OPINION | ABDULLAH BOZKURT
The use of Turkish journalists as assets and media outlets as cover has long been a policy of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) in order to obtain confidential information from sources, put reporters’ talents to use as operatives and run clandestine information campaigns for various missions and purposes.
This risky policy, employed discreetly for decades, has morphed into a blunt and abusive instrument intensively put to use by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose government has turned the secretive spy organization into his private detective agency. The transformation accelerated after the appointment of Erdoğan’s close confidante Hakan Fidan, a pro-Iranian Islamist, as head of the spy agency in 2010. One of the main changes Fidan made after he started running MIT was to bring Nuh Yılmaz, an op-ed contributor for the Sabah daily, a newspaper that is owned and operated by Erdoğan’s family, to the agency as press advisor, on Aug. 15, 2013.
The position of press advisor, which used to be a low-key job at the agency and involved nothing much more than press scans and media reviews, was given new life when Yılmaz was brought aboard. Most of the defamation campaign against Erdoğan’s critics and opponents as well as Turkey’s disinformation war against international partners and allies is being coordinated from there. Several clandestine projects that were part of other departments at the agency were also handed over to Yılmaz’s office under direct orders from spymaster Fidan. The changes were often sugarcoated as reform efforts to bring more analytical experience to the agency in order to justify former academic Yılmaz’s overarching mandate in the agency.
Yılmaz being parachuted into the agency without much experience in the intelligence field drew criticism within the organization. The position of press advisor was also elevated by Fidan, who ordered him to report directly to his office as opposed to the past tradition of the press officer being responsible to one of the deputy undersecretaries of the agency. Let’s recall that Yılmaz had also worked as the Washington, D.C., representative for several pro-government media outlets including CNN Türk, ATV, Kanal 24 and the Star daily. He was a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank led by Erdoğan apologist Carl Bildt, the former foreign minister of Sweden. He also worked as director of Erdoğan government-funded think tank the SETA Foundation in D.C. The leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and now energy minister, in 2016 showed that Yılmaz was acting like an operative, posting intel notes and regularly updating Albayrak with developments in the US capital. Albayrak was not even part of the formal government at the time.
In October 2017 Yılmaz was reassigned to another post in the intelligence agency. During his four years of running the press section at MIT, he delivered what was expected of him by recruiting more journalists as assets and planting new people in various media outlets, mostly run by pro-Erdoğan business associates. The Sabah daily and its many bureau chiefs at home and abroad were selected specifically to cater to the needs of Turkish intelligence in collecting information, engaging in illicit activities and even resorting to espionage. Yılmaz performed well during the staged coup of July 15, 2016, which was orchestrated by Erdoğan and his intelligence and military chiefs as a false flag to set up the opposition for a mass persecution, with the main victim being members of the Gülen movement. He directed the media appearances of government officials, fed misinformation to the networks and planted fake news on websites funded by the agency. In an unprecedented move for the agency, he even connected to several TV networks to give live interviews.
More information has recently come to light that links Yılmaz to what appears to be one of the high-value assets developed by MIT in CNN International’s Turkish affiliate, CNN Türk, which was owned by media mogul Aydin Dogan before its sale in March to Erdoğan lackey Erdoğan Demirören, owner of the Demirören Group. Her name is Hande Fırat, the CNN Türk bureau chief in Ankara and TV anchor who made a name for herself after talking to Erdoğan via FaceTime during which conversation the Turkish president called on his supporters to take to the streets to show their support against the coup attempt. Interestingly, while Erdoğan’s call was still going on with his video feed transferred to the network via Fırat’s mobile phone in front of live cameras, an incoming call from Yılmaz was displayed for 10 seconds on the iPhone screen starting at 1 minute 12 seconds of the president’s statement. It took some time for Fıratto figure out what to do before pressing the reject button to get rid of Yılmaz’s name from the screen, send him to her voice mail and bring the picture of Erdoğan back to the forefront.
The whole episode appears to have been carefully designed to give an impression that Erdoğan was under duress and had great difficulty accessing the networks, when dozens of media outlets were at his disposal at any given moment. Fırat’s links to Turkish intelligence were first revealed by two senior MIT officials, Erhan Pekçetin and Aydın Günel, who were captured by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq’s Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah on Aug. 4, 2017. Pekçetin was the head of the department responsible for ethnic separatist groups operating outside of Turkey’s borders, while Günel used to run the human resources department at MIT, otherwise known as the service that is responsible for developing human intelligence in the field and bringing in new recruits and informants. The MIT officials admitted that Fırat had a direct connection to the intelligence agency at the leadership level.
