Operation Mockingbird: Turkish style

As if a Turkish version of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sanctioned Operation Mockingbird, a secretive campaign to influence the media in the 1950s, had been launched by the Turkish spy agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), there are dozens of reporters, editors and writers who have appeared in the Turkish media landscape in the last couple of years, all relentlessly targeting critics and opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

It may be ironic to recall that by the time Allen Welsh Dulles took over the agency as the CIA director in 1953, reportedly Operation Mockingbird had a major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies. By comparison, one cannot help but wonder whether the same could be true in Turkey ever since Hakan Fidan, a political appointee and close confidante of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, became the head of Turkish intelligence agency. If that is the case, then we should be really worried about our state of democracy in Turkey.

The mushrooming of web portals and Internet websites attacking AK Party critics with character assassinations and underbelly punches raises the specter of a secretive state with no transparency and accountability. The emerging pattern among these portals is that one site picks up baseless information or distorted facts with no reliable source or confirmation provided in the story and others disseminate to a larger audience at lightning speed. In some cases, these reports appear in the national media, often in pro-government ones, or are carried by columnists blindly supporting the government’s view. Analysts who try to provide an insight into what is going on in Turkey with a critical eye are automatically labeled “Zionist,” collaborating with Israel or “agents of imperialist foreign intelligence agencies.” After all, it is much easier to shoot the messenger than the message itself in a society in which conspiracy theories sell easily.

Some independent journalists suspect the spy agency is indeed pulling the strings behind this smear campaign to discredit anyone who does not support the government position on one issue or another. Legitimate criticism as part of freedom of speech are not welcomed at all even if this criticism was voiced by someone who supported the government on many issues in the past or still supports the government. The circles running this negative campaigning are effectively saying that the “right to dissent and differ” from the prevailing government view has to be wiped out. No wonder many supporters of the AK Party government today have been turned off by this chilling approach that crystallizes differences, sharpens divisions and polarizes society into two distinct camps with bridges of dialogue destroyed. In a nutshell, there is no middle ground, according to this pro-government posse.

The fact that the AK Party government tries to protect MİT from legal prosecutions when the agency is caught red-handed bolsters the impression that the intelligence agency has been acting with the consent or full knowledge of the executive branch of the government. According to a report published last week by the independent Taraf daily, of more than 70 legal investigations and cases involving members of MİT, the Prime Ministry has granted permission for MİT officials to be questioned or tried in only seven cases. This low-ratio came after the AK Party government made a swift amendment in the law regarding MİT that made their questioning and trial subject to the consent of the prime minister in February 2012 after a prosecutor overseeing an investigation into the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attempted to summon the MİT undersecretary and other officials to testify in an ongoing investigation. The government balked at the prosecutor’s request and hastily arranged the adoption of a new law in Parliament, giving blanket immunity to the spy agency.

It looks like we have gone from one extreme to another in Turkey when it comes to the democratic control of intelligence services. In the past, MİT served the interests of the military, an all-powerful institution that was behind social engineering and political calculations. Most chiefs of intelligence came from the military ranks although the appointment was done by the government — only on paper. Key posts in the intelligence agency were staffed by the military as well. That was changed when the military’s role in politics was curtailed drastically thanks to the democratization drive in Turkey, partially attributed to the EU membership process. Turks thought the democratic control of intelligence service had finally been established in Turkey under the supervision of elected officials rather than appointed ones, but now they are puzzled to see that the agency is now seemingly operating according to the wishes of powerful politicians who use it for the domestic party political agenda.

Many suspect the political authority has easily exploited the lack of checks and balances in the system, ensuring that the intelligence agency is protected from political abuse. Unfortunately, Turkey has neither accountability structures nor independent bodies to oversee the activities of the intelligence agency to measure whether it is in fact complying with modern democratic standards. If some of the revelations appearing in the Turkish media are true, the agency is clearly involved in gathering information to discredit opposition figures or influence the domestic agenda. Independent journalists have also felt the brunt of this inquisitive invasion of privacy by the agency when MİT deceived a judge between 2008 and 2009 to obtain warrants to tap the phones of several journalists using court orders in which the journalists were only mentioned by aliases that had been made up by the spy agency. When the scandal was exposed, the agency kept mum on the issue, and the criminal case into who authorized the eavesdropping was suspended because the prime minister did not give permission for the case to move forward.

As the government protects the agency from legal troubles, it may very well be that the agency is returning the favor by doing the governing political party’s bidding. The distortion of intelligence findings to support the government position on some issues may very well be an example of this. When the government continuously argued that recent Gezi Park rallies, a small sit-in protest to oppose an urban renewal project to protect a green park in İstanbul that later turned into nationwide anti-government demonstrations, were in fact orchestrated by foreign elements, the intelligence assessment and findings to support that view were shared with pro-government writers to bolster that opinion. It is an open secret among media professionals that there are some journalists who are believed to have close relations with MİT, and some of the stories leaked to the press actually came from the intelligence agency. MİT has for years developed assets in the media that may come in handy for the government in troubling times.

What makes it worse is that the intelligence agency lacks judicial, independent and parliamentary reviews of its operations while exercising exceptional powers and enjoying a very generous budget. The intrusion of the US Justice Department into the telephone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press by secretly obtaining them, exposed in May, dwarfs the violation of the operations conducted by MİT in Turkey. Scandalous reports that appeared in Turkish media unearthed how the agency has recently started collecting massive amounts of private data on Turkish citizens with no legal justification. The intrusion of civil liberties went so far as collecting prescription drug user data, credit card transactions and flight itineraries of all private citizens. This step is a clear breach of the very spirit of the 2010 constitutional amendment that secured the protection of personal data in the Constitution.

Since mechanisms for political neutrality and bipartisan use of intelligence are also absent in Turkey, the opposition rightly complains that the AK Party government uses the intelligence agency to discredit the opposition. MİT has never briefed the opposition, not even on the basis of “need to know” or alerted it to an impending threat that may damage the opposition politically. For example, MİT knew all along that Anas Asalieh, who uses the codename Abu Firas and is believed to be one of the masterminds behind the fatal bombings in Hatay’s Reyhanlı district, which killed 53 people on May 11, is an operative of the Syrian intelligence agency al-Mukhabarat, but it did not warn the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) when a delegation from the CHP went to Syria to talk to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, apparently set up by Abu Firas. This led to calls by the CHP that the AK Party government was setting up a trap for the CHP in order to further the interests of the ruling party and weaken the credibility of the opposition by embarrassing it in the public eye. Junior opposition parties have raised similar complaints as well.

As the government feels under increasing pressure on domestic and foreign fronts because of ill-advised choices it has made, it might have started to use MİT as part of a black propaganda instrument against the opposition. We might even have a series of Turkish versions of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s in the US where the Republican White House tried to cover up an operation against the opposition Democrats. Historically, intelligence agencies are used to protect authoritarian leaders from their own people. It would be a shame to turn back the clock of modern Turkey to a notorious past.

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