Lies All the Way Down: The Death of Prosecutor Alberto Nisman

On January 18, 2015, the body of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found in a pool of blood, with a shot to the temple, in the bathroom of his Buenos Aires apartment. The next day, he was scheduled to present his accusations against president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for allegedly shielding Iranian officials from prosecution over the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center which killed 85 people.

The episode is rapidly becoming a textbook case of how the relentless quest for seizing control of the monopolistic political power conferred by the state leads political opponents of all stripes to lie through their teeth and to embark on a Machiavellian information-war-on-steroids; where even the most basic sense of truth and justice tragically becomes the main, yet ignored-as-collateral-damage, casualties.

The most fundamental lie is the notion, espoused mainly by the opposition to Fernández’s government, that Nisman is a sort of martyr that sacrificed his life on quest for truth and justice. While the available forensic evidence still doesn’t allow us to conclude whether Nisman was murdered or committed suicide, yet most of the opposition believes he was murdered to prevent him from presenting, in Congress, evidence that supposedly supports his accusation against the government. This theory has been chorused ad-nauseam by most of the mainstream media around the world.

But the key claim of Nisman’s accusation, repeated 96 times in his affidavit, is that Fernández de Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, sought to revoke Interpol arrest warrants against former Iranian officials accused of the AMIA attack. And Ronald K. Noble, the secretary general of Interpol for fifteen years, until last November, publicly denied that claim in January — the same day Nisman died.

The accusation is entirely based on wiretapped conversations, provided by the Argentine security services, mostly between union leader and loud-mouthed Kirchnerist activist Luis D’Elia and Iranian-Argentine community leader Jorge “Yussuf” Khalil. As of yet, no wiretapped conversations of either Timerman or Fernández de Kirchner with any Iranian official have been revealed.

It is extremely far-fetched to believe the government would kill a political rival in such an obvious way for an accusation backed by so little evidence. The government knew perfectly well that pro-government legislators would have easily torn it to pieces during Nisman presentation to Congress.

But more fundamentally, the public record clearly shows that prestige and power, rather than truth and justice, were the key priorities for Nisman during his career.

There is simply not a scintilla of testimonial or forensic evidence incriminating Iranian officials in the AMIA bombing. Launched by Israeli sources a few days after the bombing occurred, the theory behind Iranian involvement claims that a Hezbollah suicide bomber by the name of Ibrahim Hussein Berro drove a white Renault Traffic van packed with explosives into the front of the AMIA building. But out of 200 witnesses at the scene, only one claimed to have seen the van, and was later contradicted by her sister and other witnesses at the scene who claimed they saw instead a yellow-and-black taxi seconds before the explosion. Forensic analysis carried out by AMIA’s own legal team determined that fragments of a van supposedly found at scene could not have come from the particular white Renault that police had identified as the suicide bomb car. And a team of experts from the United States’ Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, that assisted the investigation on request of then president Carlos Menem, determined that the explosion most have come from inside the building.

The only suspect arrested during the initial investigation, then led by Judge Juan José Galeano, was a shady used-car salesman with a Shiite last name, Carlos Telleldín, accused of selling the white Renault Traffic van to someone somehow connected to the suicide bomber. But the Menem government’s real intention in arresting him was later revealed when a videotape made secretly by SIDE, Argentina’s intelligence agency, showed Galeano offering Telleldín $400,000 to implicate police officers loyal to Eduardo Duhalde, Menem’s main political rival at the time, in the bombing.

In 2004, a Buenos Aires court acquitted Telleldín and the police officers close to Duhalde, and Galeano was impeached in August 2005. But ever since Nisman took over as the main prosecutor in 2004 he pressed on with the charade of Berro as the suicide bomber. Adding another even less credible element to his accusation of top Iranian officials, was an alleged August 14, 1993, meeting among top Iranian leaders, including both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and, then, president Hashemi Rafsanjani, at which Nisman claimed the official decision was made to go ahead with the planning of the bombing.

The only sources on which Nisman based this claim were members of the cult-like, murderous, armed Iranian opposition Mujahedin E Khalq (MEK), who were removed from the US State Department list of terrorist groups in 2012 (thanks to their aggressive campaign of paying large sums in speaking fees to prominent former US officials) and whose claims about the Iranian nuclear programme have in their overwhelming majority turned out to be false when investigated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Nisman also relied on the testimony of Iranian defector Aboghasem Mesbahi in accusing the leadership of the Iranian government. During a November 2006 interview with investigative reporter Gareth Porter, former head of the FBI’s Hezbollah Office James Bernazzani said intelligence analysts regarded Mesbahi as someone who was desperate for money and ready to “provide testimony to any country on any case involving Iran.” Mesbahi also claimed, at various times, to have had inside information that Iran was behind the 9/11 attacks, but his testimony was dismissed by the 9/11 Commission.

