BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina's clandestine spy agency has a notoriously dark past that includes its failure to prevent a major attack on a Jewish community center, then allegedly sabotaging the investigation into what happened.
Operating with autonomy — and many critics argue, frequent impunity — the intelligence gathering groups under the umbrella of the Secretary of Intelligence have been used by governments dating back to the military dictatorship of the early 1970s to gather dirt on opponents.
"Everybody knew how the Secretary of Intelligence worked," said Gaston Chillier, executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine think tank. "But nobody wanted to say anything because their services were needed, or because of fear."
Argentina's Congress on Tuesday began debating a proposal to reform the clandestine service, whose alleged transgressions have ranged from simple corruption to helping the former military government identify many of the thousands of political detractors who were disappeared or killed.
Lawmakers held the extraordinary session two weeks after prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found shot dead Jan. 18, hours before he was to detail allegations that President Cristina Fernandez helped Iran cover up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people. Fernandez has rejected Nisman's claims and suggested that rogue intelligence operatives were behind his death.
Hugo Anzorreguy, former head of the Secretary of Intelligence, is awaiting trial for allegedly heading a plot to derail the investigation into the bombing, which has never been solved. Former President Carlos Menem is also being tried in the case.
The 22-page reform bill Fernandez put forward would create a new agency with stricter presidential controls, streamline declassification of documents and increase punishments for agents acting outside the law. It was taken up by a Senate committee.
Creating a new intelligence agency presents huge challenges, from operational changes to shifting attitudes among political leaders. Fernandez has acknowledged the presidency doesn't fully control Argentina's intelligence services. But her Judicialist Party, going back to the term of her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner, has used the country's spies for its own ends.
"What's needed is a cultural change" in how intelligence services are used, said Horacio Lutzky, author of "Delivering on the Rubble," a book about bungled investigations of the Jewish center bombing. "It's not going to happen in one year."
The bill lays out a broad framework for replacing the current spy service with a new "National Federal Intelligence Agency."
Gathered intelligence would be delivered to the Public Ministry, which would be the only entity empowered to initiate legal action. Currently, intelligence goes to a different department inside the same agency.
The bill also creates new categories for classified information, sets a 25-year time limit for declassification of intelligence files, and increases sentences for agents found operating above the law.
It does not, however, say how the changes would purge alleged bad apples from the ranks. It states that within 90 days of the new agency's creation, all assets would be transferred from the current entity and personnel would "maintain their respective levels, degrees and categories" of employment.
The legislation "changes the collar but leaves us the same dog," Miguel Angel Toma, former director of Secretary of Intelligence, told The Associated Press.
Toma said he worried that a transition period would create a power vacuum inside the intelligence community. He noted that several top agents had been fired in recent months, including Antonio "Jaime" Stiuso. Local news reports say Stiuso oversaw a vast wire-tapping operation.
Fernandez has said Stiuso fed Nisman false information about alleged spies, and she has even suggested that Stiuso wrote Nisman's 289-page report detailing his case against her. The president has not elaborated on those allegations, and Stiuso's current whereabouts are unknown.
Opposition parties criticized how quickly the legislation was written.
"It's regrettable that the president has decided to make this an express proposal," Congresswoman Cornelia Schmidt-Liermann said. "That doesn't create consensus."
Perhaps the biggest question is whether any reform can prevent Argentine presidents from using the intelligence services for their own ends. Such use intensified during the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, when intelligence services helped the ruling generals identify detractors, thousands of whom were killed or disappeared.
The government's alleged use of its intelligence services recently raised eyebrows again when an international journalist fled Argentina, claiming he was followed by agents after being the first to report on Nisman's death.
When Damian Pachter told a journalism association he was leaving the country, government news agency Telam published an itinerary that showed he was flying to neighboring Uruguay and had a return ticket to Buenos Aires — an apparent effort to question his credibility.
Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava and Debora Rey, and video journalist Paul Byrne, contributed to this report.