Never let a good crisis go to waste

Cristina-kirchner-clarin

That other time she blamed Clarín. No, that other, other time.

Two weeks ago, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman dropped a bomb on the political landscape, accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and members of her cabinet of criminally covering up the culpability of multiple Iranian officials for the 1994 attack against the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead. In a criminal complaint, Nisman alleged that Cristina Kirchner and members of her government negotiated a deal with Iran that would establish a–presumably biased–joint truth commission in exchange for various commercial engagements.

The scandal exploded into an international story last Monday when Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment from a gunshot wound to the head just hours before he was to testify to Congress about the case. Investigators originally called his death a suicide and the government quickly mobilized around that conclusion. After a day of protests, testimonies from friends and colleagues and the revelation that Nisman did not have gunpowder residue on his hands, Cristina Kirchner walked her position and declared in a statement on her website that even she did not believe it was a suicide. Instead, she claimed that Nisman had been the victim of a conspiracy within the intelligence services intended to impute her government for whitewashing the AMIA prosecution, and that the same people who had fed him fake evidence eventually killed him to pin the death on her.

Last night, Kirchner addressed the nation via a mandatory nationwide broadcast lasting over an hour; her first comments about the case not through social media. In it, she accused Nisman of lying about the facts when he called the memorandum signed with Iran unconstitutional and argued that various Iranian officials named in the case had been made available to testify had they been called. Then she the capitalized on her previous theories and announced that she would be calling an extraordinary congressional session to debate a new law to dissolve the Servicio Intelligencia to replace it with a new Federal Intelligence Agency that, according to her, would be isolated from forces within the judicial system and media that she claims had corrupted it.

Like so often with these types of situations in Latin America, there are some very good reasons to overhaul the Argentine security apparatus. By many accounts, it’s plagued by internal factions and is not terribly effective for its costs (although that can be said of many intelligence services). However, looking at the specific denunciations Kirchner made, they read very much like the usual accusations she makes. Namely that they are part of a medial and judicial plot to undermine her rule. As such, it seems less like a genuine attempt to reform the intelligence services because they need to be reformed so much as a pretext to bring them more firmly under executive control. This was what happened with the media reform from 2009. She used the legitimate need to reform and update Argentina’s outdated media laws as a means to target Clarín, Argentina’s largest media group and a former ally turned arch nemesis of her government.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether this effort will be successful. Kirchner’s party and it’s allies control a majority in both houses of the Argentine congress, but as relatively unstable coalitions. It also remains to be seen exactly how the reform would look. The early indications presented in her speech are that the new agency would be subject to both executive and senate oversight. However, the executive branch is particularly powerful in Argentina, so nominal control by both often turns out to mean little legislative oversight.*

If it is passed, and does give the executive significant control, this would be a truly impressive political maneuver on Kirchner’s part. Right now, she stands accused of having used her power to cover up the culpability of Iranian terrorists in order to gain commercial concessions with Iran, a grave abuse of her power. Moreover, many believe that she is directly responsible for the death of the man who accused her (to say nothing of the heavy-handed response of the government to journalist Damián Patcher leaving the country). Yet, if she is successful in reforming the intelligence services, she could turn a potentailly disatrous scandal about her abuse of power into a new law that accumulates even more power within the executive branch, and by extension, her own personal control.

* Of course, legislative oversight of intelligence agencies is often ineffective, even in countries with much stronger institutions than Argentina.

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