State and substate actors in Turkey: Which has more intelligence?
The bugging devices found in Prime Minister Erdoğan’s office triggered a debate on the Turkish intelligence services. To understand this story, we need historical background.
The capacity, organization and roles of Turkey’s intelligence services generally depend on domestic political struggles rather than international intelligence competition. For instance, during the 1960s and ‘70s the police was weak, ideologically divided and incapacitated against leftist, right-wing and ethnic terrorism. After the 1980 coup, the army forced the government to preserve the unity of the police against ideological division, strengthen its discipline and increase its intelligence, operational and technical capacities.
The capacity of the police significantly increased in the decade following the coup. In addition, the police intelligence was not only increasingly politicized but also massively infiltrated by “religious groups” seeking power.
After the Cold War, Prime Minister Turgut Özal appointed the first civilian undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), who had previously been appointed from among generals. Hence, the army’s control over MİT considerably declined.
From 2003 onwards, the second important change occurred. Erdoğan’s government and “some religious groups” that supported him were able to establish complete control over the police intelligence. A series of legal changes initiated by Erdoğan in his power struggle against the generals was followed by the operations of the police intelligence. Moreover the gendarmerie intelligence was incapacitated and the wiretapping activities were centralized in “safe hands.”
The final move was made by Erdoğan in 2009 when he appointed Hakan Fidan, whom he personally trusted, as the MİT undersecretary. Fidan was given the task of transforming the organization. At the same time, the signal intelligence capacity of the Turkish Armed Forces was completely transferred to MİT. Hence, MİT became more powerful than ever in terms of human resources, technical capacity and legal protection.
Nevertheless, this caused some problems. Erdoğan and Fidan became the target of a series of media operations conducted by their “old allies.” MİT as a new site of power disturbed the groups holding the reigns of the police intelligence. Those expecting to gain total control over the domestic intelligence were disappointed.
The bugging devices in the prime minister’s office prove that, in the struggle for power that has been in the making for a long time, the intelligence services have been entirely politicized. In the days ahead, it won’t be surprising to see dirty laundry out in the open.