What Do The Panama Papers Say? The Massive Leak Is Making World Leaders Nervous

Edward Snowden is calling it the "biggest leak in the history of data journalism." On Sunday, a team of international journalists published what they're calling the "Panama Papers," a batch of more than 11 million documents that leaked from a secretive offshore law firm. That may not sound terribly exciting, but the documents contain dirt on over 100 politicians, including several world leaders. But exactly what do the Panama Papers say?

The leak itself is enormous, clocking in at more than 2.5 terabytes in total. That's an absolutely colossal amount of data, and it's going to take quite a while to sift through it all. So far, though, we know that the documents contain potentially incriminating information on the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia, and the president of Ukraine. In many cases, the leaders mentioned appear to be either evading taxes or enriching their associates.

The papers themselves come from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based company that's one of the biggest offshore law firms in the world. While offshore firms aren't themselves illegal, they're often used for illegal purposes, such as money-laundering or tax evasion. And as it turns out, a whole lot of politicians have utilized the services of Mossack Fonseca.

One of them is Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland. The documents reveal that Gunnlaugsson secretly owned almost $4 billion of debt belonging to banks that collapsed during the financial crisis. He was a member of parliament at the time, yet didn't publicly disclose this ownership.

What this means is that as Gunnlaugsson was helping determine the country's policy response to the failed banks, he was also secretly holding billions of dollars in debt from the banks that failed. While he doesn't appear to have broken specific laws, public outrage over this possible conflict of interest is so big that Gunnlaugsson will likely face a vote of no confidence next week.

The Panama Papers are full of stuff like this. For example, they also revealed that current Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko secretly transferred his business assets to an offshore account, despite pledging in his presidential campaign, to sell them off completely. The presidents of Argentina and the United Arab Emirates, along with former leaders of Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, and Sudan are mentioned in the documents as well, and so are the family members and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev.

Again, it's going to take a while to untangle everything in this document dump, because the contents are massive and international financial dealings can be endlessly complex to decipher. But when confronted about the documents in an interview, Gunnlaugsson literally walked out of the interview — that should give you an idea of how big this could potentially be.