Turkey Pulse

Flynn affair exposes Turkey's 'sloppy' PR efforts

Article Summary
Though the pro-government Turkish media continues to studiously ignore the affair, the US media is busy probing former national security adviser Michael Flynn's ties to a Turkish businessman who hired him to lobby for Ankara.

A former US ambassador to Turkey once informally observed that the country “lacks the PR gene." The controversy swirling around former national security adviser Michael Flynn over his ties to a Turkish businessman who clearly hired him to lobby on Turkey’s behalf is a further example of how inept Turkey is at promoting itself.

The retired general conceded in a filing with the Justice Department that a $500,000+ deal he signed with Turkish entrepreneur Ekim Alptekin prior to taking office “could be construed to have principally benefitted the Republic of Turkey.” By all accounts, it did not benefit Turkey at all.

The affair has spurred a slew of unfavorable articles in the American media probing Flynn’s relationship with the businessman and his Dutch-registered company Inovo. It's not just Flynn who's come out looking bad.

Alptekin initially denied that the contract was for lobbying, saying it was mainly to do “geopolitical analysis.” He still denies any ties to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party or receiving any money from the Turkish government to pay Flynn.

The Turkish government is known to use a slush fund called the Ortulu Odenek to finance propaganda against its perceived enemies. For years, these foes were Armenians and Kurds. Today, the government's top target is the Sunni cleric accused of masterminding the botched July coup.

The largely pro-government Turkish media has determinedly ignored the Flynn affair, but the American press continues to dig up further details of Flynn’s Turkey ties. The findings squarely contradict some of Alptekin’s earlier statements.

The New Yorker's account of a Sept. 19 meeting arranged by Alptekin between Flynn, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, who is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, hardly fit Alptekin’s characterization of the assignation. In a March 10 interview with Al-Monitor, Alptekin called the meeting a “last-minute thing.”

Flynn was flanked by former CIA Director Jim Woolsey and Brian McCauley, a former FBI agent. The Turks “sought, among other things, Flynn’s assistance in maligning Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan blamed for the attempted coup,” The New Yorker reported.

Alptekin told Al-Monitor he had reclaimed $95,000 from Flynn because the lobbying component of the contract was “never executed.”

Flynn Intel Group had paid lobbying and public relations firm SGR $40,000 to work on a project that included designing a bizarre Monopoly-inspired graphic depicting Gulen as the “Mula Mullah” whose secret organization had “mastered the game of political and economic influence.” Alptekin told Al-Monitor he found the graphic “ridiculous” and that he shared it with contacts via WhatsApp “for a laugh.”

Similarly, an op-ed penned by Flynn for The Hill that was meant to vaunt Erdogan and Turkey and discredit Gulen also failed to please Ankara. In the Nov. 8 essay, Flynn called Gulen a “shady Islamic mullah” and likened his organization to the Muslim Brotherhood. He was apparently unaware that Erdogan is a big supporter of the Egypt-based movement.

Flynn’s efforts with Congress seem to have been just as unsuccessful. The Daily Beast revealed in a March 17 report that Flynn Intel representative Bijan Kian had met with House Homeland Security Committee staffers to convince them to back Turkey’s demands to extradite Gulen.

“It was a sloppy, uncompelling presentation,” a congressional staffer familiar with the substance of the exchange told the publication.

In his latest piece, The Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross, who has been at the vanguard of reporting on the Flynn Turkey scandal, drew unwelcome attention to hacked emails allegedly belonging to Albayrak that were published in December by WikiLeaks. They include alleged exchanges with Halil Danismaz, the former president of the Turkish Heritage Foundation, a New York-based outfit that overtly promotes the Turkish government. In the messages, Danismaz is seen proposing various lobbying strategies in a PowerPoint presentation and talking about paying endless fees to influential American journalists in exchange for burnishing Turkey’s image.

Ross noted, “While the Turkish government has questioned the legitimacy of the emails, WikiLeaks provided what’s called a DKIM verification for emails sent by Gmail showing they have not been altered or edited." Turkish officials have denounced the emails, which were illegally obtained by the Turkish hacktivist collective Redhack and published last October, as manipulated. Three Turkish journalists who either downloaded or reported on the contents of the emails were jailed in December, further swelling Turkey’s bloated population of incarcerated media professionals.

Found in: lobbying, us-turkish relations, fethullah gulen, turkey coup, public relations, turkish media, turkish diplomacy, michael flynn

Amberin Zaman is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse who has covered Turkey, the Kurds and Armenia for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016. She was a columnist for the liberal daily Taraf and the mainstream daily Haberturk before switching to the independent Turkish online news portal Diken in 2015. On Twitter: @amberinzaman


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