The apparent murder of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman last month has given rise to two opposing theories. One is that the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was responsible for Nisman’s death, to prevent him from indicting the president and foreign minister for an alleged conspiracy to lift the accusation against Iran for the 1994 terror bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured 300.
The other theory, from Kirchner government officials, is that it was the most powerful figure in the country’s intelligence service, Horacio Antonio Stiuso, better known as “Jaime Stiuso,” who had the motive to kill Nisman. The argument holds that having “manipulated” Nisman to bring the indictment against Kirchner and foreign minister Hector Timerman – and then having been fired from his position as chief of operations of the intelligence agency – Stiuso hoped to get revenge against Kirchner by provoking suspicion that her administration was responsible for the murder.
However Nisman died, his fate was deeply intertwined with that of Stiuso. From the time Nisman took over the AMIA investigation in 2004, he relied heavily on the shadowy intelligence official for secret information in putting together his indictment of Iran for the bombing. The story of Nisman’s reliance on Stiuso, which has shaped the narrative on the terror bombing, reveals both the enormous power that Stiuso has wielded over that narrative as well as the overweening influence of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, on Stiuso’s position on the issue.
It also shows how the crucial elements of that narrative were falsified.
“The Man Whom Everyone Fears”
Jaime Stiuso entered what was known for decades as the Secretaría de Inteligencia de Estado, or SIDE, in 1972 at the age of 18. When the “dirty war” began in 1976, SIDE became an arm of the Argentine military dictatorship, deployed against domestic leftist enemies. Thousands were killed, and thousands more disappeared during the war, which targeted Jewish intellectuals based on an anti-Semitic theory prevalent in the Argentine military and intelligence services.
In 1980, in the midst of that repressive war, Stiuso joined the counterintelligence directorate and became an expert in the use of telephone wiretaps. He rose to become head of counterintelligence. But Stiuso’s expertise was not only applied against those considered subversives, foreign spies and criminals. Over the years, he began to acquire a reputation for keeping files on large numbers of prominent figures in Argentine politics and society and for making clandestine videos of political figures in compromised situations.
In July 2004, then-Minister of Interior Gustavo Beliz learned about details of illegal activities allegedly carried out by Stiuso. Beliz met with then-President Nestor Kirchner about what he had learned. But one of the things Beliz had discovered about Stiuso’s operations was that Kirchner’s 2003 presidential campaign had been financed in large part by secret funds from the $100 million that had been added to SIDE’s budget that year, according to an account by Jorge Rosales in La Nacion, Argentina’s leading conservative daily.
Within a few hours of the meeting with the president, Beliz was ordered to sign a letter of resignation. But Beliz shocked the entire country by going on a television show to announce that he had been dismissed from the government. He went on to denounce SIDE as a “parallel security ministry.” He said the intelligence agency had become the secretariat of a “secret police state” over which there were no controls.
Beliz held up a black-and-white photograph of Stiuso – the only image of him ever seen by the public up to that time – and referred to him as “the real power in the SIDE” and “the man whom everyone fears.”
Well before the AMIA terror bombing, Stiuso had begun tapping Iranian embassy phones and carrying out systematic surveillance of Iranian diplomats and the new Iranian head of the local mosque in Buenos Aires, Mohsen Rabbani. And Stiuso was sharing all the data he collected on the Iranians with Mossad in Israel, according to the author of the most detailed account of Stiuso’s career, SIDE, La Argentina Secreta, by journalist Gerardo Young of the daily Clarin.
After the July 1994 explosion, Stiuso had control over the AMIA investigation. But the three top US Embassy officials and the head of the FBI’s Hezbollah office, James Bernazzani, all told this writer in 2007 that SIDE had found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the bombing in the first few years. In 1996, the lead role in the investigation at SIDE was taken away from Stiuso and given to another group, called “Sala Patria,” which had been cooperating with CIA and Mossad on trying to penetrate what were assumed to be terrorist cells in the “Triple Frontier” area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.
Responsibility for the AMIA case was shifted back to Stiuso, however, after an internal power struggle between counterintelligence and the “Sala Patria” group resulted in the firing of Patricio Pfinnen, the “Sala Patria” official who had been in charge of the investigation, in December 2001. “Stiuso regained control over all the files,” Gerardo Young told me in a 2007 interview.
“Boy, You Are Going to Work With Him”
In September 2004, after four suspects accused of being part of the AMIA bombing plot had been acquitted, President Kirchner created a new special prosecutor’s unit for the AMIA investigation and named General Prosecutor Nisman to lead the unit.
But it was understood from the beginning that Nisman would take his cues from Stiuso. In a meeting with Nisman and Stiuso, later reported in the Argentine press, Kirchner pointed to Stiuso and told Nisman, “Boy, you are going to work with him.”
Stiuso had worked closely with both the CIA and Mossad, but Mossad had been more aggressive in providing intelligence implicating the Iranians in the bombing. And, as Young observed in his book, Stiuso “had a weakness for Mossad.”
In 2002, Stiuso had begun compiling a 1,000-page final report on the AMIA investigation, according to Young, based in crucial respects on intelligence supplied by Mossad.
