In Buenos Aires, on January 18, Alberto Nisman, a government prosecutor, was found dead in his apartment, shot with a 22. The death, either a suicide or a murder, has rocked Argentine politics. One’s opinion on what the killing means depends on one’s opinion of the country’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Nisman, who had spent years investigating the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association, which killed eighty-five and wounded hundreds, had accused Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman (son of Jacobo Timerman, one of Argentina’s most famous victims of the dirty war, author of Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number) of conspiring to protect Iran (and Hezbollah) from being held accountable for the bombing. Kirchner and Timerman made this deal, according to Nisman, in exchange for cheap oil. Nisman’s accusations are contained in a nearly 300-page report, released just before his death. He was about to give testimony before Congress, but died the night before his scheduled appearance.
Nisman’s death is classic black-bag baroque. It involves spies, Cold War intelligence agencies, Israel, Syria, Iran, oil politics and, of course, the CIA and Mossad. But before going in to the deals, I want to point out its eerie similarity to another bizarre political death, in Guatemala, of Rodrigo Rosenberg in 2009.
Rosenberg, just before he was killed, made a video in which he accused the country’s then-left-of-center president, Álvaro Colom, of having murdered him because he had evidence of corruption. Where Nisman reportedly predicted his own death (“I might get out of this dead”), Rosenberg, in his video, said “if you are hearing or seeing this message it means that I’ve been murdered by President Álvaro Colom.”
Rosenberg then paid assassins to kill him. It was all part of an intricate right-wing conspiracy to destroy Colom’s mildly reformist presidency. I realize that sounds crazy. But that was the irrefutable conclusion of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, the result of an extraordinary investigation described in compelling detail by David Grann in The New Yorker. And just as many of Kirchner’s opponents have seized on Nisman’s death to take to the streets and declare “Yo soy Nisman” (“I am Nisman”), protests broke out in Guatemala after the appearance of the Rosenberg video that nearly toppled Colom. One of Colom’s key constituencies were mobilized peasants, demanding policy solutions to the country’s chronic land crisis; the protesters that denounced Colom as an asesino were largely from the urban middle class. That is, they were the same social composition mobilized against other left or reformist leaders, in Thailand, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. That year, 2009, in Honduras, similar protests brought down Manuel Zelaya.
I want to be clear that I am not saying that Nisman arranged his own death—or that he killed himself to discredit Kirchner. Only that it is worth noting the Rosenberg case because it offers a rare instance when the curtain was pulled back, revealing with unusual clarity and hard evidence the wheels within wheels that comprise the secret state of just one small Latin American nation. Guatemalans have normalized the phrase, poderes ocultos, or fuerzas oscuras, using it with the same matter-of-factness that political scientists in the US theorize “civil society.” Guatemalan academics even have a generic acronym for the concept: CIAC, standing for, in English, “Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus” (in the Spanish, “apparatus” is pluralized, which adds to elusive ubiquity conveyed by the term). The historian Mark Healey tells me that the Argentine term of art is simply “service,” a reference to the servicios de inteligencia that is made in English to underscore who their teachers were. Really, it is worth reading the Grann essay to get a sense of how deeply embedded in society the right-wing “aparatos” have become, working their way even into the emotional life of people like Rosenberg.
In Argentina, things are even more complex, because the Nisman case involves an array of international political actors: Iran, Israel, Syria and the United States. And hovering over it all is the stink of anti-Semitism.
Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist and president of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, which represents a number of the victims of the 1994 bombing, wrote recently in The New York Times that he doesn’t “buy” Nisman’s story of collusion between Kirchner and Iran. He notes that Nisman’s report is “self-contradictory” and highly rhetorical, containing few specifics and little hard evidence. He also points out that the former sectary general of Interpol, Ronald Noble, insists that that neither Kirchner nor Timerman tried to quash Interpol’s arrest warrants against accused Iranians. “Nisman’s claims are false,” Noble said the day Nisman’s body was found.
Verbitsky also points out that the oil angle makes no sense because Argentine refineries can’t process high-sulfur Iranian oil. Rather, the supposed incriminating memorandum that the Kirchner government signed with Iran was aimed “to allow a judge to interrogate the accused Iranians and to set up an International Truth Commission, composed of prestigious jurists from other countries.”
