Alberto Nisman, the Argentine federal prosecutor who accused President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner last week of a cover-up connected to the country’s worst-ever terrorist attack, has been found shot dead in the bathroom of his home in Buenos Aires. According to the Daily Beast, “Ten members of the Argentine Federal Police force had been assigned to him as bodyguards, but it seems they were not deployed when he was at home.”
The prosecutor published a 300-page report on Wednesday alleging that President Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman had opened a secret back channel to Iranian agents suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish community center, which left dozens dead and hundreds more injured.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Nisman “said the scheme intended to clear the suspects so Argentina could start swapping grains for much-needed oil from Iran, which denies any connection with the bombing.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Nisman also called for a freeze on $23 million worth of Kirchner’s assets and told reporters that he had “‘a great deal of evidence’ implicating the president in the matter,” including evidence derived from wiretaps.
The Journal also reported that “Nisman was supposed to appear at a congressional hearing on Monday to provide more details about the allegations, which Argentine officials have vigorously denied.” The Argentine media outlet Clarín reported last week that Nisman said, “I could end up dead because of this,” referring to his years-long investigation, for which he has previously reported receiving death threats. The New York Times reports that Nisman did not leave a suicide note.
A July 2006 cable from the U.S. State Department lays out the early history of the investigation into the attack in broad strokes:
The 1994 attack and initial investigation occurred under the administration of former [Argentine] president Carlos Menem. [REDACTED] Early on [REDACTED] investigators made the Iranian/Hezbollah connection. Judge [Juan Jose] Galeano was able to make significant progress and pull together credible, circumstantial evidence linking Iran and Hezbollah to the attacks, as well as uncovering the complicity of the local Argentines in providing the stolen vehicle used in the attack. The trial of the local defendants by a panel of three judges began in September 2001, with the defendants ultimately acquitted three years later in September 2004.
According to a 1999 article from Jewish advocacy group AJC, “five years after the 1994 bombing, there [was] only a glimmer of hope that at least a small part of the case [would] be solved.”
The AMIA legal team pointed out in an interview with the author what they consider the most important fact in the five-year-long investigation: of the twenty persons facing charges in the case, no less than fifteen are policemen, including high-ranking officers in the Buenos Aires Province police force, the largest in the country. Officials investigating the case make no secret of their suspicion that army personnel were involved in the preparation of the attack, providing explosives and intelligence.
As I wrote for Security Assistance Monitor last November, “An October 2014 investigative report by Mexico’s El Universal newspaper titled ‘Here the police are the Mafia’ (‘Aquí la Policía es la Mafia’) explored widespread allegations of corruption and abuse against state officials at virtually all levels of Argentina’s security apparatus.”
While diplomatic dust-ups between the United States and Argentina, such as the latter’s sovereign debt, have dominated recent headlines, these spats do not seem to have interfered with cooperation on efforts to combat these rising rates of drug-related crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S.Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) both have plans to continue training provincial police forces and to strengthen information sharing agreements with Argentine law enforcement.
The Buenos Aires provincial police have received criticism for their alleged involvement in forced evictions and disappearances, including the 2009 disappearance of a local teenager whose body was only recently discovered and identified. According to the Argentine Center for Legal and Social Studies, police were responsible for the deaths of 98 civilians in the city and province of Buenos Aires in 2013.
The 2006 State Department cable also says that Nisman had come to the same conclusions as Galeano but the timeframe for the public release of Nisman’s findings remained unclear. The cable explains:
The AMIA investigation has been plagued by controversy and political manipulation from the very beginning. In late 2004 several Buenos Aires police officers and a local chop-shop owner, who had been charged with conspiracy in providing the vehicle used in the attack, were acquitted, largely due to inappropriate activities by the original investigating judge, Juan Jose Galeano. In December 2003, a three-judge panel removed Judge Galeano (the judicial panel also recused the investigating prosecutors Jose Barbaccia and Eamon Mullen from the case in April 2004), ruling that Galeano had committed a number of judicial improprieties, including authorizing SIDE (the Argentine Intelligence Agency) to make a $400,000 under-the-table payment to the chop-shop owner in return for testimony alleging the complicity of the Buenos Aires police officers in the crime. The chop-shop owner, while guilty of involvement in an auto theft ring, had no foreknowledge the vehicle he sold would be used for the attack.
