Argentina Sees Convictions But No Closure In Terror Attack Cover-Up Trial

An Argentine federal court on Thursday convicted several individuals of meddling with the official investigation into the South American country’s deadliest incident of terrorism, the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA Jewish community center that killed more than 80 people…

Read this piece in its entirety at LobeLog.

Tech Giants Skirt Claims They Aided 2015 Calif. Terror Attack

Twitter, Facebook and Google can’t be held responsible for a December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, because those harmed in the incident can’t show the tech companies actually aided the attackers, a California federal judge has said…

Read this piece in its entirety at Law360.

Lawyer’s Memoir Dissects Flaws in Investigation of Argentina Terror Attack

Nearly a quarter-century after a bomb blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish community center killed dozens and injured hundreds more, the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history remains unsolved—and a new memoir recounts one lawyer’s efforts to prove the government’s investigation was a sham from the start…

Read this piece in its entirety at LobeLog.

Alberto Nisman Was Murdered, But We Still Don’t Know Why

Investigators in Argentina have finally determined, after more than two-and-a-half years, that the gunshot to the head that killed controversial prosecutor Alberto Nisman in January 2015 was delivered by someone other than Nisman himself…

Read this piece in its entirety at LobeLog.

Overblown Claims about Hezbollah in Latin America

To be sure, Latin American authorities must remain vigilant about terrorist threats. But they also must keep those threats in perspective and allocate their limited resources accordingly. Overblown claims [about Hezbollah in Latin America] encourage countries to engage in the kind of security theater that leaves fundamental problems unaddressed and ultimately puts citizens at greater risk.

Read this piece in its entirety at LobeLog.

U.S. Involvement in the AMIA Bombing Investigation: Keeping Iran “in the Dock”

The text below is the executive summary of the substantial research paper I completed during the spring semester of 2016 as the capstone requirement for earning a master’s degree in U.S. foreign policy and national security from the American University School of International Service.

I spent the better part of a year researching and writing this essay, and I would be remiss not to thank my advisor, Dr. Philip Brenner, as well as Carlos Osorio of the National Security Archive for their invaluable guidance and assistance throughout the course of this project.

The full paper is available here and is also embedded at the bottom of this post.

This substantial research project focuses on U.S. involvement in the investigation of the July 18, 1994 terrorist attack that destroyed the Buenos Aires headquarters of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association, better known by its Spanish acronym, AMIA. My research suggests that the United States promoted a theory of culpability for the attack that implicated high-level Iranian government officials in the AMIA bombing not for the strength of the evidence, but rather due to political motives; primarily, antagonism toward Iran. During my research, I did not encounter any academic examinations of the U.S. role in the AMIA investigation, nor did I find any substantial studies of the ways in which geopolitical concerns may affect which investigative avenues the United States is willing to support when cooperating with other countries on terrorism investigations. Therefore, this research represents an initial step toward developing a better understanding of these little-studied aspects of international relations.

My conclusions derive from an extensive examination of many hundreds of pages of primary source documents related to the investigation of the AMIA attack and the circumstances surrounding it, including diplomatic cables, judicial filings, intelligence reports and internal government correspondence. I also relied on works by journalists and scholars who have done prior research on the AMIA bombing and related topics. My aim is not to definitively disprove the hypothesis I refer to as the “Iran Theory,” but rather to explore some of the major shortcomings in the evidence cited by its proponents in order to consider whether U.S. antagonism toward Iran and distrust of Argentina’s investigative abilities contributed to the persistence of this line of investigation.

The evidence for the Iran Theory is largely circumstantial. Essentially, its proponents argue that Argentina’s decision to suspend cooperation on nuclear technology with Iran in the early 1990s angered the Iranian government to such an extent that high-level Iranian officials ordered the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to carry out the AMIA attack. Hezbollah had threatened to retaliate against Israel’s abduction and torture of a Lebanese militant leader named Mustafa Dirani weeks before the AMIA bombing, which led some U.S. intelligence analysts to conclude that the attack also served as revenge for Israel’s treatment of Dirani.[1] Additionally, other apparent terrorist acts against Jewish and Israeli targets immediately following the AMIA bombing contributed to the perception within the U.S. government that these incidents constituted a “coordinated terrorist campaign…against Israel” carried out by Hezbollah with Iranian support.[2]

