July 11, 2015

Smear campaign against Gülen fails after new details emerge on eavesdropping

The defamation campaign against the Gülen or Hizmet movement, which the Turkish president and his political Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government accuse of illegally wiretapping government officials, collapsed after it became clear that foreign security and intelligence agencies were involved in eavesdropping on senior Turkish officials.

A series of court cases launched by the government on what the opposition parties describe as trumped-up charges of illegal wiretapping against police chiefs and civilians in the past two years have resulted in either acquittal or reached a stage where a reasonable prospect of a prosecution is considered to be no longer possible.

The latest revelation came last week when German weekly magazine Focus wrote that last year's leaked audio of a high-level security meeting at the Turkish Foreign Ministry about possible military action in Syria via a false-flag operation was recorded and then leaked by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The recording, which was posted online, featured a conversation between then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) head Hakan Fidan, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler.

In the recording, the officials discussed how Turkey could start a war with Syria, what the legal grounds would be to do so and if it would be possible to create a pretext to deliberately drag Turkey into a war with Syria. They also discussed a false-flag operation by having mortars firing into Turkey from Syria to ostensibly create the legal grounds for a war.

Only hours after the conversation was posted online, then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to attribute the leak to the Gülen movement, without showing any evidence for his suspicions. Davutoğlu also accused Hizmet of leaking the recording and described the act as espionage. When he was later asked what evidence he had to lay the blame on Hizmet, Davutoğlu said he did not have any evidence but rather came to that conclusion based on his own convictions.

Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu kept mum on Focus's claims, and no public statement was made. They have also failed to raise this issue with the US. The deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), Sezgin Tanrıkulu, said Erdoğan preferred to demonize a civic group on the leak from the Foreign Ministry meeting instead of trying to find out the real culprits. He also criticized Erdoğan for abusing this leak for his election campaign on the eve of the March 30, 2014 local elections.

“This shocking revelation cannot be overlooked in any democratic country,” he said, stressing that Erdoğan may be terrified about further leaks on a more scandalous conversation that would implicate him further.

The Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office then initiated an investigation into the leak, but after more than a year passed, no announcement was made on any conclusion. The examination report prepared by Prosecutor Veli Dalgalı on July 9, 2014, discovered a series of weaknesses in securing the Foreign Ministry building. For example, there was only one security camera on the floor where the foreign minister's office is located. The existing camera has a blind spot on the elevator's entrance as well as other offices on the same floor. Cell phones were not jammed at the time of the meeting, either. Dalgalı concluded in his report that he could not identify the suspect or suspects behind the eavesdropping.

The opposition says Erdoğan's slander against a civilian group with millions of followers and sympathizers has cast further doubt on the credibility of the government instead of exposing the real perpetrators.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) parliamentary group deputy chairman Oktay Vural said the government benefited politically by blaming the leak on the Gülen movement.

“I asked the government what it has done when it became public that the US and Germany had eavesdropped on Turkey. They said major powers listen in on other countries. That was the extent of their response,” he said.

When the wiretapping of Turkish officials by US and European states was revealed by German magazine Der Spiegel, President Erdoğan downplayed the allegations and said that such eavesdropping is relatively normal, adding that Turkish officials will soon discuss the subject with the leaders of these countries.

Vural also warned that major powers may have obtained scandalous details about the private affairs of the president and other senior officials, raising the possibility of blackmail against Turkey.

“It would be an intelligence failure as well as a crime for not taking measures against eavesdropping,” Vural noted.

Yet, Erdoğan used the leak as an opportunity to attack Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who is critical of corruption in the government. In an election rally in Diyarbakır before the March 30 local elections last year, Erdoğan said: “A meeting was held [between state officials] about the tomb of Süleyman Şah [in Syria]. They [Hizmet members] even leaked [the recording of] this meeting to YouTube. This is villainous; this is dishonest. Who are you serving by recording such an important meeting?” According to legal experts and observers, Erdoğan violated the basic principle of the presumption of innocence with his “quick conclusion” about Hizmet.

It was not the first time that he has linked Hizmet to some major unpleasant developments in the country without providing any proof. Many analysts have speculated that it is probably easiest for Erdoğan to find a “scapegoat” on whom to put the blame whenever he feels cornered by accusations of mismanagement, corruption or fraud. For example, when a major graft investigation became public on Dec. 17, 2013, Erdoğan quickly attributed the probe to the work of the “parallel state,” a reference he uses for the Hizmet movement.

The Focus report confirmed last year's report by Der Spiegel, another German magazine, which claimed that the NSA was instructed by the US political leadership to gather information about the “intentions” of the Turkish leadership and to monitor Turkey's operations in 18 other key areas. The magazine examined documents from the archive of US whistleblower Edward Snowden. It stated that one NSA document calls Turkey “both a partner and target. … The very politicians, military officials and intelligence agency officials with whom US officials work closely when conducting actions against the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK] are also considered legitimate spying targets by the NSA,” it read.

Der Spiegel's report claimed that German and British intelligence agencies have also spied on Turkey.

Professor Halil İbrahim Bahar, former deputy dean of the Police Academy, says the revelations mean the victim card the AK Party has played by falsely accusing the Gülen movement during the election campaign periods has lost its appeal.