The most important information he got from Mossad was a series of reports claiming that the “suicide bomber” was a Lebanese member of Hezbollah, Ibrahim Hussein Berro. Stiuso testified in the AMIA court case in September 2003 that as early as 1995, an unidentified “collateral” intelligence service had given SIDE information that an individual named “Brru” had traveled from Lebanon to the “triple frontier” area and had participated in the AMIA bombing.
That “collateral” service was Mossad. Nisman used a lot of the details he had gotten from Stiuso’s report. Young told this writer in 2007 that a Mossad agent had revealed to him shortly before our conversation that the Israeli service had been unhappy about the intelligence relating to Berro that had been included in Nisman’s report. “There was a lot of information they had transmitted [to SIDE] that they wouldn’t want in a public report,” Young said.
Stiuso testified that information from the “collateral” agency had prompted SIDE to send a spy to get more detailed information in Lebanon on the AMIA bombing. The spy, who apparently had ties to Mossad, claimed to SIDE officials that a former Hezbollah militant had revealed to him that Berro, a Hezbollah member who had been reported killed in an attack on Israel troops in Southern Lebanon, had actually been killed carrying out the AMIA bombing.
But the creator of “Sala Patria,” Patricio Pfinnen, who had been in charge of that operation before being fired in late 2001, told the court that when SIDE got back to the spy with questions about what he called “gaps” in the story, it “fell apart.” He suggested that the spy may have been “lying to us” and declared, “I have my doubts about [Berro] being [the] person who was immolated.”
Stiuso had chosen to ignore the questionable end of the operation and instead accepted Mossad’s claims about Berro. One of those was a story that Mossad had a recording of the telephone call Berro had made to his family shortly before carrying out the bombing, according to reports by Haaretz military affairs correspondent Ze’ev Schiff and El Diario del Juicio in Buenos Aires.
That story would imply that Mossad had been sitting on the recording of a call by the suicide bomber to his family for nearly a decade rather than turning it over to the Argentine prosecutor from the beginning.
Nisman nevertheless cited Stiuso as the authority for the conclusion in his 2006 request for the arrest of senior Iranian officials that the bombing had been carried out by Berro.
The other sensational claim that Nisman’s report made was purported evidence that the entire senior Iranian government leadership, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had made the decision on the AMIA bombing at a mid-August 1993 meeting. Nisman quoted court testimony by four officials of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (People’s Mujahedeen, or MEK), the exile Iranian organization trying to use the West to overthrow the regime.
The MEK officials claimed to know the exact day, hour, place and agenda of the meeting (although two different dates were mentioned). But an exile group, which had been at war with the Islamic regime for 13 years, obviously was not in a position to obtain such information. And the MEK had long been a client of the Mossad, which the Israelis used to put out information about Iran that it did not want to be linked to Israel itself. And Mossad leaked to Haaretz the claim that it had its own account of that meeting.
Nisman and Stiuso turn against Kirchner
Nisman adopted the Israeli accusation of Iranian responsibility for the AMIA bombing, at least in part, because President Nestor Kirchner’s government had decided to go along with Bush administration pressure to blame the bombing on Iran. A May 2008 WikiLeaks cable reveals that, when Nisman was preparing a request for the arrest of former President Carlos Menem for allegedly covering up the “local connection” with the bombing, both an Argentine foreign ministry official and a political adviser to the umbrella organization of the Jewish community, DAIA (Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas) observed that Nisman was doing so because he was “completely beholden” to Kirchner’s chief of staff, Alberto Fernandez. The US Embassy agreed with that assessment.
But having tied his career to the accusation of Iranian responsibility, Nisman became passionately attached to that position. When Fernandez de Kirchner reached an agreement with Iran in 2013 for a “truth commission” on AMIA, Nisman reportedly viewed the agreement as a dismissal of his 900-page indictment of Iran. His first response was to release a 502-page report arguing that Iran had been building a network of terrorist cells throughout Latin America, in which the central evidence was the tendentious claim that Iran had been directly involved in a half-baked plot to blow up fuel tanks at JFK airport.
Stiuso, who had loyally served Nestor Kirchner up to that moment, also saw a threat to his own career. He had been tapping the phones of everyone who had contact with the Iranians, including government officials, and he made the transcripts available to Nisman. So for the second time in his career, Nisman began drafting a long, rambling indictment based on material from Stiuso. This time, he aimed at showing that Kirchner and Timerman had secretly reached an agreement with Iran to clear the Iranians of the AMIA bombing. Like his 2006 indictment of Iranian officials, it had page after page of quotes from wiretaps that didn’t prove his thesis.
In late 2014, the Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner government learned about the Stiuso-Nisman collaboration and fired Stiuso and two other top SIDE officials known to be allied with him. The stage was set for Nisman’s mysterious death on January 18.
The Kirchner government’s argument that Stiuso “manipulated” Nisman is far too pat. Nisman used Stiuso’s information because it suited his interests. Whether the interests of Nisman and Stiuso ever diverged before January 18 remains to be seen.