Additionally, proponents of the Iran Theory have cited the testimony of several Iranian defectors as corroboration for this hypothesis. However, the U.S. embassy in Argentina determined that the first defector to provide such testimony, Monoucher Moatamer, “wasn’t credible.”[3] An FBI investigator who worked on the AMIA case described a second defector who repeatedly implicated Iranian officials in the attack, Abdolghassem Mesbahi, as “full of shit.”[4] Furthermore, the FBI and CIA determined that a man calling himself Ahmad Behbahani, who also alleged the involvement of the Iranian government, was an imposter who was “lying about lots of stuff.”[5]

In 2007, James Cheek, the American ambassador in Argentina at the time of the AMIA attack, stated that “there was never any real evidence” supporting assertions of Iranian involvement.[6] Similarly, Ronald Godard, the Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. embassy at the time of the bombing, later said that the “whole Iran thing seemed kind of flimsy.”[7] Nevertheless, linking top Iranian government officials to the AMIA attack served to reinforce a broader U.S. government portrayal of Iran as a hostile nation capable of using terrorism against Western countries in pursuit of its political goals. The U.S. government relied heavily on the perpetuation of this narrative in attempts to achieve its major foreign policy objectives with regard to Iran; namely, constraining the country’s geopolitical influence and denying its attempts to attain nuclear enrichment capabilities.

In an August 1994 State Department cable, Cheek himself seemed to acknowledge this dynamic when he admitted “the absence of direct links” between Iranian government officials and the AMIA attack, while praising “a steady campaign to keep Iranian complicity in global terrorism in the public eye” that had “kept the Iranians in the dock where they belong.”[8] This statement foreshadowed later efforts by the United States to use the allegation of Iranian involvement in the AMIA bombing as a justification for its antagonistic foreign policy stance toward Iran.

The most illustrative example of this is the extensive role the United States played in the campaign to get the international law enforcement organization INTERPOL to issue wanted advisories known as “red notices” against Iranian suspects in the AMIA case. The first such “red notices” were issued in 2003, but were rescinded in 2005 after evidence surfaced indicating improper handling of the AMIA case by Argentine judicial officials.[9] When the Argentine government submitted a request to have the “red notices” reinstated in early 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice instructed American diplomats to “approach host governments at the highest level to convey U.S. strong support in this matter.”[10] American Journalist Mark Perelman reported that the administration of President George W. Bush planned to use the charges against Iranian officials “to highlight Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism to convince reluctant U.N. Security Council members…that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be neutralized.”[11]

The election of U.S. President Barack Obama represented the beginning of a shift in U.S. relations with Iran. In contrast to President Bill Clinton’s administration, which had pursued a policy of “containment” toward Iran,[12] and President George W. Bush’s administration, which had adopted an even more aggressive posture,[13] the Obama administration sought to deny Iran’s attempts to advance its nuclear capabilities through sanctions and diplomatic negotiations.[14] As part of this shift, the executive branch largely stopped relying on the Iran Theory to keep Iran “in the dock.” But still, opponents of rapprochement with Iran in the U.S. congress continued to raise the issue of alleged Iranian involvement in the AMIA attack as a justification for their opposition to the negotiations, which eventually resulted in an accord announced in July 2015.[15]

In addition to demonstrating how easily terrorism investigations can become politicized in both the domestic and international arena, the AMIA saga also highlights the necessity of closely and critically examining such cases. If scholars and policy makers want to accurately understand history, engaging in rigorous analysis of primary source documents like the ones cited in my substantial research paper should be the first step. Current public discourse and scholarship treats Iranian responsibility for the AMIA attack as virtually an unquestioned fact.[16] But as my essay demonstrates, a thorough consideration of the available evidence shows that the Iran Theory is substantially less robust than it has been made to seem.


[1] DCI Counterterrorist Center, “Counterterrorist Center Commentary: Hizballah Attacks Israel in Buenos Aires?” (Central Intelligence Agency, July 18, 1994).; This document is not yet available to the public.

[2] DCI Counterterrorist Center, “Counterterrorist Center Commentary: Possible Hizballah Bombing Campaign” (Central Intelligence Agency, July 27, 1994).; This document is not yet available to the public.

[3] Gareth Porter, “US Officials Rejected Key Source on ‘94 Argentina Bombing,” Antiwar.com, January 24, 2008, http://www.antiwar.com/porter/?articleid=12254.

