“There has been a lack of will for ensuring coordinated intelligence gathering in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should address this problem. Due to the absence of coordination, Turkish institutions in charge of gathering intelligence are jealous of each other. Thus, they refrain from sharing information that they have been gathering among themselves,” said Ertuğrul Güven, former deputy undersecretary of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman.
Güven’s remarks come at a time when the MİT has been linked to an alleged member of the Ergenekon terror organization. Eighty-six defendants are facing trial for suspected membership in Ergenekon, a criminal network that is believed to have been plotting to overthrow the government.
Tuncay Güney, who currently resides in Canada as a rabbi, was captured by police in Turkey in 2001 on suspicions of gang membership. What he told the police at that time has helped prosecutors expose the activities of Ergenekon.
According to an MİT document published by the Sabah daily last month, Güney purposefully infiltrated Ergenekon and JİTEM, an illegal intelligence unit in the gendarmerie, to gather information for the intelligence organization.
In a press release, the MİT confirmed the authenticity of the document, but denied that Güney, a former journalist whose name has featured prominently in the Ergenekon trial, was an agent employed by the organization.
“As far as I can remember, Güney was not an MİT agent,” Güven said.
The MİT counterterrorism unit, together with the problems it had created, was taken out of the MİT organizational chart in 1997, the same press release explained. Mehmet Eymür, a former MİT official who was implicated in a number of intelligence scandals, was the head of this unit.
However, Güven declined to speak about the details of the Güney incident or Eymür.
But it is known that, during his time as an MİT deputy undersecretary in 1994, it was Güven who refused to sign a government decree under former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller that authorized Mehmet Eymür to return to the MİT and head the counterterrorism unit.
Güven is understood to have refused to sign the decree because he was worried about other scandals that could expose state secrets to the public. At the time other such scandals had worn down the MİT. Eymür is famed for allegedly using contracted agents without MİT consent.
"As far as I understand, the counterterrorism unit was taken out of MİT's organizational chart to stop further scandals from implicating and wearing down the organization. The MİT took the counterterrorism unit from its organizational chart to put an end to impressions that the MİT had been involved in illegal activities," Güven explained.
According to press reports, the MİT first informed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) about Ergenekon's activities in 2002.
"It has been an almost 15 years since I retired from the MİT. Thus, I cannot provide information about current affairs relating to the organization. However, I should clarify that the MİT will pass the intelligence information that it has gathered to the government without comment," Güven said.
The MİT has long tried to restore its image after having been implicated in various illegal activities, with allegations circulating about hire assassinations and drug running. The image of the country's other intelligence organizations, such as those within the National Police Department and the gendarmerie, suffers from the same problem.
In the past, particularly in the 1980s, Turkish diplomats were being killed by Armenian terrorist organizations and some foreign secret services appeared to be tolerating such terrorist attacks, Güven explained.
"Turkey had to develop policies against those attacks. The MİT may thus have been inclined to use certain individuals with strong nationalistic feelings to counter the assassinations staged by Armenian terrorists. But foreign intelligence services will also resort to such methods. However, the most critical problem is that those individuals continue their illegal activities in mafia-style groups using the MİT name, though their affiliation with the organization came to an end once the mission was accomplished."
However, the MİT as an organization has never approved of individuals engaging in illegal, mafia-style activities.
There has been a widespread trend of ultranationalist groups in Turkey working for the MİT and later going out of control and engaging in illegal activities.
Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), cleansed his party of such ultranationalist elements involved in mafia-style groups, Güven said.
"Such groupings have not only used MİT's name, but also the name of the MHP, for their illegal activities. It is out of the question that any MİT members would encourage or support such groups. If officials were involved in such activities they should have definitely been sacked," he added.
A more efficient organization under Taner
The MİT was first civilianized after the appointment of now-retired Ambassador Sönmez Köksal in 1992 appointment as the undersecretary of the MİT. This was followed by the appointment of Şenkal Atasagun, the first career intelligence bureaucrat to be appointed from within the organization.
The current undersecretary, Emre Taner, is famed for his efforts to "get his house in order" and reform the organization.
Güven was among the first civilian bureaucrats to join the MİT, which had previously been packed with military officers, in addition to its undersecretary being a general at the time.
