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Antonio Stiuso, the Feared Ex Spy Chief Making Argentina's Government Tremble

The former head of the Intelligence Secretariat worked closely with Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor found dead after accusing Cristina Kirchner of a cover-up. Now he has been called to testify — and has a lot to tell.

by Gaston Cavanagh
Feb 6 2015, 7:45pm

Image via Reuters

He has been one of the most feared figures in Argentina for years. Now, since the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Antonio "Jaime" Stiuso, head of the Argentina Intelligence Secretariat until last December, has become the Kirchner government's key target. 

On Thursday the former spy chief was summoned to testify in front of Viviana Fein, in charge of investigating Nisman's suspicious death the day before he was due to formally accuse President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of attempting to cover-up alleged Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center. But Stiuso did not turn up.

The lead prosecutor on the case of attack on the AMIA center, which killed 85 people, Nisman had a few days previously released a report claiming that Kirchner had tried to whitewash the investigation to pave the way for a much-needed trade deal with Iran. It was a case Stiuso was intimately involved in. When Nisman was designated to prosecute it by former president Néstor Kirchner in 2004, he met the intelligence chief and they started a "professional relationship," as Nisman described it. 

They went on to work closely together for more than ten years. "Stiuso gave me a lot of intelligence information but most of the times I could not make a judicial presentation with that data", Nisman told VICE News before his death.

Argentine Prosecutor Who Accused President of Bombing Cover-Up Found Dead. Read more here.

According to the prosecutor Fein, the investigators detected some phone call between Stiuso and Nisman a couple of hours before he was found dead. They spoke for twelve minutes — though what they discussed is not yet known. 

But the government has been quick to point the finger at Stiuso, Kirchner suggesting that he gave Nisman false intelligence in a bid to exact revenge for his removal from the agency last year, and then orchestrated his death. "They used him alive and then needed him dead," she said on her Facebook page, before announcing her plan to dissolve the secretariat.

An electronic engineer by trade, Stiuso started working an low-level job in intelligence in 1972 and climbed the ladder to become director general of operations — at the agency that knows everything about everyone in Argentina. 

"Jaime" left the Secretariat in December of 2014, amid reports of a great internal struggle with another area of the SI — that controled by Fernando Pocino, director of the internal national affairs section and a close ally of Cesar Milani, Kirchner's trusted and powerful chief of the army.  Stiuso, who lost the battle for supremacy, had to leave the SI.

Was he kicked out? Technically speaking, no. He's now taking the holiday days he stored up during his mandate, while waiting for his retirement to be formalized. After leaving the SI and with Nisman dead, Stiuso returned from Uruguay, from where he has been coming and going in the last couple of months to ask the courts for protection for his wife and children.

The problem is that Stiuso knows a lot, too much. He is the man behind the wiretaps that by law only judges can order, but which in Argentina often function as material to put together files on the opponents of power.  

"Stiuso was in charge of monitoring politicians, orchestrating smear campaigns, and infiltrating social movements. The loyalty with which he always handled himself is what allowed him to survive through all governments," Gerardo Young, author of the book SIDE, Secret Argentina, told VICE News.

In its 12 years at power, Kirchnerism has never denounced or confronted Stiuso — quite the opposite. It enjoyed the wealth of information the engineer was able to provide them with. If Stiuso is branded by many as part of an extortionist gang at the service of power, it is also true that the former intelligence chief is respected by all the federal judges in the country, who consider him "a professional."

"A professional" with sensitive information about everyone. That is maybe why the decision that Oscar Parrilli — Stiuso's replacement at the SI and former secretary general of the presidency — took on Thursday was so surprising. Kirchner's man told the parliament: "Stiuso will be relieved from keeping confidentiality on everything he knows or did from 1972 until January 5, 2015". In other words, Stiuso will be able to tell all.

Argentina Prosecutor Who Accused Kirchner Had Steady Contact with US Embassy, Leaked Cables Show. Read more here.

On Thursday, it was only his lawyer who presented himself in front of the prosecutor Fein. Santiago Blanco Bermúdez claimed that because of a mistake in names, his client hadn't been notified and therefore wasn't able to attend. The lawyer insisted, however, that his client was willing to testify. 

"Stiuso is a man that has tight links with other countries' secret services, especially with Mossad, the CIA, the FBI and  European agencies," Young told VICE News. He noted: "Jaime had been investigating the AMIA events as long as Nisman had been on the case — for a long time. Stiuso was more in charge of steering the investigation's direction than Nisman, who — admiring Stiuso greatly — gave Stiuso's positions legal form."

While no one knows just quite what Stiuso will reveal, what is certain is that the former top spy, whose face and personal details are unknown, is now a cornered tiger. And, perhaps, he was the first one to foresee it. Before being run out of the SI, the spy made a brave and unusual decision: he agreed to be interviewed by the Argentine magazine Noticias. There, he explained his version of controversial events, and attempted to clean up his image.

But the allegations keep on coming. Last week, Buenos Aires prosecutor Gustavo Vera accused Stiuso of illicit enrichment, money laundering, influence peddling, and bribery related to a network of businesses that the agent directed.

In a further twist, Vera is known to be close to Pope Francis, and has previously claimed that Stiuso had been spying on Jorge Bergoglio — the pontiff's birth name — under the order of the government when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. At that time, Pope Francis' relations with Kirchner weren't as good as they are made out to be today. Vera's allegations chime with questions raised by the investigative journalist Jorge Lanata back in July 2013 over Stiuso's business activities, yet no action has been taken until now.

Argentina's governments have long known who Antonio "Jaime" Stiuso was and what he did as as chief of operations for the SI. No one reported him, as he proved useful for all of them.

Today, according to Kirchner administration, he is responsible for all evils that are making Argentine institutions tremble.

Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh