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CASTILLO DE NAIPES

The US had ties to an Argentine terror investigation that ended with a prosecutor’s mysterious death

A woman holds a sign that reads, "Justice for Nisman" during a demonstration outside Argentina's Congress in Buenos Aires February 4, 2015. Various rights groups marched through Buenos Aires to demand full disclosure of the AMIA Jewish community center case and justice over the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA.
Reuters/Marcos Brindicci
If it can be found.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

In 2009, David Cohen, then one of the US Treasury Department’s top cops on terrorist financing, was in Buenos Aires, where he met an Argentine prosecutor named Alberto Nisman. The prosecutor requested Cohen’s assistance in persuading France and Germany to freeze $48 million sitting in bank accounts belonging to suspects in a terrorist attack, including former Iranian president Ali Rafsanjani. Cohen offered to approach European officials on Nisman’s behalf, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

Six years later, Nisman is dead in mysterious circumstances, and Argentina is in the grip of a geopolitical scandal that promises to get worse before it gets better. (Cohen, meanwhile, is transitioning into the role of deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.)

Thanks to the surfacing several years ago of a trove of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, we have something of an inside view into the story, which also appears to involve a scandal-ridden president, Hezbollah bombers, and secret oil deals with Iran. The case is mentioned in 40 diplomatic cables sent between the US embassy in Argentina and the State Department from 2006 to 2009. Nisman flew to the US and briefed officials there, and also met in Buenos Aires with the assistant director of the FBI, as well as Cohen.

The US has a long history meddling in South American politics. But why were American officials so interested in an Argentine prosecutor, and why was he so eager to share the details of his investigation with them?

Axis of Evil

The answer brings us to the Middle East and the war on terror, but the story begins years earlier, in 1994, when a car bomb destroyed the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, a community center serving the large Jewish community in Buenos Aires. The bombing—which came two years after an attack by Islamic terrorists had destroyed Israel’s embassy to Argentina—killed 85 people and prompted international outrage. Some argued that a controversy between Iran and Argentina over nuclear technology sparked the attack; the culprits were never caught.

The initial investigations were rife with corruption and bad practices. The first prosecutor investigating the case was impeached in 2005 after failing to convict any local suspects and offering bribes for evidence. That’s when Nisman comes in—he’s appointed in 2004 by Argentina’s then-president Nestor Kirchner to dig into the case. He immediately focuses on the Iranian connection, and the idea that the bombing was perpetrated by operatives from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist militia long supported by Tehran.

The US was interested in the re-opening the case, too. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran and the country restarted its nuclear program; the first round of UN sanctions would come in 2006. At the time, the top lawmaker on foreign affairs in the House was holocaust survivor Tom Lantos. He sent a delegation of staffers down to Buenos Aires to meet Nisman’s co-prosecutor, telling him that “while Congress understands the difficult circumstances facing investigators, there is frustration among members regarding the long time this case has taken to come to conclusion.”

In 2006, Nisman brought indictments to Interpol, the global law enforcement organization, seeking red notices—essentially, international arrest warrants—but his case was unconvincing; one embassy cable referred to it as a debacle. Nisman went back to the drawing board, and with the help of US officials, redid his briefs. In 2007, Interpol granted eight red notices, including one for Rafsanjani. It was a big step forward in Argentina’s search for justice, as well as a coup for US efforts to link senior Iranian officials with terrorism. But arrest and extradition were easily avoided by the targets of the investigation, who accused US and Israeli intelligence of smearing them and denied the charges.

The first cover-up?

Now things really get interesting: The case against Iran stagnates as the country is isolated from the global community. But a different case suddenly develops: In 2008, Nisman surprises embassy officials by announcing charges against Carlos Menem, a former president of Argentina, charging him with covering up a “local connection” who worked with Iran on the bombing. (Apparently, they had family ties that began three generations earlier in an obscure Syrian village.)

Per the cables, US officials were miffed that the focus of the investigation was shifting from Iran to domestic politics. When the deputy chief of the US mission called the prosecutor to ask what was going on, Nisman apologized for the lack of warning and said that the families of the bombing victims had urged him to act.

But some observers saw political motives. Cristina Kirchner, the wife of the previous president, had just been elected to the presidency herself, and was facing a farm strike. An embassy official speculated that Nisman acted to curry favor with Kirchner in an attempt to someday gain a judicial appointment. One contact in the Ministry of Foreign affairs said that Nisman “‘is completely beholden to Alberto Fernandez’ [Kirchner’s Chief of Cabinet] and obeys Fernandez’s orders without question, and he did not discount that the timing of the announcement was ‘a political operation ordered by Alberto Fernandez.'”

But an earlier corruption investigation took precedence, and Menem was ultimately convicted in 2013, at the age of 83, for his role in an arms smuggling scheme involving Croatia and Ecuador. No trial was ever held to investigate Nisman’s allegations about Menem.

A second cover-up?

At this point, we’re out of diplomatic cables and on to other sources; the Wikileaks trove ends in 2010. Nisman’s case doesn’t progress much further in the meantime, but lots of other stuff is going on in Argentina: In the ensuing years, the country’s economy starts to tank, and litigation with US hedge funds over the country’s debt ends with Argentina going into default in the summer of 2013. By that time, Kirchner’s embattled government already had started to shift its foreign policy outlook away from the US. Her administration announced plans for a joint “truth commission” with Iran to discover the story behind the bombing, a move which outraged the Jewish community, the US, and Israel.

That’s when Nisman really goes to work: In May, he releases an investigation into deep cover Islamist terror networks throughout South America, particularly blaming the Iranian cultural attache at the time of the bombing, Mohsen Rabbani. At the time, two other suspects in the AIMA bombing were running for president of Iran.

Kirchner, meanwhile, starts cleaning up her country’s counter-intelligence apparatus, booting Antonio Stiusso out of government. Stiusso is a powerful and feared figure whose agency, SIDE, provided significant information to Nisman during his investigation. But SIDE also was accused, by Nisman, of being part of Menem’s alleged cover-up, and of even kidnapping and torturing a judicial investigator. Stiusso, whereabouts unknown, is a pivotal figure in this investigation; many see him as the conduit through which foreign intelligence agencies passed information to Nisman and even as a suspect in his murder, although evidence remains murky.

In January of this year, Nisman went public with allegations that Kirchner had made a deal to trade Argentine grain for Iranian oil—a convenient deal for two countries locked out of international markets, and which, Nisman argued, amounted to both an attempt to normalize relations and an agreement to make the 1994 bombing allegations go away.

Kirchner’s defenders say the case has plenty of holes. Whatever the quality of the case, the night before he was called to testify about these allegations, Nisman died from a gunshot wound to his head, apparently from a pistol he had borrowed from a friend because he felt his life was in danger. While initially thought a suicide, the case is now widely seen as a probable murder. Arrest warrants for Kirchner and her foreign minister were found at Nisman’s side.

Whodunnit?

Kirchner’s erratic response to Nisman’s death—she is currently in China, blundering her way through a mission intended to rustle up economic aid for Argentina—has ended with her concluding, in a Facebook post, that the death was a murder. By whom, she did not say, but she acknowledged that Nisman’s death brought further legal and political scandal to the country.

Kirchner’s government—already implicated in numerous corruption investigations—ends in October, when new elections will be held; the term-limited Kirchner, who has lost power in her party as the economy withered, is not expected to play a major role.

As for Nisman, was he the victim of a power struggle in Argentine politics, and a pawn in a struggle between nations during his decade-long investigation? As with the 1994 bombing, we may never know.

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