Born in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast but said not to be a Kurd, Taner is not only known for his deep knowledge on the Kurdish issue, starting from his early years at the organization, but also for his ongoing contacts with Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
After he became MİT undersecretary in 2005, Taner made a secret visit to northern Iraq to meet with Massoud Barzani and other senior Kurdish leaders. The visit was later publicized.
Güven said Taner has had a significant role in the recent rapprochement between the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurds.
"Taner is very knowledgeable -- both in theory and in practice -- about the Kurdish issue, in addition to having the ability to produce solutions to this problem. He is also the first undersecretary who has worked hard to turn the MİT into a more active and operational organization," Güven explained.
Taner surprised many in Turkey when he made a rather unusual public statement on Jan. 5, 2007, about Turkey and what its future role should be in a world where nation-states have come under threat due to globalization.
Amongst other things, Taner urged Turkey to pursue a more active foreign policy, generally challenging the status quo.
"We do not have the luxury of pursuing a 'wait and see' policy. Turkey should take a more pro-active stance against the rapidly evolving developments. The MİT has been urgently reorganizing itself to meet current and future challenges," Taner had said.
Güven disagrees with some recent articles, including an article by Hürriyet columnist Oktay Ekşi that heavily criticized the MİT following the Sabah report mentioned above.
In some of these articles, the MİT was criticized for failing in its intelligence-gathering efforts.
"These are not acceptable accusations. The MİT is an organization that gathers information, makes analyses and syntheses and turns them into intelligence information. If such intelligence requires an operation, then it will cooperate with the security directorate. The MİT's responsibility is to submit that intelligence to the relevant authorities, including the prime minister and the president," he argued.
Division of intelligence gathering
Since his retirement, Güven has been promoting the idea of dividing the country's internal and external intelligence gathering operations, designating the MİT for external intelligence gathering activities.
"The MİT should be responsible for strategic [external] intelligence gathering. Turkey's intelligence gathering should concentrate on the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, which are located near Turkey. I gave a briefing on this idea to President Abdullah Gül when he was prime minister," he said.
Shortly after the 1980 military coup, the government, under the late Prime Minister Turgut Özal, introduced a law that strengthened the power of the police forces to counter the MİT, which was headed by a general at the time.
"The inability of coalition governments to have their authorities felt by the military-dominated MİT prompted them to designate internal intelligence gathering responsibilities to the police under the relevant law. The police were also made responsible for gathering intelligence externally, too. This was wrong," Güven stressed.
But this situation was later resolved and the MİT has retaken control of intelligence gathering under its civilian leadership, he added.
According to Güven, the MİT's responsibility of gathering intelligence internally is continuing due to mistrust toward police intelligence gathering.
In addition, Taner may be of the opinion that the MİT should retain both internal and external intelligence gathering duties that will make those duties stronger, Güven said.
‘Police should not be responsible for nationwide intelligence gathering’
Güven has also warned against assigning nationwide intelligence gathering duties to the police under a plan to create a new counterterrorism unit under the Interior Ministry.
"Internal security issues cannot directly be affiliated to the Security General Directorate, otherwise there will be problems. For example, there is an organization in Germany to protect the constitution. This is directly affiliated with an undersecretary at the German Interior Ministry. Similarly, the German police are also affiliated with this undersecretary. The security directorate can have its internal intelligence gathering mechanism, but cannot have nationwide intelligence-gathering duties. There needs to be a mechanism of control over the intelligence-gathering organizations," Güven said.
Intelligence gathering should be coordinated
There is a great need in Turkey for both the internal and external intelligence-gathering mechanisms to be coordinated by the Office of the Prime Minister.
"There are intelligence-gathering activities under the MİT, the gendarmerie, the General Staff and the Security General Directorate. For example, there are 16 separate intelligence gathering organizations in the US. They have their defined areas of responsibilities separate from each other and they will never violate each others' areas of responsibility. In addition, there is a coordination mechanism at the top of these intelligence organizations in the US," Güven recalled.
In Turkey, intelligence-gathering organizations become jealous of each other and do not share intelligence amongst themselves due to the absence of such a coordination mechanism.
"This results in a serious weakness in Turkey's intelligence-gathering activities. I suggested to then-Prime Minister Gül that he could establish a unit under his leadership in which each organization is represented. For example, let's say in Cizre, in southeast Turkey, both police and gendarmerie intelligence teams meet the same persons having the potential of intelligence and get similar information, but do not share that information with each other. State money, among other things, is thus wasted through such duplications," Güven explained.