“The next question to be asked of the government is why you made Hizmet a scapegoat. Why have you been silent towards the countries that really eavesdropped on you? What is it that you're trying to cover up?” he told Sunday's Zaman.

The acquittal of the former vice president of the country's top scientific body in the bugging case indicates that all other police chiefs who were put behind bars on trumped-up charges will also be acquitted if their cases reach the trial phase, Bahar underlined.

Bahar also noted that all these revelations are further proof that the AK Party has abused the criminal justice system to put pressure on opponents and critics.

Sedat Laçiner, a professor of international relations and former rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University (ÇOMÜ), believes the smear campaign against the Gülen movement is part of a propaganda operation by the government to distract public attention away from the corruption investigations.

“To some extent, the government succeeded in not only convincing people but also hushing up the corruption probes,” he remarked.

He contrasted the legally obtained wiretap warrants in the course of the corruption investigations that incriminated senior government officials to the unauthorized eavesdropping on a security meeting in the Foreign Ministry.

“The government wanted to equate the former with the latter to create the perception that all are illegal, when in fact they knew very well the two were completely different kinds of wiretaps,” Laçiner pointed out.

“I think foreign countries are very familiar with the weaknesses of our leaders through these eavesdropping activities,” he said.

Asked why the government is silent on the claims of the US and European allies wiretapping Turkish leaders, Laçiner said there may be two reasons for that.

“One reason may be that foreign countries are familiar with damaging details that may land Turkish leaders in hot water with both domestic and international law," he said.

“The second reason is the government is concerned that the propaganda war launched against the Gülen movement will collapse if they admit that the leaks came from foreign countries,” he added.

Court cases on witch-hunt collapse

Another development this week was the collapse of yet another witch-hunt trial, which was touted by the government as evidence linking the bug that was planted in Erdoğan's office to the Hizmet movement, even though the indictment did not mention the Gülen movement at all.

Hasan Palaz, the former vice president of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) who was arrested in early April as part of an investigation into the bugging device allegedly found in Erdoğan's office, was acquitted of charges and released from the prison.

Palaz was acquitted of multiple charges that included forging official documents, destroying, concealing or tampering with evidence, and espionage. Public Prosecutor Durak Çetin had sought up to 36 years in prison for Palaz and others, stating that conversations in Erdoğan's office were illegally monitored.

However, the Ankara 7th High Criminal Court ruled that “no evidence of espionage had been found” regarding wiretapping with the aim of political espionage, violating the privacy of interpersonal communication and recording personal conversation without permission.

According to Palaz, an inspector at the Prime Ministry Inspection Council, Mehmet Emin Baysa, asked him to change the date of the report, allegedly threatening him with unfortunate consequences if he refused. It turned out that Baysa was a parliamentary candidate for the AK Party in the 2011 election. Palaz's report claimed that the bug was first planted on Dec. 4 or 5, 2011.

TOBB University's Tevfik Demir -- who has no documented expertise in the field of audio devices -- issued the second report. Demir's report claims that the silicon that was used to plant the bug in the office might have dried 10-15 days before the date suggested by the initial report, though only in an oxygen-free environment.

The difference in dates is crucial, since the police officers who were later accused of planting the device searched Erdoğan's office on Nov. 24 and 25, 2011. The bug was found on Dec. 28; if it was first planted after police officers had performed their search, there are no grounds to blame the officers.

Now suspicions have turned towards Erdoğan's adviser Mustafa Varank, who was the one who claimed to have found the bugging device in 2011. He admitted in court in February that the search was not recorded, although it should have been and no written report was prepared, despite it being the normal procedure for searches.

Police officers were released

Unlike the situation with the illegal wiretapping, hundreds of police officers have been rounded up by the AK Party government in the past two years for simply conducting prosecutor-authorized judicial investigations and legally wiretapping suspects after obtaining warrants from judges. After no solid evidence was presented to the court by government loyalist prosecutors most of them have been released.

In an unprecedented move, the AK Party government has purged, reassigned and reshuffled tens of thousands of police following the Dec. 17, 2013 graft probe implicating people affiliated with the government.

The ruling AK Party government's purges in the police force mainly targeted officers who participated in major corruption and bribery probes on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013, that implicated 53 people, including bureaucrats, prominent businessmen and the sons of three former ministers from the AK Party and people from the inner circle of then-Prime Minister and current President Erdoğan.

Since then, police officers -- including police chiefs considered to be the “brains” of the National Police Department due to their experience and training -- were detained, with some later arrested on charges of spying and wiretapping without any concrete evidence. The shakeups are widely believed to be designed to cover up the claims of corruption.

More important, the newly appointed police officers, motivated by government orders, have directed their focus on the Gülen movement because Erdoğan claimed sympathizers of Hizmet in the state bureaucracy, especially in the judiciary and police force, masterminded the corruption probe to topple his government. The movement strongly denies the accusation.

Most police officers were let go by the court after no evidence found in any wrongdoing, although dozens have been in pre-trial detention for almost a year without any indictment prepared against them.

Published on Today's Zaman, 11 July 2015, Saturday