Verbitsky then provided an alternative theory, which points to Syria, not Iran, as the instigator of the 1994 bombing (and of an earlier, 1992, attack on the Israeli embassy). This line of argument is well known in Argentina. And it has two variations: Syria either did it to discredit Argentina’s then-president Carlos Menem, in retribution for Menem’s support of Operation Desert Storm against Syria’s ally, Iraq (Menem, of Syrian descent, had previously received financial backing from Hafez al-Assad). Or the bombing was actually committed by Menem and his security forces. In either case, those who hold to a version of this theory believe that Menem began to point the finger at Iran, both to deflect away from his relationship with Syria (whatever that was) and on the behest of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin didn’t want Syria accused because he feared such an accusation would derail the Oslo peace talks (because Syria backed the talks). “La pista siria,” or “the Syrian lead,” especially the version that holds Menem responsible for the bombing, is discussed in detail by Beatriz Gurevich.
Washington, for its own reasons, encouraged the finger-pointing at Iran and, according to cables released by Wikileaks, urged Nisman to follow this line of inquiry. Nisman, writes Jonathan Blitzer in The New Yorker, “obsessively consulted with the American Embassy. He went to the Embassy with advance tips on his investigation, he shared knowledge about judges’ leanings, and he showed Embassy officials drafts of his arrest orders and made revisions based on their comments. In October, 2006, Nisman formally accused Iranian officials and a Hezbollah operative of orchestrating the 1994 attack. U.S. Embassy representatives told Nisman that they were ‘convinced’ his case was solid, and ‘congratulated’ the Argentine prosecutors for their ‘dedication.’ Some of the same cables refer to U.S. efforts to impose international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, a campaign that the Argentine government joined at the United Nations.” The best discussion of what the Wikileak cables say about Argentina and the Nisman investigation are by Santiago O`Donnell, in the books Argenleaks and Politileaks.
And The Nation, in 2008, published a lengthy investigation by Gareth Porter on the ways in which the United States pushed Argentina to look only at Iran (which includes a description of Nisman as exclusively focusing on Tehran, ignoring evidence that suggested otherwise). Porter concluded that “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.”
For its part, the CIA today apparently believes that Nisman was executed as part of a power struggle internal to Argentine’s intelligence services. According to Clarín (the flagship tribune of a large, anti-Kirchner corporate media conglomerate), citing an unnamed source with access to those in charge of Argentina for the CIA, “Langley believes that the operation had more to do with an internal struggle in Argentina than with Iran.”
One spin on the “internal struggle” thesis holds that the former head of Argentina’s intelligence agency, the Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado (SIDE), Antonio Stiuso, first manipulated Nisman to accuse Kirchner and then had him killed to discredit her. Stiuso welded the power of a J. Edgar Hoover (or Alberto Fujimori’s Alberto Montesinos), while being as elusive as Sherlock Holmes’s Moriarty. “He was the most feared man in Argentina. I mean, his face is really not known because there’s only one very blurry picture of him,” Argentine journalist Uki Goñi told NPR. “He is reputed to have held files on all of the most important politicians, journalists, and judges and prosecutors in Argentina.” Stiuso joined the SIDE in 1972, and worked his way up through its ranks during the country’s “dirty war,” when the intelligence agency served as one of the institutional pillars of Plan Condor. Earlier, SIDE’s roots can be traced back to the years after World War II, when it helped secrete German Nazis into Argentina. Goñi published a more in depth account of Stiuso and his conflict with Kirchner in The Guardian.
Added to the mystery has been the erratic communication strategy of the Kirchner administration, which, if one really wanted to get deep-state paranoid, seems almost intentionally designed to amplify the already surreal and distorting nature of the national (and international) security apparatus. Officials have seemed hapless, at times even malevolent, in the face of what they say is a widespread conspiracy, lashing out at critics and the oppositional (corporate) press.
