A revelation during a hearing in court exposed how the Turkish government runs a disinformation campaign, disseminates lies, peddles conspiracies and uses the media apparatus under its control to mislead the public, build false narratives and manipulate people’s perceptions.
The scandalous exposé took place on March 21, 2019 during a hearing held at the Ankara 17th High Criminal Court when a defendant presented details of a confidential intelligence document drafted by Turkey’s spy agency, MIT. The testimony revealed how the state-owned Anadolu news agency deliberately filed a false news report in order to help support the government storyline about a failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and deceive public.
The 19-page document is a translated version of a report prepared by a foreign agent about vulnerabilities in Turkey ahead of the 2015 elections. The report also included findings on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s links to jihadist networks including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and his family’s oil trade with the terrorist group as well as with Libya and Iraqi Kurdistan.
MIT picked up the intelligence from this unnamed operative and forwarded it to all relevant branches of the government including the General Staff and the interior and foreign ministries. A copy of the intelligence landed in the office of Rear Adm. Sinan Sürer, head of the General Staff’s Department for First Intelligence Analysis Assessment, for review. Sürer was responsible for external intelligence, and the content of the document was naturally within his department’s purview. He went through the document, made own analysis and submitted it to his commanding officers.
Rear Adm. Sinan Sürer, Turkish military chief for external intelligence, exposed how Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, responsible for 95 percent of press coverage on coup trials, as well as Aydinlik, owned by neo-nationalists, ran false stories:
He had no idea that that the document in his office at General Staff headquarters would one day become a major headache for him when the plotters of a false flag coup bid on July 15, 2016 decided to use it against him as if he was the one who had written the document. His office was searched after the chaotic events at General Staff headquarters on July 15 and 16 amid a military mobilization against what was reported to be a terror threat, which was later branded by the government as a coup attempt.
The police recorded this document among others during the search and seizure, filed a report about their findings and submitted it to the prosecutor’s office. Nobody paid attention to it as many other classified documents including some classified as secret by NATO and the US were present in various departments of the General Staff as part of routine work in the heart of Turkish military headquarters, which commands NATO’s second largest army in terms of manpower.
The MIT intelligence document detailed Turkish President Erdogan’s links to ISIS, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and Libyan oil as well as more damaging information. But that part was censored by the pro-government media:
On January 18, 2019 the plotters of the fake coup decided to make use of this document and leaked the content to the government media as if Sürer had come up with a plan to dismember Turkey. The first part of the document, which mentioned where Erdoğan politically feels weak and what could be done to support the opposition against his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the possible role of Kurds and Alevis, was leaked to the state news agency and other government-controlled media as if Sürer had written the document and was seeking to harm Turkish national security interests.
The plotters who planted the fake story did not bother mentioning that the document actually belonged to MIT and that Sürer was simply one of its recipients for analysis, not the author, as part of routine government work. The fact that the document also mentioned Erdoğan and his family’s secret links to armed jihadists, involvement in the ISIS oil trade, exploitation of Libyan oil proceeds, ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other criminal activities was completely ignored and hushed up.
Instead the news stories were shaped around the first part of the document, which talked about political developments such as how to support the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and build alliances with leftist parties and Alevis to weaken Erdoğan’s party. The document also made reference to possible operations to destabilize Turkey’s Southeast and the arming of Alevis. The hot spots for clashes in certain Istanbul neighborhoods where leftists and opposition groups were known to have the capability to mobilize protests, such as Okmeydanı, Küçük Armutlu, Sarıyer, Maltepe, Mustafa Kemal, Beyoğlu and the Demirkapı neighborhood of Karanfil, were mentioned. The document also suggested that foreign reporters based in Turkey could be directed to these neighborhoods during clashes in order to put Erdoğan under international pressure.
In his testimony in court, Sürer explained what the document was all about and how he obtained it, dealing a major blow to the defamation campaign directed against him by the government. “This document is an official report from MIT. Every word belongs to the National Intelligence Organization. It is an official document submitted to the commanders at the General Staff, including the Chief of General Staff,” he said.
Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency’s fake story, bylined by reporter Tanju Özkaya, on the MIT document aimed at distracting public attention and shaping perceptions:
“As I recall, it came to headquarters around the end of March or the beginning of April 2015, two or three months before the [national] elections. I had no role in preparing this report. I didn’t write it,” Sürer said. After studying the document, he presented his review to both the head of intelligence, Lt. Gen. Mehmet Daysal, and Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler and then to Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel as part of routine paperwork. Güler, currently serving as the chief of general staff, even underlined some parts of the document he found important with a green marker.
The fake story was also run by Aydınlık, a mouthpiece for the Turkish president’s ally, Doğu Perinçek, who leads a neo-nationalist group (Ulusalcı):
The document was prepared by a foreign national whom MIT believed to be a spy. “The author of this report was from abroad, as I recall, and it was prepared possibly by a journalist or an agent working in disguise as a journalist and linked to the United Arab Emirates, or a citizen of the UAE who had some connection to al-Jazeera,” Sürer told the court.
He underlined that the document was in the hands of the prosecutor and judge for 30 months and that no investigation was conducted as to the origin of the document. “My statement was not taken nor was an investigation launched because if an investigation were to have been initiated, it would have deepened and would have been clear that the document was not written by me. The goal was to carry out an influence operation through me to change the national agenda. They succeeded in this. Why bother asking questions to which you already know the answers? The goal was to manipulate, shift the agenda and shape perceptions,” Sürer said.
Rear Adm. Sinan Sürer explained to the court how the MIT document was sent to his office and later rerouted to other relevant departments at the General Staff:
He also added that the coup trials had exposed the fabrications and dubious evidence in the indictments, that the public interest in the coup narrative had weakened and that the government’s storyline on the coup had started to lose its appeal. The government needed a boost, and it created this false story by claiming that the document was prepared by alleged putschists. He also explained at length that the second part of the document, which talked about Erdoğan’s links to jihadist groups including ISIS and the money trail with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, were completely ignored in the news coverage. It was clear that those allegations did not serve the interests of the Turkish government.
Sürer said he sent corrections to the media outlets that published the defamatory article about him based on this document but that none of them had run a correction. He filed a defamation complaint with the prosecutor’s office, but the office declined to investigate. His defense in court was interrupted by presiding judge Oguz Dik, who said he did not need to talk about it. Sürer filed multiple motions in court to obtain an original copy of the document for review, but his motions were all denied.
At the end of the unfair trial that was marred by numerous violations of due process and the right to an effective defense, Sürer was convicted on dubious evidence and ordered to serve 141 life sentences on June 20, 2019. His appeal is still pending.