Not just Turkish spice but Turkish spies

Not just Turkish spice but Turkish spies

Young minds never cease to amaze me. Early in the semester, one of my students told me she loved my U.S. foreign policy class because I was teaching “all about the spies.” By the time we started to analyze U.S. intelligence organizations, the Hollywood myths of Mr. and Mrs. Smith along with James Bond had been dashed.

With the help of scholarly works and former intelligence officers’ writings, I introduced the over-worked, underpaid, deeply stressed “agent” in the field to my students, and they discussed how that hard-extracted piece of information might never make it to the president’s desk.
I think the most important myth we have questioned in class was that HUMINT (human source intelligence) comes in a variety of forms such as refugees, diplomatic channels, and NGOs, and that most of the data gathered is unclassified or OSINT (open-source intelligence). While still common, espionage and clandestine activities of infiltrating other governments, especially for military intelligence, constitute a rather small portion of information sources. In other words, the truth serum is not so frequently used. 

Saving you the alphabet soup, there are various intelligence sources, such as imagery, signals and geospatial intelligence. These collection methods are known as “ints” to the insiders. Only when all these different sources are processed together, may we have a better picture, which is usually referred to as “finished intelligence.”

I am not one to declare the end of the Empire for the U.S. in the Middle East; suffice it to say that with the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, we can refer to it as the post-U.S. era. Who will fill the vacuum left behind in the region? Will Turkey be able to take on some of the privileges and responsibilities?
Whether we like the successive Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments or not, the financial and political data indicate that Turkey has been transformed from a developing country to a country with the status of regional gatekeeper. Turkey, however, finds itself surrounded by neighbors bleeding in civil wars in the midst a dangerous game of omni-balancing between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There are many steps Turkish foreign policy has to take to sail these waters confidently while the others are meandering. Good intelligence is the first and foremost important ingredient of solid policy-making. The first crucial step then is restructuring the Turkish intelligence institutions. Branding every bureaucrat, pundit or journalist as a spy without necessarily analyzing the data and putting it into context will affect the mental psyche of the nascent institutions. For the post-American Middle East, we need post-American James Bonds. For starters, I would like to see retired intelligence officers, calling themselves former National Intelligence Organization (MİT) agent with pride, just as one sees with CIA, ISI and MOSSAD agents. I personally would like to be able to teach the impact of Turkish intelligence institutions on foreign policy in a better structured manner. So please do not give intelligence a bad name.

Intelligence gathering, even OSINT, is tedious work. Open-source data is available to almost everyone, but not everyone has the training and mental tools necessary to process that information. Raw intelligence is useless, even counterproductive, in uneducated hands. Without well-functioning intelligence agencies, Turkey cannot sustain its newfound gatekeeper position for long. Turkey has to construct a good reputation not just for the Turkish spices but also Turkish spies globally.

In times when we are discussing a presidential system in Turkey, I’d like to humbly suggest studying the American experience of how intelligence agencies have evolved. It can provide valuable insights for the Turkish establishment, with the good and the not-so-good cases. This is not an overnight project, but the sooner Turkey starts this process, the more successful it will be in the post-American era. And as for my students, I believe they have learned a great deal – no, not about the mysterious darkness of the spy world – but about the institutions which provide us the necessary – yet never sufficient – knowledge to design concrete policies.

Pınar K. Tremblay is from the Department of Political Science at UCLA.