Ernesto Semán, who once worked with Héctor Timerman at the Ministry of Foreign Relations and then with the Argentine mission to the United Nation Security Council, says that the problem is that the administration is caught between what the government—including Kirchner’s predecessor, her late husband, Néstor Kirchner—did for ten years (basically leaving the security forces unchecked and going along with its unfocused allegations against Iran) and what it has done for the last two: rethinking its relationship to Teheran, trying to jump-start the investigation into the bombing and attempting to rein in the SIDE, which included sacking Stiuso.
Semán, who now teaches at the University of Richmond, elaborated:
Before debating whether it was Iran or Syria behind the bombings, it’s important to remember that, after the attack, years were lost due to the manipulation of the CIA, Mossad and SIDE, as Verbitsky and others have reported. The bombing might have been Hezbollah or Syria, but the US and Israel’s strategic interest in insisting on blaming Iran precluded anyone in Argentina from doing anything to actually get to the bottom of the case. Every administration from 1994 to this day, including Kirchner’s, all politicians, from across the political spectrum, opted to do nothing. They’d periodically blame Iran, remind the public of the “local connection” (i.e., Menem) and demand cooperation from the international community. But that was about it. I’ve heard political leaders, judges, ministers and intelligence agents all say they operated under the premise that the less done, the better. Anything else, they reason, would open a Pandora’s box. They don’t know what’s inside. But they know damn sure it isn’t good. Nisman’s appointment by Kirchner was part of the same approach. His investigation dragged on for a decade, but he was increasingly willing, for some reason, to give credence to the theory pushed by the CIA, Mossad and Argentine security forces. Why? Who knows? But Verbitsky is right. If you look at the report—and I have—it is incoherent. It doesn’t seem to have been written by a lawyer.
But I will say that the memorandum Kirchner and Timerman signed with Iran, the one that Nisman pointed to as incriminating, is actually, in part, an example of good international diplomacy. It accomplished a number of important things. First, it tried to free the investigation of the bombing from the straitjacket of US’s and Israel’s foreign policy agenda. It also raised the possibility of pursuing the investigation of the bombing independently of the SIDE, where for years it served as little more than an excuse to gather more and more dirt on the political class, increasing the power of men like Stiuso. Beyond the investigation, in terms of geopolitics, the memorandum with Tehran was meant to align Argentina with the broader region’s stance toward Iran, particularly Brazil. Brazil has been the strongest supporter of Iran via the International Atomic Energy Agency, opposing Washington efforts to dismantle its nuclear program (partly in fear that the same sanctions used against Iran could be the basis for pressure against Brazil’s uranium enrichment program). Brazil’s tilt toward Iran actual predates the last two presidents, Dilma and Lula, and goes back to the time of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2003). It did grow stronger under Lula. It is also a well-known secret that Brazil’s intelligence agencies have a proactive relationship with their Iranian counterparts, which gives them a deep knowledge of Hezbollah and its movements in Latin America for several decades. Though no one has mentioned it in all the coverage of the Nisman case, it is absolutely important to realize that Argentina is acutely aware of Brazil’s power and influence and would avoid any action that might jeopardize bilateral relations between the two countries. In other words, Kirchner’s move toward Iran was part of a larger regional strategy led by Brazil.
How “very convenient,” Semán points out, that the Washington Post scoop on the joint CIA-Mossad 2008 assassination in Damascus of the Hezbollah leader, Imad Mughniyah, mentions in passing that he was the mastermind of the 1994 Argentine bombing.
Black-bag baroque: “service” at the service of power.
Update: And then the baroque turns rococo; as the above was being posted, The New York Times reported that drafts of arrest warrants for Kirchner and Timerman were “found in the garbage at Mr. Nisman’s apartment.” It remains to be seen if the warrants contain specific information (unlike Nisman’s nearly 300-page report, which by most accounts is rambling and rhetorical). But so far, “two judges have refused to take the case made by Mr. Nisman.” I had meant to also note that Ernesto Semán, quoted above, used to be a reporter at Clarín. And a few people have pointed out Verbitsky’s theory that Syria’s Assad might have turned on Menem because Menem supported the United States against Iraq in the first Gulf War can’t hold, since Syria by that time had broken with Iraq and had supported that war.