Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dramatic Political Intrigue in Argentina

This story involves a crime of more than 20 years ago, the still-unsolved bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, has spawned a present-day death that is maybe suicide, maybe murder and a big national political scandal. It's like a "Mission Impossible" plot with a dose of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe thrown in.

It's also shown again that the reporting spirit of Jeff Gerth and Judith Miller hasn't been exorcised from the New York Times yet, where they've covered it with this-side-says, the-other-side-says stenography.

Alberto Nisman had been the lead prosecutor working on the AMIA case since 2004. Last week, he broke off an overseas family vacation early to rush back to Buenos Aires and file a 290-page report with the judge in the case accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK for short) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman of having conducted a "criminal plan" to cover up the culpability of Iranian citizens suspected of being involved in the deadly AMIA bombing. The full report is available online.

Nisman was set to testify about his charges on Monday to a group of opposition Members of the Argentine Congress.

On Sunday night, he turned up dead in his apartment. (One report said his body was found early Monday; in a case like this, people obsess over details.)

It initially looked like a suicide. He was in his own apartment that was guarded by high security measures, both electronic and human. He had asked an associate the day before to bring him a .22 pistol, which he appears to have used to shoot himself in the head. No suicide note found so far. No powder residue on his trigger hand in the first forensic test. Argentine journalist and human rights activist Horacio Verbitsky noted that on its face, the death was reminiscent of the plot in Poe's 1841 story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." (La dudosa muerte del fiscal Página/12 20.01.2015)

One plausible motive for suicide might be that Nisman's case was visibly coming apart almost as soon as he filed it with the judge, who noted that it was unusual for a prosecutor to file such a document without supporting documentary evidence. The key element of the alleged "criminal plan" was that CFK and Timerman supposedly pressed Interpol to drop the "red alerts" it had out for several of the Iranian suspects. But there was the inconvenient fact that the red alerts are still in place.

When you go after a country's President on a criminal charge, it's generally advisable to have your ducks lined up and a plausible case to present. Somebody clearly didn't do their homework on this one. Ronald Noble, the American who was Secretary General of Interpol from 2000-2014, which included the time in question, flatly rejected Nisman's charges in public last week, saying the prosecutor's charges were false, that CFK's government had not asked for the red alerts to be dropped. Other parts of the Nisman's case in his report seem to be falling apart by the day still. (Raúl Kollmann, “Lo que dice Nisman es falso” Página/12 18.01.2015) So on Sunday, Nisman surely knew that he could be looking at a major career setback, and maybe even criminal charges for abuse of office.

Cristina suggested in an official statement Tuesday that the death may have been a suicide. (AMIA. Otra vez: tragedia, confusión, mentira e interrogantes. 19.01.2015) This may seem to be unusual for a President to comment on an unsolved case. But when a prosecutor is going after the President, clearly actively supported by opposition politics parties and the press (particularly Clarín and La Nación), everything gets political. Opposition politicians and demonstrators were suggesting right away that CFK had him murdered. So her supporters were careful to point out the possible reasons for suicide. Although, as Verbitsky noted in his article and a TV appearance Tuesday, there have been other cases, not just in detective fiction, when what initially looked like suicide clearly turned out to be something else.

The larger background includes the fact that CFK has recently been making high-level changes in the national security service, the Secretaría de Inteligencia (SI; formerly SIDE). There are still holdovers in the SI from the days of the brutal military dictatorship of 1976-83. It has been a hallmark of CFK's administration since she took office in 2007, and of that of her predecessor and late husband Néstor Kirchner who was elected President in 2003, to prosecute officials high and from the dictatorship who broke the law by torturing and murdering people during their rule. Yes, in a "backward Third World" country like Argentina, they actually prosecute public officials who commit violent felonies during their service.

So for anyone, in the SI or elsewhere, who remembers the days of 1973-86 fondly or who still has dirty laundry from that period they want to keep hidden, they have no love for CFK. She was a human rights attorney who represented victims of repression during the dictatorship. Néstor was thrown in prison during that time. Her political career actually preceded his, and she is the first elected female President in South America. Néstor was the one who appointed Nisman to be the lead prosecutor in the AMIA case in 2004.

Then there's the AMIA case itself. Whenever it's referred to in the US press, it's typically mentioned as an unquestioned case of Iran showing its capability of committing major terrorist acts far away from Iran. But the case has never actually been solved. That hasn't stopped people from become committed to the notion of Iran's culpability. However, Nisman himself had brought a case that is scheduled to come to trial soon against former President Carlos Menem and two officials from his government at the time of the attack on charges of obstructing justice in the case to protect some of their cronies. One of the Wikileaks revelations showed that in 2008, the American Embassy pressured CFK's government and Nisman's office, unsuccessfully, to not bring those charges. Presumably because the Bush-Cheney Administration didn't want to dilute the notion that Iran was definitely behind the AMIA attack. (BTW, if we're picking conspiracy theories, I would nominate Dick Cheney as the chief culprit in Nisman's death!)

