Sunday, February 01, 2015

The AMIA/Nisman case and controversies

The New York Times last week ran an English-language piece by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky Reining In Argentina’s Spymasters 01/28/2015, discussing the current high-level political drama in Argentina over the AMIA terrorist case investigation and the suicide of prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Verbitsky is also the head of the human-rights Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS). The Spanish version appears in Rienda corta para los espías argentinos Página/12 29.01.2015.

He writes:

The key to the story is not likely to be found in the present government, but rather in former president Carlos Menem’s administration. Mr. Menem is of Syrian descent, and before Argentina’s 1989 presidential election, he met in Damascus with the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, who had backed him financially. Argentina’s participation in Operation Desert Storm against Syria’s ally, Iraq, in 1991, spoiled this romance. Then, in 1992, the Israeli embassy in Argentina was attacked and in 1994 the Jewish community center was bombed.

Secret documents that were declassified in 2003 revealed that Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, sent a personal envoy to Argentina just hours after the 1994 attack to agree on a common interpretation of events to present to the press. At the time, Mr. Rabin was facing political pressure at home from opponents of the Oslo peace talks with the Palestinians, which were for the first time occurring with Syrian approval.

After his meeting with Mr. Menem, Mr. Rabin’s envoy accused Iran of the attack. The same week, a spokesman from the State Department in Washington went further and excluded Syria from the list of suspects.

Mr. Menem also found it politically convenient to look away from Syria, and he did all he could to prevent the Syrian angle from being investigated, due to his previous relationship with the Assad government and his unfulfilled promises to Syria of diplomatic support and cooperation on nuclear and missile technology.

Today, Mr. Menem is on trial alongside some of his cabinet members from that era, as well as a judge and two prosecutors accused of obstructing justice and covering up evidence about the 1994 attack.
Whether or not Iranian agents were involved in the 1994 AMIA attack, it' abundantly clear that the security services and Menem officials tried to obstruct the investigation for whatever reason.

So far, Nisman's death looks like a suicide. That doesn't exclude deliberate external pressure that drove him to it, intentionally or unintentionally. But the murder that President Cristina Fernández and her government have suggested has not been established. Verbitsky cautions them: "Mrs. Kirchner has flip-flopped between assuming it was a suicide and, later, suggesting it was not. It is an election year and although she cannot run for another term, her vacillating has not helped her party."

Here is a recent program from TV Pública argentina 678 - Los interrogantes del Caso Nisman - 29-01-15 (1 de 3):

678 - Los interrogantes del Caso Nisman - 29-01-15 (2 de 3):

678 - Los interrogantes del Caso Nisman - 29-01-15 (3 de 3):

Verbitsky does a close reading of Nisman's already-discredited report accusing Cristina and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman in Nismanismos Página/12 01.02.2015, focusing on passage that provide "ayuda a comprender la situación general de la que el fiscal fue voluntario o involuntario protagonista." ("support to comprehend the general situation of which the prosecutor was voluntarily or involuntarily the protagonist").

He focuses first on pp. 280-282 of Nisman's report, which the Argentine Centro de Información Judicial (CIJ) has made available here, the section headed, "VIII.- Breves consideraciones normativas." This section claims that part of the alleged "criminal plot" involved provisions in the Argentina-Iran agreement of 2013 on the investigation of the AMIA case. The larger accusation of the opposition, which Nisman's charges were intended to support is that the deal with Iran was a bad idea and motivated by more-or-less venal considerations. In the real world, the agreement was a effort to follow up on prosecutor Nisman's theory of the AMIA case, which is that it the bombing was planned and executed on orders from Iran.

But Section VIII also contains a reference to the agreement placing restrictions on the use of information from "terceros estados" ("third states," i.e., third countries) in the judicial investigation. Verbitsky plausibly suggests that this provides an indication "que lo que Nisman intenta preservar es la confidencialidad de las informaciones recibidas de los servicios de Inteligencia de Estados Unidos e Israel" ("that what Nisman intended to preserve is the confidentiality of pieces of information received from the intelligence services of the United States and Israel").

Israel and three successive US Administrations have found it useful to blame Iran for the AMIA attack. And that may be true. But, given the misconduct of Argentine officials and the intelligence services on the investigation of the case, it is always possible that actually solving the case would diminish the plausibility of blaming Iran. Whether or not Iran was behind it, both Washington and Tel Aviv have shown that they like that narrative and don't want to risk seeing it diluted. Verbitsky cites Wikileaks revelations and the work of Santiago O’Donnell, which establish that Nisman was working closely with the US Embassy, which was providing information bolstering the Iranian case and pressuring Nisman - unsuccessfully - to not bring charges against former President Carlos Menem and other officials of his government over obstruction of justice in the AMIA case, charges on which a trial is still pending.