[4] Dexter Filkins, “Death of a Prosecutor,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/death-of-a-prosecutor.

[5] CBS News, “Is Lockerbie Iran Defector A Fake?,” CBS News, June 3, 2000, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/is-lockerbie-iran-defector-a-fake/.

[6] Gareth Porter, “Bush’s Iran/Argentina Terror Frame-Up,” The Nation, January 18, 2008, http://www.thenation.com/article/bushs-iranargentina-terror-frame/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James Cheek, “94BUENOSAIRES5695 – The Iran Connection: Iran Stays in the Dock for the AMIA Bombing” (U.S. Department of State, August 29, 1994), https://foia.state.gov/searchapp/DOCUMENTS/Waterfall/190108.pdf.

[9] INTERPOL, “Argentinean Red Notices for Iranian Officials Cancelled,” INTERPOL, September 27, 2005, http://www.interpol.int/News-and-media/News/2005/PR041.

[10] Condoleezza Rice, “07STATE29082 – Demarche Request – Argentina’s Request for USG Assistance in Connection with March 13-15 Interpol Executive Committee Meeting in Lyon, France” (U.S. Department of State, March 8, 2007), https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07STATE29082_a.html.

[11] Marc Perelman, “U.S. Set To Raise ‘94 Attack,” The Forward, November 3, 2006, http://forward.com/news/7417/us-set-to-raise-94-attack/.

[12] F. Gregory Gause III, “The Illogic of Dual Containment,” Foreign Affairs, April 1994, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/1994-03-01/illogic-dual-containment.

[13] Gareth Porter, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Charlottesville, Virginia: Just World Books, 2014), pp. 135-137.

[14] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama’s Crystal-Clear Promise to Stop Iran From Getting a Nuclear Weapon,” The Atlantic, October 2, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/obamas-crystal-clear-promise-to-stop-iran-from-getting-a-nuclear-weapon/262951/.

[15] See, for example: Examining the State Department’s Report on Iranian Presence in the Western Hemisphere 19 Years after the AMIA Attack (Washington, D.C.: House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 2013), http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/joint-subcommittee-hearing-examining-state-department’s-report-iranian-presence-western.

[16] Toby Dershowitz and Joseph Humire, “US should help Argentina solve terrorism case,” The Hill, January 18, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/266101-us-should-help-argentina-solve-terrorism-case.

The full paper is available as a PDF below:

Are Drone Strikes Legal and Are They Effective?

The use of drones to hunt down and execute alleged terrorists and their accomplices has caused much controversy, both at home and abroad, especially in recent years. US drone strikes have killed thousands in Pakistan, hundreds in Yemen and dozens in Somalia, including children and civilians as well as militants. By one estimate, less than 2% of the more than 3,000 casualties in Pakistan were “high-profile targets,” while more than 20% were children or civilians. Many observers have questioned the legality and effectiveness of the use of drones in the fight against terrorism. Here is an explanation of the issues and arguments.

Are Drone Strikes Legal?

The United States law cited as the basis for the use of drone strikes is known as the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF. The law, passed a week after the 9/11 attacks, authorizes the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

“All necessary and appropriate force against…persons [the President] determines” to pose a threat to the US is very broad language, so it seems fairly clear that under United States law, the use of drones is legal. In fact, in a 2010 speech State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh specifically cited the AUMF as the Obama administration’s justification for the drone program (emphasis added):

“It is the considered view of this Administration … that U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war … the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law. As a matter of domestic law, Congress authorized the use of all necessary and appropriate force through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). These domestic and international legal authorities continue to this day.”

Can Drones be Used Against Americans?

Four Americans have already been killed in drone strikes abroad and recent reports indicate that the administration is considering a strike on a fifth. In September 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both American citizens, were killed by a drone strike in Yemen. Weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman (also a US citizen), was killed in another drone strike in Yemen. Jude Kenan Mohammed, a 20 year-old American was killed by a drone in Pakistan in late 2011.

Many observers denounced these killings as a violation of the citizens’ constitutional rights, especially the protections afforded by the Fifth Amendment, which states that no citizen may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees citizens ” a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” in “all criminal prosecutions.”

Asked about his decision to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, President Obama (formerly a constitutional law professor) called it “an easy one.” In response to a question about the death of Abdulrahman, senior White House advisor Robert Gibbs infamously replied that he “should have [had] a far more responsible father.” For well over a year after these strikes, the administration resisted disclosing the legal justification for targeting American citizens. However, in February 2013, an undated, 16-page “white paper” from the Department of Justice leaked to the media that informally outlined the administration’s legal reasoning.

According to the memo, “a U.S. operation using lethal force in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force would be lawful” if:

1) An “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government determines that the target has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is  no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.”

2) Capturing the target is “infeasible” or would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel involved in such an operation.

3) The strike is carried out according to “law of war principles.”

The document also cites the AUMF and the president’s constitutional obligation to protect the nation’s security as components of the legal reasoning, concluding that “a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense.” The implication seems to be that the protections afforded to accused criminals do not apply to citizens deemed to be engaged in adversarial military operations.

What About International Law?

The UN charter guarantees all states the inherent right to self-defense. Considering that al-Qaeda has attacked the United States and continues to plot attacks against it, some scholars have concluded that the US has a right to conduct military operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates under a legal doctrine known as jus ad bellum (“right to war”). However, the case that the drone program satisfies the companion doctrine of jus in bello (“justice in war”) is much weaker. Jus in bello typically incorporates the notions of proportionality and protection of civilians.  Considering the high civilian death toll and the low percentage of high-profile targets eliminated by the drones, there is little evidence that the drone program meets this standard.

Another important question arises from the fact that the drone program is conducted largely by the CIA rather than the military – namely, can an intelligence agency shield itself behind laws of war meant to apply to military forces? As Ross Newland, who was a senior official at the C.I.A. when the agency was given authority over the program, told the New York Times, “This is not an intelligence mission.” While the Obama administration tried to shift responsibility for the drone program to the Defense Department last year, Congress has proved a stumbling block in that respect.

UN officials and prominent human rights groups have concluded that at least some US drone strikes have contravened international laws and may have even constituted war crimes. Even if this is true, there is virtually no way any Americans will ever be prosecuted for violations of international law. The United States is not a participant in the International Criminal Court, where such crimes are tried, and in addition to its veto power on the UN Security Counsel, there is a US law on the books that allows the country to use “all means necessary and appropriate” to bring about the release of any US or allied personnel detained or imprisoned by the court.


Are Drones Effective?

This is where the pro-drone camp is on its shakiest ground. Drones can cost millions to manufacture and thousands of dollars per flight-hour to operate, but the return on that investment is likely negative. Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006 and was previously a CIA station chief in Pakistan, told the Guardian in 2012 that the drone program “needs to be targeted much more finely…We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. ”

In a 2013 article for the Cairo Review, Nabeel Khoury, the State Department’s deputy chief of mission in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, wrote that “the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] operative killed by drones.”

Considering that even killing actual terrorists may create sympathy for their cause, the high ratio of civilian deaths (estimated to be as high as 10 civilians for each militant in some areas) can only be expected to engender further anger and resentment.

In a recent interview with The Intercept, one former drone operator describes the drone program as “death by unreliable metadata,” noting “We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.” While drone strikes are often referred to with the euphemism “targeted killings,” there is substantial evidence that they’re often not targeted very well.


Whatever one thinks of the morality of using drones, it is probably legal under both domestic and international law to target and kill foreign militants if they can be reasonably suspected of posing an imminent threat to US national security. However, the extremely vague definitions of suspicion and imminence seriously call into question whether targets are receiving adequate due process to determine if they actually meet these criteria.

The Justice Department’s “white paper” cited above suggests that active intelligence about a specific attack may not be needed in order to justify a targeted strike. Rather, the standard seems to be the determination by an “informed, high-level” official that the target “recently” engaged in “activities” that could pose a threat at some future time. Again, these terms are not specifically defined.

There really is no convincing argument that the targeting of American citizens does not violate the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the US constitution. Similarly, it is difficult to argue that the extremely high civilian death toll is proportionate to the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other militants, especially when one considers that it may actually be exacerbating the problem.

Basically, the program itself is probably legal, but the way it has been executed almost certainly breaches both American and international laws. More importantly it is expensive, inaccurate and ineffective. It should be dramatically scaled back and made much more transparent.  As President Obama himself once said, “Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.”