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[OPINION] Vast funding of Turkey’s intelligence agency MİT reveals dirty schemes

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by Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), a political tool in the hands of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been receiving more money from government coffers as well as from illegal business schemes including drug trafficking, extortion and smuggling.

Abdullah Bozkurt

It is difficult to gauge how much cash Turkey’s notorious intelligence service has because of secrecy and a lack of oversight and transparency. Nevertheless, the state auditing report for the year 2016 by the Court of Accounts, the chief accounting office that reviews expenditures by government agencies that are funded by taxpayer money, provided us with a basis to make some analyses. The unusual increases in the official MİT budget on a yearly basis and the granting of access to extra-budgetary funds by the government despite lingering problems in its books suggest it was allowed by Erdogan.

Given the worrying transformation that has taken place in the Turkish regime in the last couple of years, we now know why more funds are diverted to MİT, which spearheads the implementation of pet projects of Islamists and their neo-nationalist coalition partners who have effectively seized the institutions of the state and dismantled democratic structures. The budget that was allocated to MİT for the year 2016 was TL 1.64 billion (approximately $562 million at last year’s exchange rates), a whopping 36 percent increase from the previous year. It corresponds to an unprecedented increase of 420 percent from the budget a decade ago. The 2016 data show MİT paid TL 850 million in payroll for intelligence agents while spending TL 595 million to cover the cost of intelligence operations.

For 2017, MİT got another generous increase of 22 percent, grabbing TL 2 billion (TL 1,995,692,000, to be exact) from the central budget. That is more money than some Cabinet ministers get for their own portfolios in the government. Moreover, the spy agency was granted access to a multibillion-dollar fund from the Turkish Defense Industry Support Fund (SSDF), an extra-budgetary resource for defense that is managed by the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM). The access was first provided by an Erdogan government decision on Nov. 12, 2013 and later added to a bill that was approved in Parliament on April 26, 2014, making for watertight access to this huge fund. It was quite strange because the SSDF was created exclusively for the procurement of defense and military materiel for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), not spyware gadgets for the intelligence agency.

According to the audit report, MİT had spent TL 416.8 million from the SSDF extra-budgetary fund for its own needs. Another TL 84.8 million was spent on contracts that were not finalized by year’s end. The report also revealed that MİT did not properly register property assets in the amount of TL 3.14 billion and only declared one-third of the huge number of assets it owned across Turkey. When the issue was raised by investigators, MİT responded that the accounting work for proper registration was not completed in time. As a result, auditors concluded that the financial data provided by MİT were not accurate or reliable.

Although the funds MİT receives from the central budget and the special defense budget can be tracked with relative accuracy, there is no way of knowing how much money MİT funneled from the secret discretionary funds controlled by Erdogan and his loyalist prime minister Binali Yildirim. Since this slush fund, called “Örtülü Ödenek” in Turkish, is by its nature used to cover secret intelligence operations of the Turkish state, one may reasonably assume that a big chunk of that money actually went to the clandestine operations that fall within the jurisdiction of MİT. In the first eight months of 2017, the spending of this secret fund has increased 60.7 percent, reaching TL 2.1 billion from TL 1.3 billion in the same period last year. By year’s end, the amount is expected to reach TL 3 billion, way over the figure that was earmarked during budget planning. It will set a new record for discretionary fund expenditure.

Another source of funding for MİT comes from a sort of racketeering business it runs in blackmailing businesspeople to fund some off-the-book operations. Since it is MİT that effectively drives the criminal investigations in Turkey by profiling government critics and submitting dubious evidence to courts in order to send people to prison or seize their firms, it can easily orchestrate a frivolous case against those who are unwilling to pick up the tab for intelligence operations. Considering that over 1,000 companies were seized by the government on trumped-up terror charges in the last year alone, it is not hard to imagine the chill factor in Turkey’s business community. It is difficult to know how much money was extorted by MİT to finance its operations through this scheme, but it must be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

MİT since 2011 has also been receiving funds from foreign governments, especially Qatar, for the procurement of arms and logistical supplies for jihadists who fight in Syria, Libya and other places. This money is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, funneled through some shell companies or transported in cash in government planes. Although that fund has shrunk significantly with the jihadists losing ground in proxy battles, there is still some money flowing to keep the proxies alive. Another fundraising means for MİT is to get its cut from organized crime syndicates that run all sorts of criminal enterprises, from the cross-border smuggling of goods and drugs to the trafficking of humans. The funds raised through these schemes go into black ops so that they cannot be traced back to the Erdogan government.

Therefore, the official figures on how much money MİT actually controls in Turkey tell only a partial story. Unfortunately, there is no accountability and no oversight of MİT operations and its spending by Parliament although there is a commission on intelligence that exists only on paper and that lacks any real teeth to scrutinize the intelligence agency. No independent watchdog agency that can actually look into how MİT operates exists. The investigation and prosecution of MIT and its staff can only be done if Erdogan gives a go-ahead, according to a recently amended law on intelligence.

What is more, no independent or critical media is left in Turkey that could investigate the MİT’s illegal business activities. For any courageous reporter who dares to do that, Erdogan has provided new ammunition to shoot the messenger in decree-law No. 694, which was approved by the Cabinet on Aug. 15, 2017 and published in the Official Gazette 10 days later. The new amendment that was added to Article 27 of the intelligence law states that those who disclose MİT members’ identities, positions or duties in any way will face up to seven years’ jail time. This is a warning shot to investigative journalists who might expose MİT’s dirty schemes and reveal the people involved in those plots.

As a result, MİT today acts with complete impunity in Turkey. That is not unexpected given the fact that the agency has been led by Erdogan lackey Hakan Fidan, who politicized the agency, purged professionals from the service and replaced them with Islamists and neo-nationalist figures who have penetrated the agency under his leadership since 2010. MIT’s integrity was completely undermined, and it can no longer function as a dependable intelligence service for Turkey’s own national security interests. It only serves the parochial interests of one man and his thugs who rule Turkey.

It is now busy saving Erdogan’s jihadists from legal troubles when they face criminal charges without any blowback from blatant interference in cases where al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants were prosecuted and tried. It has set up a special division to assassinate Erdogan’s critics abroad, and no opposition political party dares challenge it in Parliament. It engages in false flag operations to scapegoat others for Erdogan’s failures and create pretexts for the government to justify mass persecution in Turkey.

It mobilizes diaspora Turkish and Muslim groups abroad, especially in Europe, to intimidate Turkey’s allies and increase leverage and bargaining power for Erdogan. It pours money into proxy groups from Africa to the Middle East, from the Balkans to Southeast Asia, to export Erdogan’s divisive and dangerous political Islamist ideology. That means MİT has been turned into a hostile intelligence agency for Turkey’s allies and partners as well.

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