(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, February 8, 2015).
If you have to take a band-aid off, what’s the best way to do it? Quick and painless, every time. Just so with problematic government departments, at least as far as President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is concerned.
In the stormy wake of Alberto Nisman’s sudden and suspicious death, she decided to dissolve the Secretariat of Intelligence (SI, formerly SIDE), the Argentine State spying collective that some implicate in the Nisman case somehow, and with a swift stroke of her Presidential pen now looks to create something fresh and untarnished in its place.
The new body will be called the wildly original Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI), and it is hoped represent a clean break from its ultra-shady, controlling and sinister predecessor. The SI had a history stretching back to the Perón glory days, when it was founded as Information Division (1946) and down the decades was often viewed as exerting undue, undemocratic influence on Argentine politics. So in fact, though Cristina is biting the bullet now in abolishing the entire organization in one go, it is something that might have been considered much earlier. Indeed, she is in part responding to the various voices who’ve been calling for the organizations overhaul for some time now.
Surviving the waves of dictatorship that still cast long shadows over Argentina’s recent history, the SI was warped by each one in turn, and became an intelligence organization to rival the CIA in its fondness for the dark arts of intelligence gathering and intrigue. Soon after it’s creation, during the first Perón Presidency, it was directly involved in the shameful repatriation of almost 300 Nazi war criminals fleeing the rubble of Europe after the Second World War, some of whom it is believed may have even ended up gaining positions in the organization itself.
In the same way that the military have exerted excessive influence on Argentine politics, so the relationship between the SI and them was often uncomfortably close too. Under the acronym SIDE, it became the dictatorship’s chief way of snooping on Argentine society during the last period of military rule between 1976 and 1983.
Tasked with spying on the civilian population and rooting out anyone deemed “subversive”, many whom it blacklisted were soon “disappeared” by the regime, to be incarcerated in concentration camps, tortured or killed. This was all part of Operation Condor, the CIA-sponsored mission of brutal repression launched by the dictatorships plaguing the region at this time; a bid to crush supposed Communist sedition and consolidate their power.
After the eventual fall of the dictatorship and return to representative democracy, though, SIDE lived on after another surface level makeover. Ever since, it has continued to indulge in a scary level of domestic surveillance that was recently described by one UK publication as being on par with the old Soviet bloc. Until now. Cristina’s dramatic announcement came alongside her own voiced suspicions that SI had been involved in the shrouded events surrounding Nisman’s death, maybe even responsible itself:
“They used him alive and then they needed him dead.”
Nisman had had a suspiciously close relationship with SI big-shot Antonio Stiuso, after all, a man at the apex of the SI. “Jamie” Stiuso as he was often referred to was once accused by one of his political allies in the ruling Victory Front (FPV) as organizing “a kind of Gestapo” of internal spying, that watched politicians and journalists and fed sensitive information freely as a tool of coercion. Stiuso has left Argentina in the chaos of the last few weeks, but has been recalled by Federal prosecutor Viviana Fein for questioning. He is yet to show up.
Whatever unfolds with this particular spymaster, we can see how the SI reputation itself had become a toxic brand. It was clear from her Cadena Nacional address following Nisman’s death that Cristina was very uncomfortable with how the organization was operating and so would now begin to flex her Presidential muscle and create a new body.
So what can we expect from AFI? It’s a matter that remains up for debate, firstly. It’s still being discussed in the Senate, though not debated as such, as the opposition unhelpfully continues to resist most engagement over the issue until they hold a “public debate” on the Nisman case. Even so, already significant changes have been made to the FPV’s original draft that will create the new organization, with the hope that these changes will steer it further away from the SI model. As an organization, it underwent multiple rebranding’s without really changing its behavior very much at all, and many commentators have alluded to the possibility of this wheel turning again.
In discussion on the floor, though, amendments were made that will insure an end to the practice of spies working for the new AFI to act alone for 72 hours without consulting their superiors. So the power to do the more sinister intelligence-gathering things like wire-tapping at will now has more checks on. This sets it apart from its predecessors. Before, SI/SIDE had been at times indistinguishable from military intelligence, but had turned many of its spying and information gathering techniques onto the domestic population, even long after the fall of the last dictatorship.
Checks and balances like this are welcomed by those of us who want reform as they reinforce the hope that this isn’t just another name change. As part of the many committee meetings that happened before the debate, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) were just one organization that praised this particular amendment. As a longtime advocate for an overhaul in the way domestic intelligence is done in Argentina, it said that the legislation still did not go far enough, however. The fact that the proposed role of the AFI concerning “complex federal crimes” would remain untouched remained “very problematic”, according to their Director Gaston Chiller.
The steps taken in the direction of real change suggest that we are actually heading for something new and distinct this time. “How new?” is the more pertinent question. Creating an entirely novel intelligence service out of thin air is more or less impossible if we’re being realistic, and so there will inevitably be cross over; people staying in their positions and sticking with their own ways of doing things.
Despite the purge of twenty SI employees in recent days, it will be difficult to encourage those that survive the cut to conform to the new rules that, like the abolition independent agent wiretaps, might feel to employees as though they’re being restricted from getting on with the job at hand. But these new rules are essential if the FPV wants a clean break with a dark past. The fact alone that human rights groups like CELS, and independent experts like Marcelo Sain (who submitted multiple rewordings to the original bill) contributed to the discussion that is creating the new AFI are signs that this break is certainly on the cards. But the track record of surface-level reform and ingrained, suspect practices stops us from heralding a new dawn just yet.