BUENOS AIRES—Before his mysterious death last month, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman tried to shed light on one of the shadiest episodes in his nation’s history: the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center known as AMIA that killed 85 people.
Now, Nisman’s death (a suicide? a murder?) seems to be shedding light on something no less shady: Argentina’s underground government, a sinister unaccountable parallel state in which spooks operate with impunity.
And as if this scandalous affair were not shocking enough, a surprising name has now surfaced in connection with it: none other than Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.
“Bergoglio told me many times that his phones were tapped,” Gustavo Vera, a city council member and a close personal friend of the Pope, told The DailyBeast. “Even when I went to visit him, he used to turn the radio on to scramble our voices. He’d tell me, ‘There are microphones everywhere. Watch what you say because the line is tapped,’” Vera recalls.
Another Argentine source close to the pope and to the Vatican plays down the gravity of the claim, but does not rule out the possibility that Bergoglio, as cardinal, “was intercepted by the Intelligence Service, though he never mentioned it.”
Argentina remains a profoundly Catholic country, in which senior church officials are well-known public figures and church ritual is inexorably intertwined with the exercise of power. Article 2 of the Argentine Constitution enshrines the connection, stating outright, “The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Church.” Although the Vatican nominates its bishops, it is within the purview of the president of Argentina to accept or reject all appointments to the national Catholic hierarchy.
Naturally, Bergoglio’s elevation to the papacy was cause for national celebration and, perhaps in some quarters, consternation.
Vera claims that from 2005 onwards, if not before, Bergoglio was under electronic surveillance. Presumably that ended in 2013 when he was elected to the papacy, but it covers a period of time that coincides with a sharp deterioration in relations between the government—first under President Néstor Kirchner and then his widow, the current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—and the Argentine Catholic Church.
In early 2005, Argentine Health Minister Ginés González García proposed decriminalizing abortion. The military chaplain, Monsignor Antonio Baseotto, responded by alluding to a verse from the Gospel: “And whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it were better for him if a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.” In reaction, then-President Nestor Kirchner dismissed the chaplain.
A successor to the monsignor has never been appointed, leaving Argentina’s armed services without any religious figurehead, and this when the Catholic Church is the only faith permitted to provide spiritual guidance to members of the military. No other religious official can even gain access to the barracks, despite the presence of soldiers and officers professing other religions.
The situation got worse when later that same year, 2005, President Néstor Kirchner realized to his consternation that Bergoglio had been a close runner-up in the conclave that selected Pope Benedict XVI.
Following on that revelation, Kirchner’s followers began a public campaign directed against Bergoglio. In particular journalist Horacio Verbitsky accused the cardinal of being an accomplice to the crimes committed under Argentina’s bloody dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, and even of having turned over to the military two fellow Jesuits. (Ironically and importantly, as one of those abducted Jesuits later acknowledged, they were the only two people who survived out of 6,000 abducted and “disappeared” by the same unit of the Argentine navy.)
In 2005, breaking with their predecessors, President Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Kirchner stopped attending the annual Te Deum mass held every May 25, Argentina’s national day, in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.
It is difficult to overstate to what extent Argentina is—and possibly always has been—a police state. Journalists, academics and many others routinely assume their phones are tapped. It wouldn’t surprise a single Argentine to hear that Francis, when he was Cardinal Bergoglio, was placed under electronic surveillance. But the new question brought to the fore by Nisman’s death is who gave the spies their orders.
At the time of his death, Nisman was hours away from appearing before the Argentine congress, where he was scheduled to testify about the charges he planned to present against Kirchner, her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, and several other high officials.
Nisman’s investigation relied to a great extent on intelligence material gathered by international agencies, including the CIA and the Mossad, that reached him via the desk of Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, the legendary director of counterintelligence, whom Kirchner fired last December. She accused him, among other things, of being too closely allied with Nisman, who she suspected was building a case against her.
With very good reason: after Nisman died his specific accusations were made public, accusing Cristina Kirchner, who succeeded to the presidency in 2007, of participating in a massive cover-up of Iran’s hand in two acts of terror that rocked Buenos Aires in the early 1990, and left over 110 citizens dead, the AMIA bombing, and two years before that, an attack on the Israeli embassy.
On Friday, almost a month after Nisman’s death, Cristina Kirchner was formally charged. Administration officials responded by accusing the judicial authorities of being part of a “judiciary coup d’etat.”
It is now open season on Stiuso, who has long been feared as a shadowy J. Edgar Hoover-like character. The pope’s friend Gustavo Vera claims Stiuso tapped all communications into and out of the offices and residence of then-Cardinal Bergoglio on behalf of the Kirchners, who considered the cardinal hostile to their policies.
Stiuso, the intelligence agent, and Nisman, the prosecutor, knew one another as of early 1999, when they collaborated on another investigation. During the 10 years Nisman spearheaded the AMIA case, his work was “nourished,” as he liked to say, by intelligence reports and wiretaps, some of which eventually served to incriminate President Cristina Kirchner.
For her part, the Argentine chief executive publicly declared her mistrust of Stiuso as early as mid-2013, and began, for her own intelligence-gathering, using Army Intelligence instead of the Intelligence Secretariat headed by Stiuso. Since then, she has shut down the Secretariat altogether.
Kirchner’s allies have been blunt about their motives. They are out to prove that the late Prosecutor Nisman was somehow suckered by the spooks generally and Stiuso specifically into making accusations against the president and the foreign minister. “We want to know what part of the mafia that still exists in Argentina led Nisman to his determination,” declared Julián Domínguez, a close Kirchner ally and the speaker of the House of Deputies, one day after Nisman’s death. “We are sure that there are some sectors of intelligence, the last redoubt of non-transparency, that exerts pressure on officers of the court.”
The Vatican has remained silent about the whole affair and about Vera’s revelations concerning the pope’s history being wiretapped. Presumably, Francis is praying for Argentina.