The highly politicized nature of Nisman’s investigation came to the forefront with the Wikileaks cables of 2011, which revealed Nisman’s subservient attitude towards the Buenos Aires US embassy: he systematically gave the embassy notice of upcoming judicial measures taken by both the prosecutor’s office and the court in charge of the AMIA case, provided drafts of resolutions to be corrected until the embassy approved them, and repeatedly apologized when he didn’t inform the embassy of a given measure with enough time in advance.

Nevertheless, in 2006 Nisman’s efforts bore fruit. Judge Canicoba Corral, who is in charge of the investigation until today, re-opened the case against Iran and finally asked Interpol to issue the arrest warrants against the Iranian officials. Corral candidly admitted he acted under blatant pressure from the Bush administration.

Entirely based on wild speculation and intelligence wiretaps, Nisman’s accusations against Fernández de Kirchner and Timerman were so weak that, besides Interpol’s Ronald Noble’s denial, even Canicoba Corral declared that they had “scarce or null evidentiary value;” judge Ariel Lijo, under whose jurisdiction the case fell, refused to end January’s court recess to hear the case due to the accusation’s lack of sufficient proof; and even AMIA and DAIA (Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations) were prudent about their support of the accusations and said they wanted to see the evidence behind it. On 26 February, federal judge Daniel Refecas actually dismissed Nisman’s accusations since it lacked “the minimal conditions” needed to kick off a formal court investigation.

Given this context, it seems much more likely that Nisman, with support for his accusations crumbling all around him, feeling increasingly isolated, and just hours away from having to defend his flamboyant accusations in a hostile open Congressional session, decided to end his own life rather than facing the prospect of finally losing his honor and all professional credibility.

But it seems the government is as eager as the opposition to push the version that Nisman was murdered. Fernández de Kirchner herself suggested that in the second of two rambling Facebook posts she published hours after Nisman’s body was found, backtracking from her first post, in which she suggested he had committed suicide.

For the government, the main suspect is Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, one of the most feared men in Argentina for the last few decades and SIDE’s former Operations Director. Stiuso started his career during the 70’s, and in 1980, in the midst of the “dirty war” years of the military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time, he acquired the wiretapping skills that allowed him to rise to become the agency’s head of counterintelligence.

Stiuso became a legend, earning a reputation of building files of prominent politicians and socialites chocked full of compromising information — an activity that earned him comparisons to similarly infamous operators, from FBI founder Edgar J. Hoover to Vladimiro Montesions, head of Peru’s intelligence agency under president Alberto Fujimori.

He acquired control of the AMIA investigation right after the bombing in 1994, lost it momentarily in 1996, but regained it in 2001. When Nisman was appointed head of the AMIA investigation in 2004, he started working hand in hand with Stiuso right away — taking all his cues from the spymaster. Over the years, their relationship became close and cozy. Nisman is on the record profusely praising Stiuso’s “brilliance” and expressing his “special fondness” for the spymaster.

Stiuso had always been the key link between SIDE and the most powerful foreign intelligence services, US’s CIA and Israel’s Mossad prominently among them. According to Gerardo Young — author of the book Código Stiuso, chief editor of the investigative team of the Clarín newspaper until 2012, and arguably the most knowledgeable investigative journalist on the history of SIDE — Stiuso had been carrying out systematic surveillance of Iraninan diplomats and other prominent figures of Buenos Aires’s Muslim community well before the AMIA bombing and sharing all the data he collected with Mossad.

Stiuso fell out with the government when Fernández de Kirchner proposed a memorandum of understanding with Iran in 2013 with the objective of establishing a truth commission about the AMIA case composed of international jurists, and allowing Argentine prosecutors access to Iranian sources for their investigations. This was what triggered Nisman’s accusations, claiming that its main objective was lifting the Interpol red alerts from Iranian officials in order to secure access to Iranian oil. The tension between Stiuso and the government reached its climax in December 2014 when Stiuso was asked to resign from his position as SIDE’s chief of operations.

