After Nisman’s Death, Last Tango for Argentina’s Top Spies

The mysterious “suicide” of a crusading prosecutor investigating the alleged Iranian bombing of a Jewish center 20 years ago continues to amaze and appall the Argentines.

For over half a century, Argentina’s Secretaría de Inteligencia (Intelligence Secretariat) wielded enormous power, advising dictators and democratically elected presidents alike. According to national laws and decrees, the SI can spy at home and abroad and execute its own operations independently of who’s at the helm of the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s equivalent of The White House.

But since the death this month of Alberto Nisman, the trailblazing prosecutor who threatened to expose President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s alleged role in covering up the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center, the SI has come under fire as never before.

A protracted row between the head of state and key intelligence assets could be the latest turn of events in a bizarre death that has become the biggest political scandal in Argentina’s recent history.

In her first televised address since Nisman’s lifeless body was discovered in a pool of blood in his bathroom—the night before he was due to testify before Argentina’s congress—she blamed the death on rogue spies trying to undermine her.

“We cannot besiege a democracy with fear and extortion,” Kirchner said as she pledged to dismantle the current office and create a new federal investigation bureau.

Originally founded as the Information Division in 1946 under then-dictator General Juan Perón, the secret service’s first assignment was to extract Nazi war criminals from Germany and bring them to Argentina. As in other countries in Latin America during the thick of the Cold War, the SI also became the government’s primary apparatus for spying on political opponents.

Kirchner said she would summon congress to an emergency session as early as next week and ask lawmakers to oversee the creation of the new agency. Under her proposal, the agency’s directors would be tapped directly by the senate and would report to the attorney general’s office, as opposed to the president. If approved, the move would be the most sweeping reform to the intelligence office in the South American country in over 20 years.

But her maneuver hasn’t exempted Kirchner from speculation that her loyalists or Iran could have sought to silence Nisman permanently. After all, the prosecutor detailed at great lengths how senior Argentine officials planned to drop prosecution efforts against Iranian suspects believed to be behind the attack in exchange for oil. The details were presented in a 289-page criminal complaint made public Jan. 21.

But the turn of the spotlight toward the intelligence agency has brought new figures to center stage, adding to the eerie circumstances surrounding Nisman’s death, which has yet to be ruled a murder or suicide.

For starters there is Diego Lagomarsino, a friend of Nisman who reportedly loaned him the Bersa pistol found at the crime scene. On Monday, prosecutor Viviana Fein filed charges against Lagomasino for illegally loaning the firearm and he could face a sentence of as much as six years. In her address, Kirchner singled out Lagomarsino as a fierce government opponent.

There’s also a much more sinister and shadowy figure, Antonio Stiuso, an SI agent believed to be one of the most feared men in Argentina, who rose through the ranks spying on behalf of the Kirchners.

But, as befits a spy, little is known about him apart from the reports that he joined the service in 1972 when he was 18 years old. There are no pictures of him online and many reporters confess that if they have spoken to him, it has only been on the phone.

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According to national media outlets, it is was Kirchner’s late husband, President Néstor Kirchner, who introduced Stiuso and Nisman during his time in office. Shortly after launching the special commission to investigate the AMIA attack, Stiuso and Nisman reportedly grew closer and developed a special mentoring relationship. When Kirchner got wind that Nisman was planning to expose her and senior officials of her government, she fired Stiuso.

Now, Kirchner says Stiuso is a disgruntled ex-spy who used Nisman and “planted” information in his criminal complaint. Kirchner said she had “no doubt” about that.

Speaking to Stiuso will be a key part of the ongoing investigation into Nisman’s death. But it might prove difficult: He took off on Austral Airlines Flight 2396 headed to Montevideo, Uruguay, at 3:44 p.m. on Jan. 8 and has yet to return.