The document also notes that former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner “strongly pressed for reenergizing the stalled investigation, creating the new Special Prosecuting Unit led by General Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, a highly regarded and energetic young prosecutor…In frequent meetings with Argentine and U.S. Jewish community leaders, President Kirchner has vowed to support the investigation ‘wherever it leads and to whomever it implicates.'”
Nisman initially charged Iran with orchestrating and financing the attack in conjunction with Hezbollah in October 2006. However, a November 2006 article by Gareth Porter raised questions about some inconsistencies in Nisman’s report.
The main theory about Iran’s motive for ordering the bombing of the headquarters of the Jewish organization AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina) on July 18, 1994, which killed 85 people, is that Iran wanted to retaliate against Argentina for its decision to cut off exports of nuclear materials. That motive was asserted by former Iranian intelligence officer Abdolghassem Mesbahi in a 2002 deposition and repeated in a report by the Argentine State Intelligence Service (SIDE, for Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado), in September 2002.
A related theory advanced by the prosecutors is that Iran was angry at the government of Carlos Menem for realigning its foreign policy more closely with that of the United States, for example by sending warships to the Persian Gulf during the US-led war there in 1991.
But the prosecutors’ report shows that Argentina never completely terminated its nuclear cooperation with Iran, and that the Iranian and Argentine nuclear organizations that had negotiated the original contracts were negotiating on restoration of full cooperation on all three agreements from early 1992 through 1994.
The new evidence on nuclear-technology relations between Iran and Argentina is a serious blow to the credibility of the central assertion in the indictment that [former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and other former Iranian officials decided at a meeting on August 14, 1993, to plan the bombing of AMIA. That assertion was based entirely on the testimony of Iranian defector Abdolghassem Mesbahi, who was evidently unaware of the continued uranium exports and continuing negotiations revealed in the prosecutors’ report.
Porter concluded that “[t]he investigation of the 1994 bombing by the Argentine judiciary, which has no political independence from the executive branch, has had little credibility with the public, because of a bribe by the lead judge to a key witness and a pattern of deceptive accounts based on false testimony.”
In 2008, Nisman called for an investigation of former president Menem for allegedly obstructing the investigation during his term in office. According to the BBC, in 2012, Menem, then serving as a senator, was charged by another judge in relation to the bombing case, along with the former judge Galeano, “former heads of the intelligence service, Hugo Anzorreguy and Juan Carlos Anchezar, and two commanders of the federal police.” The prosecutors said there was “evidence that the Argentine intelligence services and security forces helped cover up the tracks of local accomplices of the attackers.”
CNN reported in March 2009 that former legal secretary for Judge Juan Jose Galeano, Claudio Lifschitz, claimed “he was kidnapped and tortured by men who said they were national intelligence agents.”
Lifschitz has testified that Galeano mishandled the investigation, including allegedly making a $400,000 bribe to a key witness. Galeano was taken off the AMIA investigation in 2003 and was removed from his position as a judge in 2005.
“They started to ask about information about the SIDE (State Intelligence Secretariat) related to the AMIA attack,” Lifschitz told CNN.
“And then they asked me about cassettes of conversations between the Iranians. That shows that the SIDE doesn’t deny that they had intercepted some phone lines with the help of some judges.
“They were afraid that I had copies of these tapes and I would present them to a judge, but I told them that I don’t have any copies of the tapes.”
In 2014, La Nación reported on the suspicious circumstances surrounding the 2013 killing of an ex-SIDE agent by Buenos Aires police who allegedly had some knowledge of the tapes – Lauchón Viale, whose path, according to the newspaper, had crossed with that of Lifschitz “many times, without them ever speaking or exchanging a greeting.”
Last year, Yitzhak Aviran, Israel’s ambassador to Argentina from 1993-2000, alleged that many of those involved in the attack had been targeted by Israel. He was quoted in an AFP report as saying, “The large majority of those responsible are no longer of this world, and we did it ourselves.”
In 2013, Kirchner signed memorandum of understanding with the government of Iran regarding the AMIA incident, which set up a “truth commission” to investigate the attack. A few months later Nisman “issued a lengthy indictment accusing the Iranian regime of infiltrating several South American countries and building local intelligence gathering facilities tasked with fostering and executing terrorist attacks,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, which opposed the MOU. The truth commission effort later fell through.
Mecropress reported recently that “Nisman said that the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 between Argentina and Iran ‘was presented as something to help unblock the negotiations and ended up being a criminal deal of impunity which was reached once everything else was already agreed beforehand,'” adding that the agreement was “a way to introduce a false lead” in the probe. He also reportedly said that before the memorandum was approved, “Argentina’s intelligence agents told the Iranians ‘relax, good news, we have already won’.”
However, other reporting by Gareth Porter casts serious doubt upon some of the claims made by Nisman in the past. In 2008, Porter reported for The Nation that Ron Goddard, then deputy chief of the US Mission in Buenos Aires, “confirmed…that investigators found nothing linking Iran to the [AMIA] bombing. ‘The whole Iran thing seemed kind of flimsy,’ Goddard said.”
After spending several months interviewing officials at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires familiar with the Argentine investigation, the head of the FBI team that assisted it and the most knowledgeable independent Argentine investigator of the case, I found that no real evidence has ever been found to implicate Iran in the bombing. Based on these interviews and the documentary record of the investigation, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the case against Iran over the AMIA bombing has been driven from the beginning by US enmity toward Iran, not by a desire to find the real perpetrators.
In a 2013 article for IPS News, Porter wrote that “Nisman’s readiness to base the crucial accusation against Iran in the AMIA case solely on [sources from the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin E Khalq (MEK)] and his denial of their obvious unreliability highlights the fact that he has been playing a political role on behalf of certain powerful interests rather than uncovering the facts.”
The BBC also reported today that Wikileaks cables revealed a close relationship between Nisman and Washington. A U.S. lobbying group backed by the so-called vulture funds feuding with Argentina over a debt dispute also jumped on the Iran-Argentina fear-mongering bandwagon in mid-2013, right around the time Argentina approved the memorandum of understanding with Iran regarding the investigation into the attacks.
La Nación reported this morning that Security Minister Sergio Berni said an investigation would be carried out, but that by all indications Nisman’s death appears to have been a suicide. Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich confirmed the Security Minister’s statement and promised the full support of the president’s office in the inquiry. President Kirchner’s office also reported that Security Minister Berni had personally overseen the processing of the scene of Nisman’s death.
According to the Argentina Independent:
Viviana Fein, the prosecutor assigned to the case, confirmed that the death was caused by Nisman’s gun. She declined to offer any hypotheses regarding the death until the results of the autopsy are known later today. “I trust the Federal Police and the Coast Guard, we will work prudently and we’ll have some more details at around noon, because we still can’t confirm it was a suicide.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Héctor Timerman, who was one of the officials accused by Nisman, said upon landing at JFK airport in New York that he “laments the death of a human being”. Secretary General for the Presidency, Aníbal Fernández, said he was “shocked” by the news, and considered that “there was nothing remotely normal” about Nisman’s death. He also added that all of the prosecutor’s findings on the AMIA case should be documented within the case’s files, so his death should not be an impediment to the investigation.
The Israeli government issued a statement lamenting the death of Nisman “under tragic circumstances” and called him “a brave attorney who fought endlessly for justice”. “The State of Israel is hopeful that the Argentine authorities will continue with Nisman’s activities and put all their effort in demanding justice to those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Argentina,” added the statement.
The BBC and the Associated Press both reported that the autopsy of Nisman’s body showed “no evidence” that others were involved in his death.
As of this writing, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires does not appear to have released a statement regarding the incident. The Argentine embassy in Washington has also been silent on the issue so far.
No one has ever been convicted for the AMIA bombing.