By Fulton Armstrong
Conspiracy theories, accusations, and counteraccusations – usually driven by personal prejudices and political agendas – are not uncommon in Argentina, but the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18 has brought them to a crescendo. Each theory probably contains a grain or more of truth, but none adequately explains how this respected man, who had spent 10 years investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 20 years ago that killed 85 and injured hundreds, wound up dead on his bathroom floor with a bullet in his head just hours before he was to testify before Congress. Three main scenarios have emerged.
Scenario A: Nisman was a national hero whose assiduous investigation of the AMIA attack, aided by Argentina’s intelligence agency (SIDE), had conclusively demonstrated an Iranian role in planning and funding Hezbollah’s execution of the bombing. He was about to request the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on charges of colluding with Tehran to cover up Iran’s role – and they or unidentified loyalists ordered his murder to stop him. Under this scenario, a stealth team working on behalf of the President suborned or sneaked by the 10 body guards placed around Nisman’s apartment to enter and – using a 22-caliber pistol that he’d borrowed from an aide – killed him.
Scenario B: Nisman was a zealot manipulated by disgruntled SIDE officials and got in over his head in a plot to bring down the President and her government. Nisman had charged Presidents with coverups before – accusing President Carlos Menem in 2006 of taking a $10 million bribe from Iran to keep investigations from leading to its operatives – and his distaste for CFK was well known. In December, she fired long-time SIDE chief, Antonio Stiusso, who (according to this theory) sought revenge by helping Nisman make his case. (Officials close to President made the unsubstantiated and dubious claim that the man who lent Nisman the gun, Diego Lagomarsino, was also an intelligence agent.) Under this scenario, accepted by very few Argentines, Nisman took his own life.
Scenario C: In the house of mirrors that is Argentine intelligence, power plays are shrouded in intrigue and hard to divine. Under this scenario, persistent rumors suggest a struggle between pro- and anti-Stiusso factions in which Prosecutor Nisman was collateral damage, perhaps because of his eagerness to do the dismissed SIDE director’s bidding. Precious little information is available to label the factions – pro- or anti-CFK, or pro- or anti-Israel, or even pro- or anti-Iran – but there’s a consensus that something was rotten in SIDE. Eight days after Nisman’s death, CFK announced an effort to dissolve it and set up a replacement agency, and the Congress has already begun to take action.
However much partisans of one perspective or another want to believe these scenarios and their variants, information is too weak or contradictory to give much credibility to any. CFK and Timerman’s advocacy of trade with Iran – primarily swapping Argentine grain for Iranian oil – and their negotiation on a joint investigation of the bombing weren’t secret. The exchanges were the subject of numerous public statements since 2013, and a number of Argentine officials, including Stiusso and other senior SIDE officers, were involved in both initiatives. Interpol officials, moreover, deny that either CFK or Timerman had ever requested suspension of arrest warrants for any of the Iranian suspects. But the President’s attacks on Nisman before and after his death have been strident and personal – clearly crossing the line for a chief executive talking about a prosecutor – and her public statements, including flip-flopping on whether the death was a suicide, do have a certain odor that create the impression that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet might say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The poisonous political climate in Buenos Aires over el caso Nisman appears likely to drag on – yet another crisis the country can ill afford.
February 9, 2015