Argentina's Kirchner proposes intel reform: needed change or diversion?

President Kirchner says rogue Argentine spies were responsible for the death of prosecutor Nisman, who was buried Thursday in Buenos Aires. She told the nation that a change to the Intelligence Secretariat is the best way forward.

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
People cross the street past the Intelligence Secretariat's building (l.) and the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, January 27, 2015.

The mysterious death of a federal prosecutor who filed an explosive criminal complaint against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is roiling Argentina. While investigators try to establish if Alberto Nisman was killed or driven to suicide, the president is calling for radical changes to a powerful intelligence agency she accuses of conspiring against her. 

Many Argentines believe the government had a hand in Mr. Nisman’s death as a way to silence his accusations that the president secretly sought to shield former Iranian officials from charges that they directed a fatal car-bomb attack on a Jewish center here in 1994. He was buried Thursday in a Jewish cemetery. 

But the government says that a shadowy intelligence agent fed Nisman misleading information to build a false case against President Kirchner, then plotted the prosecutor's death to make it appear a government cover-up.

In her first public appearance since Nisman’s death, Kirchner said this week that she would overhaul the intelligence agency, which monitors domestic and international threats. What will the reforms look like and will they placate concerned Argentines?

What is the Argentine intelligence agency?

Referred to here as the SI, a Spanish acronym that stands for Intelligence Secretariat, the agency was created in 1946 during the first presidency of Juan Domingo Perón, whose Peronist movement has dominated Argentine politics ever since. Similar to the FBI in the United States, it feeds sensitive information to the government. Much of the SI’s information is obtained through phone taps.

When former President Perón’s wife was overthrown in a coup in 1976, military rulers used the SI in its so-called “dirty war.” Its agents helped to kidnap, torture, and disappear thousands of guerrillas and people associated with leftist ideology. With Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, the SI’s personnel was purged.

But experts like Marcelo Fabián Sain, a regional lawmaker and specialist in national defense, have accused it of operating far beyond its legal boundaries. In a recent column for the newspaper Página|12, Mr. Sain points to the SI’s overreach as a “serious institutional problem.”

Why is the agency under fire?

Kirchner claims a rogue spymaster called Antonio Stiusso, who was working with Nisman on his investigation into the 1994 bomb attack, turned on her a couple of years ago. Mr. Stiusso, who worked at the SI for four decades before he was ousted in December, began to manipulate Nisman, Kirchner alleges, feeding him misleading information to build a false case against her.

“They used him [Nisman] alive and then they needed him dead,” Kirchner wrote in an open letter about Nisman’s death. Her aides even suggested that Nisman did not write his 289-page criminal complaint, the evidence in which was based on intercepts of phone calls believed to have been obtained by SI spies.

Stiusso was ousted when Kirchner overhauled the SI’s leadership in December 2014. She replaced the No. 1 with a trusted aide and the No. 2 with a justice ministry official who, according to news reports, is a member of La Cámpora, a youth wing loyal to Kirchner. The former No. 2 reportedly fell out of favor after he failed to relay information about the political aspirations of Sergio Massa, Kirchner’s former cabinet chief who quit in 2013 to start his own Peronist faction. 

Stiusso is believed to have headed a team of dozens of spies, and Kirchner’s chief of staff says overhauling the SI’s leadership was only the first step in a wider process.

What is Kirchner’s proposed change?

Kirchner said in a televised speech on Monday that she was sending a bill to Congress — where she has a majority in both houses — to dissolve the SI. The SI no longer serves national interests, she said, and reforming it is an “outstanding debt” of Argentina’s democracy. Lawmakers will debate the reforms in special sessions starting Feb. 1.

In the SI’s place, Kirchner wants to establish a new agency, called the Federal Intelligence Agency, which would have limited investigative and surveillance powers. Phone tapping, for instance, would fall to the central prosecutor's office, not to the new intelligence agency.

Pointing to the “carousel of judges and prosecutors” who Kirchner alleges conspire against her, the president said the bill would prohibit prosecutors, like Nisman, and other officials from directly contacting mid-level spies like Stiusso.

Is this a popular move?

Critics decry Kirchner’s focus on rogue agents and reforming the intelligence agency. They view it as a tactic to divert attention from the investigation into Nisman’s death and his criminal complaint against Kirchner and her foreign minister.

“Stiusso is a decorative figure, but it could be anybody else,” says Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst, adding that the president is doing her best to manipulate the situation. Mr. Berensztein points to how Kirchner delivered her speech announcing the reforms — in a wheelchair with a cast on her injured ankle, and dressed in white from neck to toe — as an example of trying to play the victim.

Kirchner’s supporters back the bill, agreeing that the SI needs reining in. “The owner of information and power is the intelligence agency,” says Carlos Araneo, a retired accountant, who says Kirchner was, indeed, the victim of an elaborate plot.

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