Bush's Iran/Argentina Terror Frame-Up
"The Whole Iran Thing Seemed Kind of Flimsy"
In an interview last May James Cheek, Clinton's Ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing, told me, "To my knowledge, there was never any real evidence [of Iranian responsibility]. They never came up with anything." The hottest lead in the case, he recalled, was an Iranian defector named Manoucher Moatamer, who "supposedly had all this information." But Moatamer turned out to be only a dissatisfied low-ranking official without the knowledge of government decision-making that he had claimed. "We finally decided that he wasn't credible," Cheek recalled. Ron Goddard, then deputy chief of the US Mission in Buenos Aires, confirmed Cheek's account. He recalled that investigators found nothing linking Iran to the bombing. "The whole Iran thing seemed kind of flimsy," Goddard said.
James Bernazzani, then the head of the FBI's Hezbollah office, was directed in October 1997 to assemble a team of specialists to go to Buenos Aires and put the AMIA case to rest. Bernazzani, now head of the agency's New Orleans office, recalled in a November 2006 interview how he arrived to find that the Argentine investigation of the AMIA bombing had found no real evidence of Iranian or Hezbollah involvement. The only clues suggesting an Iranian link to the bombing at that time, according to Bernazzani, were a surveillance tape of Iranian cultural attache Mohsen Rabbani shopping for a white Trafic van and an analysis of telephone calls made in the weeks before the bombing.
Shortly after the bombing, the biggest Buenos Aires daily newspaper, Clarin, published a story, leaked to it by Judge Galeano, that Argentine intelligence had taped Rabbani shopping for a white Trafic "months" before the bombing. A summary of the warrants for the arrest of Rabbani and six other Iranians in 2006 continued to refer to "indisputable documents" proving that Rabbani had visited car dealers to look for a van like the one allegedly used in the bombing. In fact, the intelligence report on the surveillance of Rabbani submitted to Galeano ten days after the bombing shows that the day Rabbani looked at a car dealer's white Trafic was May 1, 1993--fifteen months before the bombing and long before Argentine prosecutors have claimed Iran decided to target AMIA.
In the absence of any concrete evidence, SIDE turned to "link analysis" of telephone records to make a circumstantial case for Iranian guilt. The SIDE analysts argued that a series of telephone calls made between July 1 and July 18, 1994, to a mobile phone in the Brazilian border city of Foz de Iguazu must have been made by the "operational group" for the bombing--and that a call allegedly made on a cellphone belonging to Rabbani could be connected to this same group. The FBI's Bernazzani told me he was appalled by SIDE's use of link analysis to establish responsibility. "It can be very dangerous," he told me. "Using that analysis, you could link my telephone to bin Laden's." Bernazzani said the conclusions reached by the Argentine investigators were merely "speculation" and said that neither he nor officials in Washington had taken it seriously as evidence pointing to Iran.
Then, in 2000, one more defector surfaced with a new tale of Iranian responsibility. Abdolghassem Mesbahi, who claimed he was once the third-ranking man in Iran's intelligence services, told Galeano the decision to bomb the AMIA had been made at a meeting of senior Iranian officials, including President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on August 14, 1993. But Mesbahi was soon discredited. Bernazzani told me American intelligence officials believed that by 2000, Mesbahi had long since lost his access to Iranian intelligence, that he was "poor, even broke" and ready to "provide testimony to any country on any case involving Iran."
A Questionable Informant
Bernazzani admitted to me that until 2003, the case against Iran was merely "circumstantial." But he claimed a breakthrough came that year, with the identification of the alleged suicide bomber as Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a Lebanese Hezbollah militant, who, according to a Lebanese radio broadcast, was killed in a military operation against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in September 1984, two months after the AMIA bombing. "We are satisfied that we have identified the bomber based on the totality of the data streams," Bernazzani told me, citing "a combination of physical and witness evidence." But the Berro identification, too, was marked by evidence of fabrication and manipulation.
