Sometime early this morning, Argentine Prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment, killed by a single bullet through his head. The circumstances of his death are still a mystery. What is clear is that the sudden end to his life represents the death of Argentina's best chance to emerge from a mushrooming cloud of corruption, official obfuscation and the deterioration of the rule of law.
More importantly, Nisman's death — on the eve of what would have been an important congressional testimony exposing a secret deal between Argentina and Iran — robs Latin America of one of its top independent and indefatigable voices for justices.
I first met Nisman several years ago, when he was doggedly pursuing the evidence behind the Iranian-backed terrorist attack that killed 85 people in a 1994 car-bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, known as the AMIA bombings.
We met because our investigations into Iranian terrorist activity in Latin America overlapped. I was thrilled to find someone else who shared a deep interest in a narrow topic of tremendous importance but little policy attention. Our conversations continued sporadically from that time on as we compared notes and insights on Iranian activities in the Americas.
Nisman was thoughtful, careful and methodical — unless he was telling jokes, in true Argentine fashion. I always came away from our meetings feeling that I had taken far more than I had given due to Nisman's encyclopedic knowledge of Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere. His research had uncovered decade's old Iranian newspapers and other documents that laid out, for those interested, the plan that was slowly being implemented in the region. He had visited dozens of countries to glean knowledge and collect documents, as well as sound the alarm bell in other countries that were hosting radical activities.
In our last email communication five days ago, he sent me the summary of the explosive new case he was preparing to file against the nation’s most powerful politicians. On the list of those named were President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, members of her inner circle, and several with close ties the Cámpora political movement, which is led by Máximo Kirchner, the president’s son. Within hours the case was the lead story across Argentina, compounding the president's woefully long list of problems.
The Fernandez government, which had been trying to get rid of Nisman for years and attacked him incessantly from the very highest levels of government, immediately put forth the hypothesis of suicide. To many Argentines, and particularly Nisman’s friends, that theory was as likely as pigs taking flight; not surprisingly, it was dismissed immediately by the national media. The credibility of the Argentine government, which has been intentionally opaque about everything from the origins of the president’s inexplicable wealth to the rate of inflation and even routine crime statistics, has hit rock bottom, and is now fracking to greater depths.
Tragically, Nisman died on the eve of what would have been his most extraordinary moment. After a decade of investigating what Argentines call the AMIA case, Nisman was supposed to testify today before Congress on his most recent legal findings: President Fernández de Kirchner allegedly authorized and used her office to secretly negotiate a deal with Iran to scuttle his investigation as part of a broader wheat-for-oil and weapons deal. Using a parallel intelligence structure, Nisman said, the president had agreed to an Iranian request that INTERPOL lift its requests for arrest for five senior Iranian officials involved in the AMIA bombing. She reportedly agreed to a proposed Argentine-Iranian investigation into the case that would use doctored evidence to exonerate the Iranian leaders implicated in the case. The arrest orders, issued on the basis of Nisman’s previous investigations, have been a constant source of embarrassment for the Iranian government and severely constricted the ability of those on the list to travel internationally without fear of arrest.
Nisman’s investigation read:
"While the plotters within Argentine Executive Branch spoke about justice and truth, they had already arranged impunity. They sought a geopolitical rapprochement with Iran, exchanges of oil for grains and even the sale of weapons. With these goals in mind, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman sealed secret agreements with Tehran -later publicly acknowledged by former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi- and committed himself to remove Interpol´s red notices against the Iranian fugitive terrorists. Interpol´s timely intervention prevented him from complying with this last commitment. In addition, it was disclosed that the criminal plan included the creation of a new crime hypothesis based on false evidence intended to divert the judicial investigation towards invented defendants, hence releasing the Iranian suspects of any criminal responsibility."
The government was furious about Nisman's new investigation, and called out their big guns, to denounce the prosecutor as a lackey of the United States, a traitor, liar, and lunatic. Nisman was aware of the seriousness of the situation. He recently told his friends that he understood he could be killed for the evidence he was willing to make public, and had lost weight due to stress. Still, those who knew him said he was relishing the chance to go before the Congressional committee, which is dominated by government loyalists.
Nisman was not new to the pressure of carrying out high stake investigations. He took over the badly bungled case of the 1994 AMIA bombing in 2005, after a parade of prosecutors had mishandled evidence and local law enforcement played Keystone Kops for years. He breathed new life into the stalled case and put together an exhaustive 800-page investigation, which, while controversial, won widespread international praise for professionalism and thoroughness. That investigation and subsequent findings compelling pointed to the direct participation of Iran and Hezbollah in carrying out the bloody attack, which remains the worst act of terrorism in Latin America in decades.
Following the publication of a superseding indictment in 2012 Nisman told me he had received several manila envelopes containing surveillance photographs of his children at school —a clear warning that those threatening him knew how to reach his family. He took a few weeks off in Europe while things settled down, but soon returned to work. Then came the January 2013 surprise news, announced in a series of 22 tweets by the president, that Argentina and Iran had signed a Memorandum of Understanding, negotiated in secret over 18 months, to have both countries jointly investigate the AMIA case. It was somewhat akin to having the United States invite al-Qaeda to investigate the 9/11 attacks, and was widely viewed as such.
Nisman’s already-frayed relationship with the Argentine president unraveled as he criticized the Iranian deal as illegal. Ultimately, his investigation fleshed out the problem with the Argentine-Iran pact: Its fundamental aim was to exonerate senior Iranian officials through a sham investigation. It was a deal designed to benefit both nations. Argentina, starved for fuel and with an economy in a free fall, would get Iranian oil. Iran, whose oil is difficult to sell on the international markets because of sanctions, would trade the oil for wheat, to alleviate their food shortages. If Nisman was right — his investigation alleged criminal activity by the government and an extensive rogue intelligence operation — the testimony would have dealt a terrible blow to a president whose approval ratings are already in the low 20s amid an economy that is grinding to a halt.
A government investigation into Nisman’s death will not be credible and there is little chance of outside experts being able to carry out an independent investigation. So, as with so many things in Argentina, the truth will likely be swept away in a sea of cover-ups, lies, half-truths and lost paperwork. The person who knows the truth is dead.
Nisman leaves behind an enormous legacy that would be useful to examine. He understood both how Iran has been slowly building its infrastructure in Latin America over decades, and the terrible price of perverting justice. He was baffled as to why the United States, the European Union and other Latin American nations did not take the spread of radical Iranian operations and operatives seriously. He knew that the thwarted 2007 attempt to blow up the gas lines underneath JFK airport was an Iranian plot, something clearly laid out in the trial that led to the conviction of three suspects, but seldom discussed publically. He knew Iran’s willingness to pay a drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, D.C. was not a wild fantasy of the U.S. intelligence community, as many believed. And he understood that Iran is relentlessly probing and studying to find ways to inflict damage in the hemisphere.
Other witnesses have disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances in Argentina’s rough and tumble political and judicial arenas. Nisman is a particular loss. He was a clear-eyed seeker of justice in a horrific crime against humanity, and his own government had clearly turned on him.
“He was practically alone facing a government that, in the person of its foreign minister, called him everything from a liar on, and never stopped insulting him,” wrote Daniel Santoro, a respected columnist at the Clarín newspaper. “In a stable democracy the government would have simply defended itself and Nisman, even if the contents of his indictments were not shared, would have had the technical and moral support of his bosses.”