BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The spy novel-like drama that has gripped Argentina since the mysterious death of President Cristina Fernandez's nemesis took a critical new twist Thursday when investigators called one of the country's most enigmatic spy chiefs to testify before them.
The testimony by Antonio Stiuso, who was dismissed in December and whose whereabouts were unknown, could be key to determining whether Fernandez is able to survive the storm in the waning months of her presidency, or whether the deepening scandal will swamp her administration.
Stiuso, a shadowy intelligence agent known by the name "Jaime," had assisted prosecutor Alberto Nisman in his investigation of the unsolved bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center in 1994. A report Nisman submitted to a federal judge in January accused Fernandez of agreeing to shield the alleged masterminds of the attack, former Iranian officials, in exchange for oil and other trade benefits.
But Nisman was found shot dead Jan. 18, hours before he was to appear in Congress to detail his allegations.
Without naming Stiuso specifically, Fernandez has suggested rogue intelligence agents played a role in the death and, last week, she urged Congress to disband the agency.
"The government is trying to regain control of the narrative and this is part of it," said Maria Victoria Murillo, an expert in Latin American politics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "The whole thing is like a spy novel and he's a spy, so it makes sense for the government to put him at the center of the story."
Fernandez, who on Thursday wrapped up an official visit in China, has come under increasing heat since Nisman's death, with conspiracy theories flourishing around the case. Although the prosecutor was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in the bathroom of his apartment, even she has rejected the initial finding that he committed suicide.
Nisman had feared for his safety and 10 federal police officers were assigned to protect him
Stiuso, who press reports say ran a vast wire-tapping operation, is said to have been one of the most powerful people in the country, a figure similar to the controversial former head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.
Most Argentines, however, would be unable to recognize him. He keeps a very low profile and the only image circulated of him is a once-classified black and white photo of a young-looking man released a decade ago by one of his foes.
Now in his 60s, Stiuso joined the agency, formerly known as the Secretary of State Information, in 1972, working through the "Dirty War" years of the military junta dictatorship in the 1970s and then alongside every administration since the return of democracy in 1983.
People who have crossed him have not fared well.
In 2004, then Justice Minister Gustavo Beliz said during a television interview that Stiuso was a "dangerous" man who frequently broke the law. Soon after that, Beliz was forced to resign.
"Stiuso is an excellent professional," Miguel Angel Toma, the former head of the Secretary of Intelligence, told The Associated Press. "I never gave him an order to do anything illegal and he never made me presume that he did these kind of (illegal) activities on his own."
Stiuso had collaborated with Nisman during the 10-year investigation of the bombing, which killed 85 people. The spy chief was removed from his post by Fernandez in December.
The president has suggested Stiuso fed false information to Nisman that implicated her and her top officials in a cover-up of the bombing. Fernandez has denied any wrongdoing.
Viviana Fein, the lead investigator into Nisman's death, called Thursday for Stiuso to appear to testify, said Oscar Parrilli, the secretary of intelligence.
Officials, however, have not located Stiuso. His lawyer, Santiago Blanco Bermudez, told Radio Vorterix on Thursday that Stiuso had yet to receive a summons, but would appear when he is formally called.
"It's his obligation as a citizen and former public official," Blanco Bermudez said.
By law, intelligence officials are prohibited from disclosing state secrets. But, Parrilli said, Fernandez would present an order exempting Stiuso from the restriction, clearing the way for him to speak about anything.
"The president wants all the truth to be known, and wants Stiuso to tell us everything, from 1972 until now," Parrilli told reporters outside Congress.
While Fernandez has cast aspersions on Stiuso and his intelligence colleagues, bringing him to testify could potentially backfire on the president and her supporters as her party tries to position itself for October elections. Fernandez is prohibited from running for a third term.
The case Nisman built against Fernandez is proceeding despite his death. On Wednesday, it was assigned to federal Judge Daniel Rafecas, who was expected to review it later this month. Rafecas was appointed to the bench by President Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's late husband.
"The case doesn't need to be strong," said Martin Bohmer, a legal expert and former dean of the law school at the University of San Andres. "It just needs to be strong enough to start an investigation, and can become stronger from there."
Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.