Secondly, Verbitsky focuses on passages in Nisman's formal complaint from pages 5, 7, 97-98, 150, 154, 156, 160, 184, 185 and 206 in which Nisman appears to be defending himself against criticism, "cosa que no es en absolute usual" ("something that is absolutely not usual") in such a complaint. In other words, Nisman was presenting criticism against his handling of the case by officials of Cristina's Administration as supporting the accusation that she and Timerman were trying to protect Iranian persons of interest in the case. Verbitsky suggests that Nisman included those aspects because he failed to produce anything resembling plausible "smoking gun" against CFK (Cristina Fernández) or Timerman.

Something to keep in mind in discussions of Nisman's complaint. There may be some reason to doubt his authorship of the complaint that he signed and filed in his name. Part of the reason to doubt that was based on his supposedly having cut short a Spanish vacation with his daughter to return to Buenos Aires to file his report. But the prosecutor investigating Nisman's death says that he purchased the return ticket in December, which seems to remove the idea that he hastily returned to Argentina. I cite the report as Nisman's report and cite it as though it were his work, because in the most formal and official sense, it is.

Verbitsky also discusses Ronald Kenneth Noble, the American who headed Interpol as Secretary General from 2000–2014, which covers the period in which the key accusation against CFK and Timerman would have occurred, their alleged attempts to have Interpol remove the red alert status on several Iranian persons of interest in the AMIA case. Verbitsky quotes Noble on that accusation in the Times article: "In an interview on Jan. 18, Mr. Noble declared: 'Nisman’s claims are false.' The same day, Mr. Nisman was found dead." One likely factor in Nisman's suicide was that he surely must have realized he would be professionally discredited and possibly face charges on abuse of office himself because his case against CFK and Timerman was disintegrating so fast, a process in which Noble's denial was a major factor.

Verbitsky relates that early in 2006, Noble and Interpol were hesitant to establish the red alerts on those Iranians, because they regardede the evidence that Nisman had presented Interpol as insufficient justification. Both the Argentine government of Néstor Kirchner (CFK's late husband and predecessor as President) and the Cheney-Bush Administration pressed Interpol to issue the red alerts, which they did. He cites a cable from the American Ambassador to Argentina of that time, Earl Anthony Wayne, claiming that Noble was aligning himself with Iran on the matter. Though Verbitsky is not crediting Wayne's specific evaluation, he cites all this as a background to Nisman's charge on the red alerts, which establishes that Argentina's position had always been to press Interpol to establish and keep the alerts in force. And also that if CFK's government had pressured Interpol to drop them as Nisman alleged, Noble would have presumably been receptive to the request. But there is no evidence in the public record that I've seen to support that charge - including Nisman's report itself. The background only reinforces the implausibility of the unsubstantiated accusation. (The whole section on Noble doesn't cite specific references in Noble's response and is more supplementary commentary than a close reading of the report.)

In a further close reading of the report, Verbitsky cites charges from pages 59, 61 and 205 that try to present the signing of the agreement with Iran and its approval by the Argentine Congress as a cover for the alleged criminal plan of CFK and Timerman. This is a difficult needle that Nisman's report fails to thread. Making an agreement with Iran to facilitate the AMIA investigation was a perfectly Constitutional and legal act, even if it was arguably a poor agreement. (Which I don't think it was, BTW.) For that matter, it would have been a legitimate and legal act of state if the Argentine government had requested the red alerts to be dropped. But that is entirely hypothetical at this point unless actual evidence emerges that (1) CFK and Timerman actually requested that, and (2) that it was done with the intent of obstructing justice in the case. Poor judgment in foreign affairs isn't a criminal offense in Argentina or in any other country of which I'm aware. If that were the case, most heads of government and foreign ministers would routinely wind up in prison.

His final set of close reading analysis cites pages 102, 135, 141, 200, 230, 246, 250, 251, 253, 265 in which Nisman does try to establish CFK's criminal intent in the matter. Again, to say there is no smoking gun in that series of claims puts it mildly. It would take a tremendous imagination to take it into even circumstantial evidence, considering that the central claim against CFK and Timerman that they tried to have Interpol remove those red alerts is not only not established in any way but is contradicted by the evidence that is in the public record.

If you were a defense lawyer, you would want to have a client facing claims like those in Nisman's report.

No comments: