A Government and its Spies: The Argentine Power Struggle

The announcement by Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of her plans to completely reform the country’s National Intelligence Agency (Secretaria de Inteligencia de Estado (SI)) could not have come at a more controversial time in the country’s political history. Just days after the prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found shot dead in his home in Buenos Aires, Kirchner’s plans to effectively weaken the investigative power of the Secretaria di Intelligencia does nothing but give credence to the rumour of presidential involvement in the scandal.

Image courtesy of Suterh Osperyh, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Suterh Osperyh, ©2013, some rights reserved.

Should the plans for the reforms take hold; Argentine intelligence services will face huge changes to both their organisational structure and investigative power. As well as renaming the agency to the ‘Federal Intelligence Agency,’ the appointment of the Chief of Staff will be under presidential jurisdiction (subject to congressional approval) and the investigative ability will be abated, effectively weakening the agency[1]. This decision seems practically irreversible, given that a successor organisation would require a legislative vote to undo the ruling, which in the current political climate seems unlikely to be successful. According to Kirchner, these reforms are long overdue and the antiquated and invasive methods of national securitisation simply must be replaced with more efficient and controlled methods of surveillance.

This decision has of course prompted consternation from various factions of the intelligence services, but when examining the rather frosty relationship between the government and its spies, it appears that power struggles such as these are nothing new. It cannot be denied that the relationship between SI and the Argentine government has not been a particularly friendly affair. Over the last two decades, incidents of governmental intervention and retaliation by the SI have seen an increase in animosity between government and its spies. Nestor Kirchner, late husband of the current president, ordered in 2003 and 2005 for all SI files on two high profile terror incidents, to be opened to the public, amid utter consternation from various factions of the intelligence agencies. Kirchner further weakened amicable sentiments when his crackdown on illegal phone hacking resulted in the expulsion of 160 members of the intelligence services, and the resultant marring of the organisation’s reputation. Not only this but SIs involvement in the bribing of Argentine senators in 2001 and the subsequent political ramifications, also serves to demonstrate the somewhat frosty relationship between the two entities. Further cases such as Operation Cabildo in 2003[2], during which the Argentine intelligence agencies bribed a chief witness in the 1994 Jewish community centre bombing investigation, have firmly established the rumours of the organisation’s corruption.

Despite the historical animosity between government and agency providing an excellent pretext for reform, widespread cries of Kirchner’s ulterior motives have taken centre stage in the Argentine political arena in recent weeks. If the corruption of the intelligence services has been firmly established in the public conscious since the mid-1980s, why is it only now that plans for reform have been not only suggested, but put into action? The decision may indeed be as a result of the historical acrimony between the two entities, but worldwide speculation cannot help but return to the case of Alberto Nisman in an attempt to explain the sudden change of presidential policy.

Nisman, who had been appointed in 2005 to investigate the 1994 car bombing outside the AMIA Jewish community centre which left 85 dead, had been found shot dead in his flat in Buenos Aires just hours before he was due to appear in front of Congress. The object of the congressional hearing would have been Nisman’s full explanation of recent findings, in which he accused the President and Foreign Minister (Hector Tinnerman) in engaging in a cover up with the Iranian government. Nisman had formerly accused the Iranian government in 2006 with of being responsible for the bombing, just weeks after a joint Iranian-Argentine Truth Commission had been established. Then days before his death, he accused the president of conspiring to acquit the Iranian suspects in return for much-needed Iranian oil. Referred to by Nisman as a ‘criminal decision,’[3] in his findings, the plot to trade Iranian oil at reduced prices in order to ‘save Argentina’s commercial, political and geopolitical interests’ was utterly denied by the President. It has even been revealed that Nisman had issued a warrant for the President’s arrest, which was found in his apartment by the team investigating his death.

In response to the accusation, Kirchner was quick to blame the intelligence agencies, claiming that Nisman had been manipulated and fed false information by the security services. In a letter published on her website, Kirchner described SIDE tactics when dealing with Nisman as full of ‘diversion, lies, cover-up [and] confusion.’[4] In the same letter, she also expressed her regret at Nisman’s death, referring to a suicide which both ‘causes shock and opens questions.’ Two days later however, she claimed to be ‘convinced it was not suicide,’ which prompted critics all over Argentine social media to implicate governmental involvement in Nisman’s death. International speculation too has eluded to the culpability of various actors involved in Nisman’s death, not least the security services themselves as well as a number of influential policy makers he appeared to alienate during the 10 year investigation into the AMIA bombings.

If the supposed involvement of the security services is taken into account, Kirchner’s plans to reform the intelligence agencies in order to combat against the corruption she claims was suffered by Nisman do seem warranted. Yet the fact remains that in one fell swoop, by creating an organisation controlled by presidential power, the possibility for Kirchner to be implicated in both Nisman’s death and the AMIA cover-up scandal is smoothly denied. Her motivations for the decision can never be completely understood, but one cannot help but admire the unmistakably fortuitous timing.

[1] https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/argentinas-president-fends-challenges-intelligence-service

[2] Duthel, H: Global Secret and Intelligence Services I: Hidden Systems that deliver Unforgettable Customer Service (2006, BoD) p.356

[3] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2015/01/argentine-president-accused-cover-up2015114225550157368.html

[4] http://www.cfkargentina.com/11244/