Foreign Policy Blogs

Brief Summary of Turkey’s Intelligence-Judiciary-Government Crisis

Hardly a day goes by in Turkey without a political crisis shaking the capital city of Ankara. Turkey’s latest political crisis broke out when special-authority prosecutor Sadrettin Sarıkaya in Istanbul summoned several high level members of Turkey’s intelligence agency, the MIT (National Intelligence Organization). On February 9th, MIT chief Hakan Fidan, his predecessor, a former deputy undersecretary and two division heads were requested to testify as part of an investigation into the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an alleged urban wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). What these names have in common is that they were part of the Turkish delegation that carried out negotiations with the PKK on behalf of the Turkish government which is believed to have taken place between 2008 and 2011. The negotiation process is known as the Oslo process.

Mr. Fidan and others, however, refused to testify, which prompted the prosecutor to issue arrest warrants. The same day, the interior ministry sacked two high ranking police officers (intelligence director and the director of anti-terrorism department) of Istanbul Police, who were reportedly leading the KCK operations and intelligence gathering over the organization’s activities. Later, the deputy chief public prosecutor of Istanbul announced that he removed prosecutor Sarıkaya from the KCK case. The reasons for his removal were reported as “failure to take the necessary precautions for the confidentiality of the case” and “withholding information about the investigation from his superior (chief Istanbul prosecutor).”[i] In addition, the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) launched an inquiry into the actions of prosecutor Sarıkaya over allegations that he overstepped his authority by investigating country’s intelligence chief and other officials.[ii] In the following days, the interior ministry removed ten high ranking police officers who took part in the KCK operations and later changed the posts of almost 700 police officers to different cities across Turkey. Although the ministry announced that this was all a part of a “routine change,” it is widely accepted that the police officers were sacked due to their role in the events that led to the investigation into the MIT personnel.

Moreover, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) proposed a legal amendment – on the same day of arrest warrants – to the MIT Law in a clear attempt to shield Mr. Fidan (and others) from legal probes including the ongoing case. The amendment became law in a matter of hours after it passed in the parliament and was approved by President Abdullah Gül. It is now impossible to investigate any MIT personnel and special envoys of the prime minister without the prime minister’s consent. In other words, no prosecutor (including special-authority prosecutors) can investigate the intelligence agency or prime minister’s special representatives before consulting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

What is the KCK case and how does MIT relate to it?

The KCK is allegedly serving as PKK’s political wing and the Turkish authorities claim that the group has an active role in the recent escalation of violence in Turkey. The first round of KCK detentions came in 2009 when pro-Kurdish political activists and members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) were taken into custody on the charges of membership in a terrorist organization and aiding the PKK. Since then, the Turkish police have arrested hundreds of people including journalists, academics, publishers, and pro-Kurdish activist on the charges of membership in KCK. The KCK operations continued regularly with the most recent targeting the organization’s youth movement and media links in mid-February. Therefore, the prosecutor’s decision to summon the MIT members as a part of the KCK investigation sent shockwaves across Turkey. After all, it was Mr. Fidan and the MIT that the government authorized to negotiate with the PKK only a few years ago. The main allegation against the MIT is that the intelligence agency assisted in the foundation and the activities of the KCK including the organizations support to PKK’s attacks on Turkish civilians and the security forces.

Brief Summary of Turkey’s Intelligence-Judiciary-Government Crisis

"People didn't buy it" reads the headline. The pro-government daily attempts to downplay the legal probe by an "opinion poll" on the investigation: 57% answered 'yes' when asked "Do you believe the investigation into the MIT is the work of Ergenekon?" (Source: Star)

To better understand the recent crisis we must have a quick look at Turkey’s efforts to solve the Kurdish-PKK conflict under the AKP government. Since the AKP took office in early 2000s, one of the key promises the party has continuously given to the public was that it would solve the PKK-Turkey conflict once and for all through democracy and negotiations. Finally in 2009, the AKP announced its first major policy move, called the Kurdish initiative, aiming to improve the rights of Kurdish population and to end the violence. The party, however, failed to offer a workable roadmap and did not communicate properly with the opposition, causing it to lose popular support to the initiative. Therefore, the so-called Kurdish opening produced no real results and was later shelved by the government. Later, when the PKK stepped up violence by carrying out ‘high impact’ operations, the government shifted its solution policy away from diplomacy (negotiations) to defense (KCK + PKK operations). Therefore, defense has become the dominant part of Turkey’s strategy in the PKK-Turkey conflict, which I call 3D-I or diplomacy, defence, development and Islam. While the Turkish Air Force jets and the Army artillery units target the PKK positions and logistical bases alongside the Iraqi border, police special operations units carry out anti-PKK operations throughout Turkey. In terms of development, the government has extended the scope of existing tax incentives and regulations aiming to promote investments to create employment and economic growth in Kurdish dominated southeast. At the same time, the AKP is trying to revitalize the religious bonds between the Kurds and the rest of the country via mosques to counter pro-PKK ideology and Kurdish nationalism.

