At root of Argentina spy intrigue - a deal with Iran

The Intelligence Secretariat, or SI, and its 3,000 or so employees report, in theory, to the president. But in practice, it has long operated in a murky world of its own, critics say.

Alberto Nisman  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Alberto Nisman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Cristina Fernandez has portrayed Argentina's spy agency as sinister, accountable to no one, and possibly responsible for the mysterious death of a prominent prosecutor in his Buenos Aires apartment.
The Intelligence Secretariat, or SI, and its 3,000 or so employees report, in theory, to the president. But in practice, it has long operated in a murky world of its own, critics say.
As a result, Fernandez declared this week, the Intelligence Secretariat needs to be totally shut down - and a new agency built from scratch.
"You can't extort me. You can't intimidate me. I'm not afraid of you," she said, speaking directly to the agency's leaders, in a nationally televised address on Monday.
But the underlying story of the dispute, sources close to both the agency and Fernandez's leftist government tell Reuters, is more complicated, with roots in Iran and an attack two decades ago that has never been fully solved.
They say Fernandez has been in open conflict with her own spy agency for two years, following a deal in which she enlisted Iran's help to form a truth commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
In practice, the truth commission was never implemented, because an Argentine court ruled it unconstitutional - but SI leaders remained furious, the source close to the agency said.
Fernandez has portrayed the agreement as the only way to confirm whether Iran's government was behind the attack, as Argentine prosecutors have alleged, while Iran has vigorously denied any role in the bombing.
However, some of the spy agency's leaders felt betrayed by the deal, known as the Memorandum of Understanding, a source with knowledge of the agency's affairs said on condition of anonymity.
The conflict exploded into public view on January 18, when Alberto Nisman, the chief prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, or AMIA, was found dead in his bathroom with a bullet in his head.
Nisman had been due the next day to present new findings to Congress regarding Fernandez's deal with Iran.
Just four days before he was found dead, the prosecutor went on a local television program to explain his allegations that the president and her foreign minister Hector Timerman had tried to whitewash Iran's alleged role in the bombing by signing the deal.
"The memorandum, the signing of the memorandum in the finalization of a process of impunity that started two years ago. In January of 2012 President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ordered her foreign minister (Hector Timerman) to disassociate Iran from the AMIA case for reasons I am going to explain," said Nisman.
While Nisman claimed the Iran deal was an attempt to cover up Iran's alleged responsibility for the bombing, some believe that his vehement opposition to the memorandum was a result of the sensitive information that would emerge from it, implicating powerful Argentine spies strongly connected to foreign intelligence agencies such as Antonio Stiusso.
The head of Argentine intelligence was replaced in December, resulting in the firing of agents who had been helping with Nisman's investigation.
One of those fired in the December shakeup was Stiusso, a senior spy who was Nisman's principal source in the probe.
Various sources confirmed that Stuisso worked in direct contact with intelligence agents from the United States and Israel. Cables distributed by Wikileaks from the United States embassy in Buenos Aires in 2008 revealed that Nisman regularly consulted Washington about his investigation.
Journalist Santiago O'Donnell, author of 'Politileaks' and 'Argenleaks' said that Nisman himself told him that the majority of his investigation into the AMIA case was based on information from Stiusso.
"When I published this material prosecutor Nisman called me and we had a talk and he told me that all of his material, or almost all of his material that he used in his investigation in the AMIA case came from this intelligence agent named Stiusso and he told me that this was because in such a complex case he depended a lot on intelligence from other countries and that Stiusso was the contact for the intelligence agencies from the United States and from Israel," said O'Donnell.
On January 27, 2013 - International Holocaust Remembrance Day - the government announced that it had signed a deal with Iran to create a joint "truth commission" made up of five independent judges from third-party countries to investigate the AMIA bombing.
"From that moment on [the signing of the memorandum with Iran] the intelligence agents [agents from ex SIDE/dissolved SI] acted against the government that they were a part of and from this comes the roots of Nisman's denouncement," said Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist and director of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization.
For Verbitsky, the principal reason Nisman opposed the Iran deal was to protect Argentina's links with intelligence agencies in the United States and Israel.
He pointed to a paragraph on page 282 of Nisman's report with his allegations against the president where he criticizes how the memorandum with Iran would allow an international commission to analyze the conduct of Argentine and foreign intelligence agents.
Verbitsky also claims that the denouncement is written in the style of an intelligence agent instead of that of a prosecutor.
"It is not the writing of a prosecutor, it's the writing of an intelligence agent who is defending the preservation of his channels of secret communication with the intelligence [services] of other countries, Nisman says that clearly. Nisman's legal basis is this, so I think that there we have an explanation of what has been going on," said Verbitsky.
Some observers believe the confrontation with the spy agency is a red herring - and that Nisman died for other reasons. Despite Fernandez's public accusations, none of the SI's leaders or agents are known to have been detained so far.
Many politicians from the opposition accuse Fernandez of having used the spy agency services for her own benefit to spy on the opposition and that she gave spies power that was ultimately used against her government.
After removing the head of central intelligence in December, Fernandez named her former secretary, Oscar Parrilli as the new SI head.
The depth and complexity of her dispute with the spy agency suggests the Nisman case could drag on for months or longer, with unpredictable consequences for all parties.
As the investigation into Nisman's mysterious death continues, crime scene investigators still have not ruled out suicide, and other theories abound for the death that has convulsed the South American nation.