Turkish intel in ‘damage control’ after tapping crisis

Turkish intel in ‘damage control’ after tapping crisis

“One government department,” says a Turkish intelligence source, asking not to be named, “Was suspicious that some of its confidential information was leaked. It thought the new software it was using could be the source of the problem. The experts of the National Intelligence Organization [MİT] run the program in a secure environment. They found out there was indeed a bug embedded in the 14,000-line program. A line of it had the command to transfer all of the information to a particular e-mail account. All of the confidential information had been leaked, not just some of it.”

The example that the Turkish intelligence source gave was before the start of the Dec. 17, 2013 graft probe, which triggered a major conflict between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his former ally Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamist scholar living in the U.S. with a global network of sympathizers.

As of Feb. 28, there is no one left in custody regarding the graft probe, including Reza Zerrab - the Iranian-origin businessman who was allegedly involved in oil-for-gold trade with Iran - and the sons of two former Cabinet ministers who are suspected of facilitating Zerrab’s works with the government for money. But the war of telephone tapping recordings allegedly between supporters of Erdoğan and Gülen against each other has revealed a serious telecommunications security problem in the Turkish administration.

Following a series of recordings allegedly between the PM and his son Bilal Erdoğan over removing a huge amount of cash from their house in order not to be caught in a possible police raid, the debate escalated. Erdoğan denied the tapes and said they were “montage” copies. He also said the Gülenists had compromised the encrypted lines of the government, which was then taken by the opposition parties, and that he had actually talked with his son on confidential lines about "private matters."

The matter was discussed in a National Security Board (MGK) meeting on Feb. 26. There, a presentation was made by security people about the “infiltration” of Gülenists into the judiciary and the bureaucracy during the 12-year rule of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), sources who want to remain anonymous told the HDN. According to the presentation, a third of the police force and judiciary ae controlled by Gülen sympathizers and when you go up to police chief and higher judiciary (like the Council of State, the Court of Appeals, and the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors, HSYK) the rate is about two-thirds.

In addition, President Abdullah Gül and other MGK members were briefed that their encrypted lines might have been compromised through experts loyal to Gülen (or the “parallel structure,” as Erdoğan calls it) working in Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Board (TÜBİTAK). Some experts of TÜBİTAK were immediately removed from their positions, like thousands of policemen and dozens of judges and prosecutors, following the graft probe.

“We assume that all encrypted telephone conversations made in the last two years, since government started to use the TÜBİTAK-developed devices and lines, have been compromised,” said a Turkish intelligence source. The MİT believes that not only the recordings of encrypted talks but also all other legal and illegal recordings about Erdoğan, his family and government members were transferred to addresses, mostly in the U.S., via data lines, and were accessible by foreign agencies like the American NSA or British GCHQ.

The MİT was actually in the crossfire of the Erdoğan-Gülen confrontation, even before the Dec. 17 graft probe. The first indications that Erdoğan was uneasy with Gülenists in the judiciary and security apparatus were taken as presumably Gülenist prosecutors tried to interrogate MİT chief Hakan Fidan on Feb. 7, 2012, for being in contact with members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He was actually in dialogue with them under Erdoğan’s instructions.

However, It is a fact that Gülen had not only given election support for Erdoğan in his 50 percent victory in 2011, but also that it was the same Gülenist prosecutors and judges who cleared out the military-linked establishment in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials between 2007 and 2013. But when Erdoğan started to take new steps regarding the Kurdish issue, with the MİT being the spearhead of this push, the conflict became visible.

Erdoğan wants to have a stronger intelligence agency with more powers concentrated in the MİT, which would have extra judicial protection and administrative superiority over other security agencies, like the police and the gendarmerie, which he believes have been thoroughly infiltrated by Gülenists. A new MİT law, which caused a lot of controversy between the government and opposition parties, especially over the vulnerability of individual rights and media freedom, has been left to be dealt with after the March 30 local elections.

But that postponement is not likely to stop the MİT from its “house cleaning” efforts within the state apparatus, especially regarding communications safety. When it comes to that field, there is another black hole in the system, according to intelligence sources: The Telecommunications Directorate (TİB), which the Erdoğan government has been proud of.

The TİB was established in 2006 within the Transportation and Communication Ministry as a measure to concentrate all legal telephone tapping under one agency. According to its law, whether it is the MİT, the police or the gendarmerie, all should apply to the TİB in order to tap after having their court ruling. Parallel to that, it was actually a measure by the government to break the power of the military and the MİT in the advantage of police intelligence in order to gain more civilian power. But now the government thinks the TİB has also been compromised by Gülenists and has therefore became a liability.

This information apparently contradicts the fact that one of the first things Erdoğan did following the graft probe was to appoint an MİT officer, Cemalettin Çelik, as the head of the TİB, empowering its capacities and giving judicial protection similar to those of the MİT chief.

“He is there for damage control,” an intelligence source summarizes. Another source explains: “There is no such equivalent of the TİB on earth that is authorized in foreign intelligence surveillance, but under a transportation and communication body, rather than a security one.”

According to intelligence sources, it is up to the “political authority” to decide, but it seems that the TİB could be the first institutional victim of the Erdoğan-Gülen conflict. It will either be radically restructured or be closed down after the “damage control.”