Negotiations with the PKK were the simultaneous “behind the doors” process of the AKP’s solution, or the diplomacy part of Turkey’s strategy. Some KCK members claim that the Turkish government has been in contact with the PKK since 2008, which means the PKK and Turkish representatives met regularly to discuss the terms of peace for about three years. However, several mistakes along the way, such as the return of the PKK members from their camps in northern Iraq that was turned into a pro-PKK show, complicated the process. In addition, the AKP failed to keep the peace talks as a secret until all issues were agreed on by both sides. Therefore, when the Turks learned about the negotiations with the PKK through a leaked tape on the Internet in late 2011, the AKP faced serious backlash from the opposition and the public. For those who are interested, Murat Yetkin’s article provides an interesting read of events that show possible links of the latest crisis with recent developments and investigations in Turkey.

Here is where the (attempted) investigation into the intelligence agency comes into play. According to reports, Istanbul police obtained significant evidence that suggests MIT agents took part in the foundation of the KCK. In addition, among those who were arrested on the charges of KCK membership, some allegedly requested their release on the grounds that they were working for the intelligence agency. Other allegations against the intelligence officials include that they assisted the KCK in its communications with the PKK, which then carried out attacks that claimed the lives of Turkish civilians and security forces. An interesting possibility here is that if the KCK was founded during the peace talks, then the negotiators, therefore the government, were aware of the group’s planned activities. Critics, however, point to the fact that it’s MIT’s job to infiltrate into the organization to uncover terrorist activities and provide intelligence. Nevertheless, we won’t be able to learn more about these allegations as the investigation is practically over unless the Prime Minister Erdoğan allows it (which won’t happen).

Brief Summary of Turkey’s Intelligence-Judiciary-Government Crisis

It took Yeni Akit three days to discover who is behind the investigation attempt into the intelligence agency: Israel. Note that the newspaper claims the investigation was a plot against the government. (Source: Yeni Akit)

There are several other relevant issues that can be analyzed in the context of the recent crisis. A good summary of these issues can be seen here. As much as what lies behind the crisis needs to be uncovered, I think analyzing how the AKP handled the issue is more important as the whole process reaffirms a recent trend in Turkey: the increasing power of the AKP over the country’s courts, law enforcement, legislation and the media.

Democracy erosion continues:

Clearly, the AKP perceived the investigation into MIT-KCK links as an act against its authority. Therefore, the government didn’t hesitate to intervene in the legal processes not only through problematic statements, but also through its legislative power in the parliament by passing an amendment to stop an ongoing legal probe. Although the government denies it, the clear purpose of the MIT amendment was to protect the MIT personnel from current and future investigations. Moreover, not only the party passed the amendment without proper discussion in the parliament, it gave the prime minister an absolute authority to shield MIT from investigations. The amendment also raised concerns about the intelligence agency’s transparency and accountability. This is ironic because it was Mr. Fidan who recently announced that he was planning to make the MIT a more transparent organization.

The AKP’s defense of its crackdown on the Istanbul police and the amendment it singlehandedly passed in the parliament is even more worrying. “Every initiative (the MIT investigation) that does not have the public’s backing is illegitimate in the eyes of the law and constitution,” said Prime Minister Erdoğan in his statement on the issue as if ‘public’s backing’ is a criteria for prosecutors to start an investigation.

As in previous crises in Ankara, AKP’s media allies carried out a powerful smear campaign against those who criticized the government’s reaction to the attempted investigation. Pro-AKP media reported the issue as a “probe into the will of the people,” in their “judiciary’s coup attempt against the government” themed commentaries and analyses. Some even attributed the investigation to the alleged Ergenekon network, while others published ‘opinion polls’ in a clear attempt to delegitimize the legal probe as if it is a requirement for prosecutors to have the support of the majority to start an investigation. Therefore, the crisis also showed that Turkish media is becoming increasingly dominated by an alliance of newspapers, Internet news sites, magazines and TV networks that portrays absolute loyalty and gives unconditional support to the AKP and the leadership of Prime Minister Erdoğan.

In a time when Turkey is showcased as a ‘model of democracy and progress’ for the Middle East, the AKP’s tightening control over the country’s judiciary and legislative branches and its unchallenged executive authority seem to contradict the party’s image abroad. It is ironic that the party shows no tolerance to the very same democratic processes through which it came to power in Turkey.


[i] Similar problems exist in other special-authority court cases such as Ergenekon, Balyoz, and Oda TV. Confidentiality of these legal processes has never been respected by the prosecutors, law enforcement or the pro-government media. Detailed information about the evidence, testimonies, indictments and even the private lives of the accused have been regularly serviced to pro-AKP media. However, no prosecutor was ever questioned – until the KCK case extended to country’s intelligence agency.

[ii] This is in reference to the MIT law (before the latest amended) which should be superseded by the special-authority court laws. Therefore, the investigation into prosecutor Sarikaya’s actions on the grounds that he overstepped his authority is questionable.