Intelligence: Don't Ask But Do Tell


January 21, 2016: The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent civil war in Syria had some unfortunate (and often unnoticed) side effects for Turkey. The intense publicity the war in Syria generated revealed details of decades old Turkish covert and intelligence operations in the Middle East and beyond (Bulgaria). Much of this stuff goes back to the Ottoman Empire, which disintegrated in 1918 (as World War I ended with Turkey one of the losers). For centuries Turkey had active, and clandestine interests throughout the Middle East and the Balkans. After Turkey lost control of its Arab possessions (mainly Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and parts of Arabia) Turkey continued to maintain contacts and intelligence operations in those areas. After World War II, during which Turkey was officially neutral but actually quite helpful to allied intelligence efforts, Turkey was able to join NATO and become a full-fledged military ally of the West. Britain and the United States already knew about clandestine Turkish intel operations and commercial contacts in the Middle East and places like Bulgaria (then under Russian control) and quietly accepted and supported these Turkish capabilities. This “special relationship” between the West and Turkey until 2000 when an Islamic party gained control of the government and quietly cut many of those ties. That included close economic and military relationships with Israel. But now the Turks are finding that many of those World War II and Cold War capabilities are still necessary. So Turkey and Israel are becoming friends again, in no small measure because the intel services of both countries maintained many of their contacts despite the new Islamic government.

The one aspect of this secret Turkish intelligence network that became public after 2011 was the Turkish tendency to deal with anyone, including Islamic terrorist groups, if the Turks felt they could get something useful out of it. This was how the Turks were able to maintain good information networks in Bulgaria during the decades when that country was run by a communist government closely monitored by Russia. NATO didn’t care how the Turks did it as long as the info was good and it usually was. Same with information on Islamic terrorist outfits throughout the Middle East. The policy was “don’t ask how they got it but do let the Turks tell you what they know”. In the West old intel hands knew the Middle East was an unstable sewer as far as intel collection was concerned and the Turks had the most experience working under those conditions.

But in Syria the West was shocked, shocked when it became public that Turks not only had links to Islamic terrorist groups but often maintained them with cash or weapons payments. In return the Turks got intel and access. The Turks considered this normal if you wanted to survive in the Middle East (as the Turks had done for over a thousand years). Westerners were appalled, except for those in the intel business who were jealous.


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