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'Most intelligence agents will stay on'

Defence Minister Agustín Rossi talks to the Herald earlier this week.
Defence Minister Agustín Rossi talks to the Herald earlier this week.
Defence Minister Agustín Rossi talks to the Herald earlier this week.
By Federico Poore
Herald Staff

Five minutes into the interview, Defence Minister Agustín Rossi pauses in the middle of a question about President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s plan to dissolve the  (SI, formerly known as SIDE) to call for his mate and thermos — it helps him think. During a long, relaxed interview with the Herald, Rossi — a presidential hopeful for the ruling Victory Front (FpV) — defended the role of the National Military Strategic Intelligence Directorate and the growing budget allocated for all the programmes led by controversial Army Chief César Milani.

What do you think of the proposal to dissolve the SI to create the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI)?

I think it’s crucial that the president is calling on all Argentines to discuss the role of intelligence agencies in a democracy.

Opposition leaders have seized on the issue of granting more powers to Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbó, who will be charged with phone-tapping...

The move is consistent with the new Criminal Procedural Code, that puts investigations in the hands of prosecutors. It’s reasonable for complementary elements of any investigation be under the same authority as those leading the investigation.

What will happen with the controversial use of classified funds? Reports mention around two billion pesos a year...

Classified funds are regularly reported to the follow-up committee [Note: Rossi is referring to the Bicameral Intelligence Oversight Committee headed by FpV lawmaker Teresa García], which means there is oversight. The way I see it, (that spending) is inherent in the task itself. But maybe lawmakers can redefine the role of this spending during parliamentary debate.

Are you worried about creating a dangerous group of unemployed spies?

I don’t think that will happen, even though many sectors are bringing up the issue almost as an argument against reforms. I think most intelligence agents will stay on in the new Federal Intelligence Agency, while others may be transferred to the Attorney General’s office. But those spreading fear are only trying to stall reforms.

Don’t you believe reform should have come earlier?

We don’t live in a vacuum. There are times when the context allows certain decisions, but there are also times when the context delays those decisions. It’s impossible to take all the measures at the same time.

Is the government considering appointing either Nuevo Encuentro lawmaker Marcelo Sain or current SI chief Oscar Parrilli to head up the new agency?

That will be the president’s decision.

What do you think of the opposition’s reaction to the announcement?

I was disappointed. Such a major issue deserves a big-picture analysis, not an electorally-minded reaction. The bill is going to be discussed throughout February, is likely to be passed in March — and the president said the government needed 90 days to implement the new changes... we’re talking about a measure that will have to coexist with the next president. I don’t understand their current attitude. They said they were opposed to the measure before even knowing the contents of the bill.

What will happen with the National Military Strategic Intelligence Directorate (DINIEM)?

Based on what the president said, the DINIEM will remain.

Many have expressed surprise at how much DINIEM’s budget has increased over the last few years. If we include the other two intelligence agencies under the wing of the Defence Ministry we’re talking about 836.9 million pesos a year — more than the SI itself.

The budget for intelligence under the control of Defence has not increased more than the ministry’s budget. (In 2015) the Defence Ministry budget increased some 32, 33 percent, while funds for each of the intelligence divisions have increased less than that. What do these departments do exactly? They produce reports on the evolution of militaries of geopolitically relevant countries. At the same time, they provide the basic training to members of each of the armed forces. Intelligence is an essential part of the job.

What do you think of the 289-page judicial complaint by late AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman?

From a legal point of view it is unsubstantial and has grown increasingly thin. It lacks evidence. It is based on the assumption that the Memorandum (of Understanding) with Iran was signed to get rid of the “red alerts” against Iranian officials accused of the AMIA attack and to increase trade with Iran. None of this has happened. Not a single notable jurist has come out to say that the complaint proves anything. If it weren’t for the unfortunate death of prosecutor Nisman, we would not even be talking about these allegations.

In addition to involving President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, Nisman also pointed to former official Luis D’Elía and Quebracho leader Fernando Esteche. Don’t you think they may be guilty?

No. At least not from the few wiretaps I was able to hear. D’Elía and Esteche have publicly expressed their sympathy toward the Iranian regime. D’Elía was our official and when he said those things, Néstor Kirchner ousted him.

But even after leaving the government, D’Elía could still be seen seated in the front row at several government rallies.

D’Elía has supported, and continues to support, this political space. I agree with some of his public statements and disagree with others. But he has helped to build this political space.

What’s your hypothesis on Nisman’s death?

I don’t have hypotheses, only wishes. I want all the circumstances of his death to be revealed. Save for his family members and closest friends, we’re the most interested in avoiding the case from falling under a cloud of suspicion.

Army chief César Milani received a judicial setback this week when Judge Daniel Bejas confirmed that prosecutor Carlos Brito will continue his investigation into Milani’s alleged involvement in the disappearance of conscript Alberto Agapito Ledo. Should the government start taking distance from the controversial Army chief?

No. We encouraged Milani to voluntarily appear (before a judge) in the two cases against him — the La Rioja case and the Tucumán case. Milani had challenged prosecutor Brito, which Gils Carbó rejected and now the judge is confirming that rejection. I was not surprised.

Has the government abandoned Ledo’s family?

Not at all, not at all. We would never dare criticize a victim of human rights violations. We’ve been completely respectful of the actions carried out by Ledo’s family — his mother, his sister... (Raises his voice) I would also like to emphasize that Milani’s legal defence is his and his alone. His lawyers have nothing to do with the Defence Ministry. I would also like to point out that we never heard any complaints while Milani was the Army’s second in command. He had been promoted three times and no one said anything. Objections were only raised after we appointed him as Army chief.

You’re expected to face other FpV candidates in the August primaries. What differentiates you from the rest?

Nobody can doubt the consistency of my ideology. I’ve been here at all times — good, not-so-good.

Do you intend to join forces with other Kirchnerites who are closer to the president in order to present a united front against Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli?

It’s still too early for that. My energy is focused on strengthening my candidacy, which I believe has grown steadily. Right now I’m like those racing horses with blinkers on — I’m just looking ahead.

@fedebillie

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Tags:  Defence Minister  Agustín Rossi  Intellgence Secretariat  César Milani  





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