together.”
“There is this friend of the Russian president, and they say he has done something, probably something corruption-related. In fact, there is no corruption involved at all.”
Putin went on to defend Roldugin, saying he was “proud to count him among my friends.”
“He is a minority shareholder in one of our companies and makes some money out of it, but not billions of dollars of course. That is nonsense. The reality is nothing of the sort.”
At the State Department briefing, Toner was asked about Putin’s suggestion that the leak was part of a U.S. plot to undermine Russia.
“I would reject the premise or the assertion that we’re in any way involved in the actual leak of these documents,” he said.
“The assertion by him or by anyone that the U.S. government had anything to do with this is – you say it’s – that’s completely wrong?” a reporter asked.
“That’s right,” Toner said.
Asked about the USAID funding for OCCRP, as highlighted by the Wikileaks tweet, Toner confirmed that the project, whose focus in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has received U.S. government funding.
“What we’re supporting here is the conduct of independent investigative journalism that we believe can shine a light on corruption,” he said.
“We have no editorial control, certainly, over what this organization does or doesn’t do with the money that we give it or what it does in its – to conduct its investigative journalism.”
Toner pointed out that the OCCRP is just one of more than 100 of media organizations that have been involved in the year-long Panama Papers investigation – “so it was hardly this organization alone that brought this story to light.”
Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the Panama Papers’ revelations about associates of the Russian president as “Putinophobia.”