Although the pro-PKK Fırat news agency (ANF) published partial video footage along with the confessions of the captured MIT officials, I initially approached the story with caution, given the source. However, I have recently talked to two intelligence experts who are intimately familiar with these two captured MIT officials and knowledgeable about the modus operandi of Turkish intelligence. They both independently verified the information that was provided to their captors by Pekçetin and Günel as accurate. This also explains why Aydın Doğan contradicted Fırat’s claim on Nov. 13, 2016 that the Turkish president’s FaceTime call was spontaneous. Doğan said Fırat told him about the possibility of a connection with the president on the night of the attempted coup, confirming the advance knowledge. He told her that if she could manage it on live TV, he would reward her success by paying her wedding reception costs and would buy her an apartment. Not surprisingly this apparent contradiction did not make the headlines in the Turkish media, which is by and large controlled by the Erdoğan regime. Even a small story in the leftist Cumhuriyet daily about this discrepancy was mysteriously deleted after it was published on the paper’s website.
Fırat later wrote a book detailing what happened during the night of the coup from her own experience but tried to cover up the role of the intelligence agency in the plot. Her efforts were part of an MIT-coordinated plan to whitewash the intelligence agency and portray Yılmaz, her contact at the agency, in a favourable light. She was not so discreet in her attempts to do so, however, both in her book and later during her testimony on Nov. 16, 2016 before the parliamentary commission that was set up to investigate events leading up to the coup. For example, when asked by a commission member how to explain Yılmaz’s tweet on July 16, 2016 at 2:57 a.m. stating that Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar was in charge and still on the job when the general was allegedly held hostage and was rescued long after this tweet (at 7:45 a.m., to be precise), Fırat explained that this was part of a psychological operation by MIT’s Yılmaz to dissuade the coup plotters. It was clear that she was protecting Yılmaz and defending his lies at the parliamentary commission hearing.
Despite her best efforts, Fırat’s book also exposed some contradictions. For example, she wrote about her conversation with Yılmaz at 10:10 p.m. on the night of July 15 after some troops blocked the traffic in one direction on the Bosporus Bridge. She asked the MIT official what was going on, and Yılmaz responded that he had no knowledge of the developments. The same man who claimed to have no idea what was happening posted a message on Twitter hours later that the putschists’ attempts had been thwarted. It does not make any sense given the fact that an air force major, H.A., went to MİT on July 15 and reported the imminent coup attempt at 2:20 p.m., long before any troop mobilization. According to official records, MİT Undersecretary Fidan and Chief of General Staff Akar later had meetings at General Staff headquarters and had taken some precautions. Yılmaz, Fidan’s confidante, must have been familiar with all this traffic before the coup bid took off hours later.
In an interview with Alem FM Radio in late July 2016, Fırat also admitted that she had talked to Yılmaz, who earlier told her about reported clashes at MIT headquarters before the Turkish president appeared on FaceTime. It was also reported that the two had a meeting on July 14, a day before the failed coup was launched, possibly to fine tune the plan of connecting Erdoğan to the TV network. A lot of holes in her story and so many inconsistencies in various narratives she employed suggest the journalist played a scripted role planned in advance by Erdoğan and his associates. No wonder Erdoğan had called the coup bid a “great gift of God” within a few hours after the putsch and immediately launched a massive purge of government employees who had nothing to do with the coup attempt at all, particularly targeting volunteers and participants of the Gülen movement.
Fırat is now bureau chief of the Hürriyet daily in Ankara and manages a political commentary program, “Night View,” on CNN Türk. She is certainly not the only one developed as an asset by Turkish intelligence, and there are many others who work ostensibly as journalists. I will reveal some other names in due time when it’s important to shed light on their conduct. Unfortunately, there is no law against the intelligence agency using journalists as a cover in Turkey. Well, even if Turkey had such legislation on the books, Erdoğan would have ignored it, anyway, with the judiciary being completely subordinate to his rule. Moreover, there is no independent review of the intelligence agency’s conduct in this regard. In fact, separate departments in the intelligence agency recruit reporters and journalists as operatives without one department knowing which assets the other departments have developed.
Worse, there is no discernible concern in many media outlets in Turkey, especially among those that are owned by businesspeople who curry favor with the government to obtain lucrative contracts and tenders. However, such practices complicate Turkish journalists’ efforts to perform their duty to inform the public based on fact-based reporting. It also makes them a target of foreign governments and nongovernmental entities and may very well lead to hostile actions against them. The abuse of the journalism profession by the Erdoğan government for intelligence operations puts the safety of honest working reporters at great risk.