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Erdoğan’s appointment of new spy chief sparks debate over qualifications

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointment of his spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, as the new head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) on Monday has sparked debate, raising questions about Kalın’s qualifications for this critical role.

Kalın, a long-time Erdoğan confidant who has served as the presidential spokesperson and foreign policy advisor since 2014, succeeded Hakan Fidan, who had led Turkey’s intelligence since 2010 and was named foreign minister on Saturday.

Despite his Ph.D. in Islamic studies from George Washington University and his founding role at SETA, a pro-government think tank in Ankara, critics argue that Kalın’s background differs significantly from the typical credentials expected of a spy chief.

Compared to Fidan, Kalın is known for his public persona, including his skill in playing the bağlama, a traditional string instrument. A concert in İstanbul planned for July 6 was canceled due to his new role.

Kalın’s appointment also led to the re-emergence of espionage allegations about him that were published in a column by journalist Barış Pehlivan in the Cumhuriyet daily in December 2021.

Pehlivan said, citing files published by WikiLeaks in February 2012, that Kalın, Erdoğan’s chief advisor at the time, was one of the sources in Turkey for Stratfor, a global intelligence company based in Texas. The company has the Pentagon, the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA among its clients.

Bülent Keneş, a Turkish journalist living in exile in Sweden and the former editor-in-chief of the now-closed Today’s Zaman English-language daily, tweeted on Monday that Kalın was one of the columnists for the newspaper.

Turkey accuses Keneş of involvement in a 2016 attempt to topple President Erdoğan. Erdoğan described the journalist as a “terrorist” during a news conference in the capital Ankara in November and identified only him by name among the dozens of people whose extradition Ankara is seeking in exchange for approving Sweden’s NATO membership.

“It’s not a joke, it’s true: Two columnists for Today’s Zaman … have been appointed to two of the most critical positions in Turkey. Mehmet Şimşek, one of our economy writers, has once again taken charge of the economy, while İbrahim Kalın has become the head of MİT. And they are calling me a ‘terrorist,’ can you believe it?” Keneş said.

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