The obstruction case against Menem also suggests a possible Syrian connection. And maybe even local complicity, as in SIDE officials who may have known of the attack but decided to let it proceed, for whatever reason. Money can always be a motive in these things. But the military dictatorship also promoted some pretty rancid anti-Semitic ideology, so that could theoretically have been a motive for domestic Argentine participation.

Long experience has shown that official secrecy is typically used to cover incompetence. But there is also reason to believe that current and former SI officials may still have things they want to cover up in the AMIA case and its aftermath. it doesn't hurt CFK's effort to reform the SI if old officials wind up looking bad, or downright criminal, in the AMIA case. Nisman's formal accusation against her last week claimed that she was trying to cover for Iranian suspects and falsely point the finger at domestic Argentine suspects. Which, if you are an SI person with something to hide, would be helpful for the public to believe.

So this plot has been thickening for over 20 years now. Against that background, it makes sense that CFK's supporters and some journalists have been saying that Nisman's report reeked of something cooked up by anti-CFK SI types who have been on the losing side of recent changes.

It looks entirely plausible to me at this point that what happened was that some combination of opposition officials persuaded Nisman to put out this report. Anyone familiar with the history of the infamous American special prosecutor Kenn Starr and his collaboration with Republican smear artists in Whitewater investigation against the Clintons will find it easy to picture how this might work. Also in this scenario, Nisman's rushing back from vacation seems significant. The opposition was denouncing CFK, not unlike FOX News was attacking President Obama, for somehow not expressing sufficient outrage over the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. The now bitterly oppositional Clarín claimed that CFK had ordered Timerman not to participate in the famous Paris solidarity demonstration.

The timing of the Nisman report fit nicely in this timeline, because the day after that claim, "Clarín" could head the charges that CFK and Timerman would allegedly covering for Iranian terrorist in the AMIA case. Cristina took the unusual step of showing three successive days of "Clarín" front pages in her first formal statement after Nisman's death to illustrate that point.

Now, she is publicly saying she thinks Nisman was murdered. Again, it's unusual. But her opposition has been playing a high-stakes game the last several days. And Cristina's not one to imagine that she can easily convince people who hate her guts to be "bipartisan." She's a very experienced politician and a fighter.

Meanwhile, at the US Paper of Record, the New York Times, the editorial board has been conjuring the journalistic spirits of Jeff Gerth and Judith Miller, writing (Suspicious Death in Argentina 01/21/2015):

Ms. Kirchner, a pugnacious stateswoman who has been vindictive toward enemies in the press and politics, weighed in on the case in a lengthy, rambling statement posted on her personal website late Monday. ... Missing from her note was a message of condolence for Mr. Nisman’s family. But the most glaring omission is the fact that the manner of death is far from a settled question.
Jonathan Gilbert and Rick Gladstone, communing with the same specters, uncritcally passed on sleazy opposition speculation (In a Reversal, Argentine President Says Prosecutor’s Death Was Not a Suicide 01/22/2015):

News of his death, just hours before that widely anticipated testimony, stunned Argentina and immediately raised suspicions of a political cover-up to protect the president.

Thousands of Argentines took to the streets after Mr. Nisman’s death was announced, not only to show their anger at the unsolved bombing, which is widely considered a national disgrace, but to demand a full and transparent investigation into Mr. Nisman’s death.
As the columnist Charlie Pierce sometimes says: Honky, please.

CFK has good points and bad points, like any politician. And like any politician, her supporters would describe those differently than her opponents.

But these credulous NYT articles don't explain they key fact that she's been in office since 2007 and has served as a national senator for much longer. There has been no evidence, none, zero, zip, nada, that she's been running a death squad whacking her opponents. The bodies of her critics have not been turning up on the side of the road dispatched by persons unknown. So far as I know, Nisman's death is the first such occurrence that the opposition has even tried to spin into such a thing, again with no evidence at all. Even if you try to frame the circumstances of Nisman's death as a motive for CFK, it still doesn't make any sense. The guy was facing public disgrace, his charges were disintegrating in front of his eyes, it was shaping up to be a career- and life-ruining experience for him and a huge black eye for the opposition. Even if you imagine CFK to be José Lopez Rega in drag (he was a notorious Argentine death squad commander decades ago), why would she have a guy whacked who was doing more to discredit the opposition than she could do herself?

It looks to me that there is way more circumstantial evidence of Dick Cheney being being Nisman's death. I'm just sayin'.

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