The official story is that Berro's name was passed on to SIDE and the CIA by a Lebanese informant in June 2001. The informant claimed he had befriended a former Hezbollah chauffeur and assistant to top Hezbollah leaders named Abu Mohamad Yassin, who told him that a Hezbollah militant named "Brru" was the suicide bomber. That story is suspicious on several counts, the most obvious being that intelligence agencies almost never reveal the name, or even the former position, of an actual informant.
The September 2003 court testimony of Patricio Pfinnen, the SIDE official in charge of the AMIA bombing investigation until he was fired in January 2002, casts serious doubt on the informant's credibility. Pfinnen testified that when he and his colleagues went back to the informant with more questions, "something went wrong with the information, or they were lying to us." Pfinnen said his team ultimately discarded the Berro theory because the sources in Lebanon had "failed and were not certain." He concluded, "I have my doubts about [Berro] being the person who was immolated."
After Pfinnen was fired in a power struggle within the intelligence agency, SIDE named Berro as the suicide bomber in a secret report. In March 2003, just after that report was completed, Ha'aretz reported that the Mossad had not only identified the bomber as Berro but possessed a transcript of Berro's farewell telephone call to Lebanon before the bombing, during which he told his parents that he was going to "join" his brother, who had been killed in a suicide bombing in Lebanon. When the 2006 indictment was released, however, it became clear that no evidence of such a call existed.
In September 2004, a Buenos Aires court acquitted Telleldin and the police officials who had been jailed years earlier, and in August 2005 Judge Galeano was impeached and removed from office. But Galeano's successors, prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martinez Burgos, pressed on, hoping to convince the world that they could identify Berro as the bomber. They visited Detroit, Michigan, where they interviewed two brothers of Berro and obtained photos of Berro from them. They then turned to the only witness who claimed she had seen the white Trafic at the scene of the crime--Nicolasa Romero.
In November 2005, Nisman and Burgos announced that Romero had identified Berro from the Detroit photos as the same person she had seen just before the bombing. Romero, on the other hand, said she "could not be completely certain" that Berro was the man at the scene. In court testimony, in fact, she had said she had not recognized Berro from the first set of set of four photographs she had been shown or even from a second set. She finally saw some "similarity in the face" in one of the Berro photographs, but only after she was shown a police sketch based on her description after the bombing.
Bernazzani told me that the FBI team in Buenos Aires had discovered DNA evidence that was assumed to have come from the suicide bomber in an evidence locker, and Nisman took a DNA sample from one of Berro's brothers during his visit in September 2005. "I would assume, though I don't know, that once we got the brother's DNA, they compared them," he said. But Nisman claimed to a reporter in 2006 that samples had been contaminated. Significantly, the Argentine indictment of the Iranians makes no mention of the DNA evidence.
Despite a case against Iran that lacked credible forensic or eyewitness evidence and relied heavily on dubious intelligence and a discredited defector's testimony, Nisman and Burgos drafted their indictment against six former Iranian officials in 2006. However, the government of Néstor Kirchner displayed doubts about going forward with a legal case. According to the Forward newspaper, when American Jewish groups pressed Kirchner's wife, Christina, about the indictments at a UN General Assembly in New York in September 2006, she indicated that there was no firm date for any further judicial action against Iran. Yet the indictment was released the following month.
Both the main lawyer representing the AMIA, Miguel Bronfman, and Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, who later issued the arrest warrants for the Iranians, told the BBC last May that pressure from Washington was instrumental in the sudden decision to issue the indictments the following month. Corral indicated that he had no doubt that the Argentine authorities had been urged to "join in international attempts to isolate the regime in Tehran."
A senior White House official just called the AMIA case a "very clear definition of what Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism means." In fact, the US insistence on pinning that crime on Iran in order to isolate the Tehran regime, even though it had no evidence to support that accusation, is a perfect definition of cynical creation of an accusation in the service of power interests.