So the government claims that Stiuso “manipulated” Nisman to bring the indictment against Fernández de Kirchner and Timerman, then killed him or induced him to commit suicide in order to provoke suspicion that Fernández de Kirchner’s administration was responsible for the murder.

The government’s theory about Nisman’s death is more plausible than the opposition’s, but that of course doesn’t mean the government’s record is cleaner in terms of its approach to the AMIA investigation.

First of all, their anti-imperialist rhetoric notwithstanding, ever since Nestor Kirchner (the late husband of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) came to power in 2003, the Kirchners had always been happy to go along with Washington and Tel Aviv blaming the Iranians for the AMIA bombing. The government publicly and openly recognizes that they never questioned Nisman’s performance on the AMIA investigation throughout his career. Actually, it was Nestor Kirchner himself, who assigned Nisman to the AMIA investigation in 2004. It was also Nestor Kirchner who introduced Nisman to Stiuso and cemented their relationship.

Now that it is politically convenient the government and its supporters are attacking Stiuso and denouncing him as the country’s main public enemy, but the fact is that the Kirchners cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship with him over the years, just like any other Argentine government before them. They were no exception to the use and abuse of the intelligence services to spy on political opponents, journalists, unruly activists, and to influence the judiciary in their favor.

One of the clearest examples of how far Nestor Kirchner was willing to go to protect Stiuso came to light in mid 2004, in what was the first large-scale scandal of the Kircherist era. During a meeting with Kirchner in July 2004, Gustavo Béliz, then Minister of Justice, warned the ex-president about the illegal activity sponsored by SIDE and accused Stiuso as responsible. Kirchner closed the meeting telling Beliz to “leave that to me, I’ll take care of it,” with the then senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a witness. Hours later, the minister was fired with a telephone call.

Béliz then took things to the next level revealing a blurry photo of Stiuso on television, accusing him of directing “a kind of Gestapo.” A few days later, an unknown lawyer initiated a criminal case against him for violating the National Intelligence Law, which states that the identity of SIDE’s personnel is a State secret. Béliz went into self-imposed exile in the United States and Uruguay, unable to return to public office during the next 10 years.

Besides the signature of the memorandum with Iran, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner grew weary of Stiuso and his allies at SIDE during 2013 simply because she sensed she was loosing their political loyalty. She felt betrayed when Sergio Massa, Mayor of the city of Tigre, and one of her main political rivals, decided to run for president in the upcoming presidential elections despite SIDE trying to convince her that he wouldn’t. There was also the scandalous assassination in mid 2013 of Pedro Tomás “el Launchón” Viale, Stiuso’s main protegé. An extremely violent operation led by an elite group of Buenos Aires’s province police force shot him in his own home. He was being investigated for drug trafficking and real estate fraud. According to Young, the president felt the boys were “only causing me headaches,” as she told Héctor Izcazuriaga and Francisco Larcher, the numbers one and two of SIDE at the time.

And even though the government claimed the key motivation for signing the memorandum was to unblock the AMIA investigation, it was obviously an opportunist, calculated geopolitical move to align Argentina with the broader region’s stance toward Iran led by Brazil — the strongest supporter of Iran via the International Atomic Energy Agency and Argentina’s foremost trading partner. The Obama Administration’s recent openness towards negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program might have also lowered the value of blaming Iran for Fernández’s de Kirchner diplomatic relations with Washington.

Perhaps, then, this whole episode will have an unintended positive consequence: forcing the majority of Argentines to face the ugly truth of how political power ultimately rests on the people like Stiuso, who operate from what Young aptly called the “sewers of democracy.” For the first time in the country’s history, a president, having lost control over the lords of the sewers, has entered in direct confrontation with them, inadvertently letting some sunlight into their pitch-dark hideout.

Days ago, the government launched a “reform” of SIDE. Its name has been changed to SI (the initials for “Secretariat of Intelligence”), and other cosmetic changes are under way. Hopefully Argentines will be able to see the irony and realize that the among all the lies being thrown around these days, from all sides of the political spectrum, perhaps the crudest one of all, the one that is even more fundamental than blaming Iran for the AMIA bombing, is that the “sewers of democracy” can be cleaned up at all.

Because as long as democracy develops within the framework of the state, the sewers will be a constituent part of it. The monopoly on the use of force is what creates the incentives for people like Stiuso to thrive in the shadows.

Cleaning up the sewers for good requires more than reform; It requires abolishing that quintessential monopoly altogether.

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