Turkey's mysterious National Intelligence Organization has emerged as an important component in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security policies. But some observers voice concern that the organization’s growing influence poses a potential threat to the country’s democratic system.
Known by its Turkish acronym, MİT, the National Intelligence Organization today stands as Turkey’s preeminent intelligence agency. Answerable by law only to the prime minister, it handles both foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering operations, enjoying a broad mandate.
Among its sanctioned targets, for instance, are perceived threats to “all elements” that make up “the constitutional order and national power.” Such vague wording potentially gives the MİT sweeping authority to investigate and conduct surveillance of government opponents, real or perceived.
There does not appear to be strong governmental checks on the MİT’s activities. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which enjoys a solid majority in parliament, adopted legislative amendments in 2012 that effectively shield MİT personnel from scrutiny by the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office and other investigative agencies.
Individuals, especially journalists, who try to look into the MİT’s operations face the prospect of retribution. Prison terms for what is defined only as “disclosure” of “information concerning the [MİT’s] mission and activities” are harsh, ranging from at least two to eight years; that punishment increases by 50-percent for “media organs.”
Consequently, most Turkey-based commentators contacted by EurasiaNet.org declined to be interviewed for this story. The muzzled mainstream Turkish press similarly steers clear of sensitive questions about the agency’s operations.
One Turkish analyst, though, who requested anonymity, believes that that reluctance to discuss the MİT publicly is a reflection of an authoritarian trend in Erdoğan’s leadership style.
Aside from critical responsibilities, such as negotiating a peace deal with jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Öcalan, and helping to direct relations with Turkey’s regional competitors, Iran and Israel, some observers have alleged the agency is helping provide assistance to rebels in Syria who are fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. AKP representatives vigorously deny the organization is involved in such activities.
MİT’s 45-year-old director, Hakan Fidan, in office since 2010, has become an especially valuable ally of Erdoğan, commented Emrullah Uslu, a Turkish security expert at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University. Once termed by the prime minister as “my secret-keeper,” Fidan, a former non-commissioned army officer who previously held a civil-service post in Erdoğan’s office, is not known to be loyal to any source of power apart from the prime minister himself.
MİT's rise, and that of its chief, has corresponded with the decline in power of Turkey's other intelligence agencies, which have connections to the armed forces, the police and gendarmerie. That decline paralleled Erdoğan’s clampdown on the Turkish military’s political influence.
The limits to MİT's powers are not clearly defined. Under a draft law under consideration earlier this year, for example, the agency would be able to conduct covert operations and request information not only from government bodies, but also from "establishments providing public services."
Some observers fear that, given its status and powers, the agency could become the tool that the prime minister could potentially use to squash legitimate internal dissent, ranging from Gezi Park protesters to followers of the influential Sunni cleric Fetullah Gülen, a onetime ally who is now seen as a critic of the prime minister’s centralized style of rule.
For its part, MİT maintains on its website that it is “firmly devoted to the principles of pluralist democracy, supremacy of law, impartiality and human rights.”
Despite the change in status among Turkish intelligence entities, inter-agency rivalries continue. "It does get very complicated domestically,” commented Gareth Jenkins, a senior associate fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center in Washington, DC.
In the past, he added, “two or three organizations” even have ended up running surveillance operations on the “the same subject.”
Gülenists were thought to have a “dominant” role in police intelligence, according to Jenkins, and still remain prominent in the civil service and judiciary system, which, in Turkey, also encompasses prosecutors and election officials.
Some analysts, who did not wish to be identified, believe that the Gülen movement deeply resents the MİT -- where it does not wield influence -- because the agency is perceived to be bolstering Erdoğan’s authority.
The agency already has faced down one challenge. In February 2012, prosecutors summoned five MİT officials, including Fidan, for questioning after recordings of its negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party were posted online.
Instead of exposing the agency to potentially damaging public scrutiny, Erdoğan sped an amendment through parliament that prevented the questioning of MİT employees without the prime minister’s written permission. The law highlighted MİT's importance to the prime minister.
Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court slapped down an opposition appeal to rescind the measure. For now, the spymasters will keep their secrets.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.