How Turkey's spies found new ways to escape oversight

Even as rumors continue as to who will replace Hakan Fidan, Turkey's national intelligence chief, the Turkish spy has found ways to expand his political power.

al-monitor Hakan Fidan (C), who heads Turkey's National Intelligence Agency, stands in Ankara, Dec. 19, 2014. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images.
Pinar Tremblay

Pinar Tremblay

@pinartremblay

Topics covered

turkish intelligence, turkish democracy, turkey politics, turkey national intelligence agency, hakan fidan, binali yildirim, ahmet davutoglu, akp

Jun 1, 2016

Al-Monitor posed a critical question as former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu departed: What will happen to pro-Davutoglu figures?

While the dust is settling, the rift is strong in two main areas — in the media and senior ranks of bureaucracy. On the one hand, dedicated groups close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have increased their efforts to weed out any suspected Davutoglu supporters. On the other hand, pro-Davutoglu pundits, supported fervently by the anti-Erdogan camp, have started a campaign to tarnish the reputation of the inner circle of Erdogan and new Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

As Yildirim formed the new government and replaced eight of the 22 ministers, Ankara's gossip mill turned to Hakan Fidan, who heads the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Almost every other day, a new opinion piece in Turkish media and dozens of tweets announce Fidan’s imminent departure, list the reasons why Fidan will be replaced or detail the colorful biographies of the most likely candidates who might replace him.

The rumors spiraled into elaborate plots in anti-AKP media outlets, which claim that Israel allegedly demanded Fidan's departure, or, alternatively, that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and the MIT are cooperating and that Hakan Fidan has kneeled down to Israel just like Erdogan.

Several facts need to be highlighted amid these confusing reports. First, Hakan Fidan's possible departure is a frequent and popular piece of gossip for Turks.

One can find news about Fidan’s departure all the way back to October 2015, for example. This time, however, the intensity and variety of the rumors have been unmatched, so much so that even seasoned journalists such as Amberin Zaman and Cengiz Candar reported on the impact of these rumors. Candar argued that "Fidan apparently lost his credibility in Erdogan's eyes."

Even though all these rumors were allegedly based on unnamed sources close to Erdogan's mysterious inner circle, they did not appear in pro-government media outlets. Rather it was the anti-Erdogan camp, including Gulenists, who excitedly announced several candidates as Fidan's replacement. It was particularly mind-boggling to read two contradictory arguments in the same outlets, even sometimes argued by the same pundit: the new prime minister is nothing more than a puppet or the new prime minister is determined to fire one of the most prominent bureaucrats — and he has the power to do so.

On May 30, Numan Kurtulmus, a spokesman for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, announced that the Cabinet had no plans to replace Fidan. Kurtulmus said, "We don't act in accordance with the rumors in Ankara." Although Kurtulmus' statement will not be sufficient to stop the gossips, it has slowed down the rumor mill somewhat.

Of course, to the keen observer these rumors were just that: rumors. The facts signal another interesting development. It has been a common Erdogan method to curtail the powers of a post prior to the replacement of the official occupying it — as was the case with Davutoglu. The MIT and Fidan, however, have grabbed new powers in the post-Davutoglu era.

On May 24 a new law came into effect that ends the requirement that durable mobile goods that the MIT purchases to be registered with the Turkish Court of Accounts. These movable goods include such gadgets as laptop computers, tracking devices and cellphones and other items such as vehicles and weapons. The head of the MIT will be in a position to decide whether or not to report these purchases to the Court of Accounts. This new law was not only a sign that Fidan was not to be replaced in the foreseeable future, but also a significant power grab.

Turkish media reported the new law from a different perspective. Hurriyet columnist Mehmet Yakup Yilmaz rendered the most popular interpretation in his column titled "Is this a new deep state operation?" His column was both critical of the need for such a change and worried about its impact. He wrote, "If you do not want your guns to be tracked, you must be after shady business. Does the AKP aim to create a deep state under its control [and thus] issued this law?" Yilmaz also said that unaccounted-for guns would be used to initiate domestic trouble. Neither Yilmaz nor other analysts viewed this law as a sign of Fidan's power expansion or that he would not be replaced.

Al-Monitor previously reported about internal changes in the MIT and the lessons the agency learned from leaks of classified information.

Sources in Ankara told Al-Monitor that the change was required to prevent further leaks and preserve secrets at the "top secret," "secret" and "confidential" levels. Particularly after operations, the return of movable goods to the agency caused problems with the Court of Accounts and other agencies that audit the MIT.

That said, the law does not mean there will be no internal audits or record keeping within the agency. One senior government official told Al-Monitor, "If anything, the MIT has been too late to generate a substantive reform to its classification process. Look at the debates over the world's most prominent intelligence agencies where budgets are kept secret. There are several incentives to push for further secrecy in intelligence. Terrorists and adversaries could analyze budget trends, and the kind of gadgets and weapons purchased, to discover our capabilities and imminent plans."

It is true that the MIT needs to be more careful against leaks, and is in desperate need to establish proper criteria for classification. Yet there is also the danger of over-classification. Intelligence spending could easily suffer from waste, fraud and abuse, while making intelligence-sharing between government agencies all the more difficult. In the long run, secrecy will be more dangerous than audits and disclosing information.

For now, the new law enables the MIT to bypass acquisition audits for weapons, vehicles and electronic gadgets and is a sign that the agency has strengthened its standing within the Turkish bureaucracy. It also means that denying information to other agencies increases the MIT's powers relative to others, thereby directly securing Fidan's place in the foreseeable future. Sadly, it also highlights that Turkish independent media, or whatever has been left of it, is a victim of a political culture where the rumor mill commands more power than facts.

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