Classified documents obtained by Nordic Monitor have revealed that suspected criminals and terrorists had been in touch with senior Turkish officials who used government-issued secure phones to avoid interception.
The scandal, which was revealed in a 2018 case that was heard by the Ankara 2nd High Criminal Court, involved dozens of secure mobile phones that were delivered to senior officials and government agencies. The phones were used by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a number of ministers, chief of the intelligence agency and the chief of general staff.
According to a classified report issued on September 13, 2014 by a team of experts and submitted to the prosecutor's office, 76 secure second generation phones out of 161 were flagged in a database maintained by the Telecommunications Directorate (Telekomünikasyon İletişim Başkanlığı, TİB), an agency that processes court-authorized wiretap requests from law enforcement and intelligence. The report was later incorporated in the court case file.
The second-generation secure phones used strong encryption keys and were delivered to top government officials by intelligence agency MIT after they were developed by engineers employed at the Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), a top government science and technology body.
The number of wiretap intercepts for the first generation secure phones by TİB was not that high compared to the second generation, with only seven out of 934 of such phones used in connection with suspects under wiretapping surveillance as part of a criminal investigation.
The report made clear that the second-generation secure phones that were flagged were used by Erdoğan personally and several of his inner circle including chief advisor Sefer Turan, a suspect in a Quds Force terrorism investigation. The phone calls of intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and some of his agents, also suspected of involvement in criminal acts by Turkish prosecutors, were also intercepted.
Others using suspect phones include then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay.
Other people whose phones were also flagged included then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, economy czar Ali Babacan, Prime Ministry Undersecretary and top bureaucrat Efgan Ala, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, who was indicted in the US in a sanctions-busting scheme involving Iran, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, a known pro-Iranian operative, and many others.
The corruption and terrorism investigations pursued by prosecutors between 2012 and 2014 had earlier revealed how Erdoğan, his intelligence chief and some of his advisers and cabinet ministers were apparently collaborating with known criminals, organized crime figures and terrorism suspects including cells connected to Iran's Quds Force operatives.
Although those traces of intercepted communications found on TIB computers do not necessarily indicate that all flagged government officials were involved in wrongdoing or broke the law, it certainly shows that they somehow came into contact with people who were being monitored by the police or intelligence at the time as part of various investigations pursed by authorities to learn more about criminal and terrorist networks in Turkey.
In some cases government officials were themselves the target of investigations under orders from prosecutors, and wiretapping requests were reviewed and approved by the courts. In many cases, they were not suspects themselves but talked to people who were under investigation using government-issued secure phones.
Nordic Monitor previously published a secret wiretap which showed that Erdoğan illegally handed over a government-issued secure phone to a representative of a one-time al-Qaeda financier so that his conversations could not be intercepted.
According to a wiretapped call between Erdoğan's chief of staff Hasan Doğan and Osama Qotb, who represented Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, listed as an al-Qaeda financier on both the US Treasury and UN lists for many years, the two discussed how to set up a phone call using the secure phone.
During the conversation between Doğan and Qotb, which took place on March 18, 2013 at 18:53 hours over regular mobile phone lines, Erdoğan's chief of staff told Qotb that his boss, Erdoğan, asked Qotb to call him on his residential phone in three minutes using the secure phone. "Did they teach you how to make the call?" Doğan asked, prompting an affirmative response from Qotb, indicating that he had earlier received training on the use of the phone by Erdoğan's men.
Qotb briefly went through how he would be making the call with Erdoğan's chief of staff and said he would push a green button on the phone to make the call secure.
The phone that was referred to in the intercepted call is a second-generation encrypted phone called Milcep-K2, which was domestically produced in limited number by TÜBİTAK. The distribution of the phones to senior political and military leadership was coordinated by Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
Erdoğan illegally prevented the execution of detention warrants issued by Istanbul prosecutors against his son and others.
Both al-Qadi and his nephew as well Erdoğan's son were leading suspects in an investigation into corruption pursued by prosecutors in Istanbul and were the subjects of detention warrants issued on December 25, 2013 by the prosecutors. However, Erdoğan stepped in, illegally preventing the execution of the warrants by ordering the police to ignore the prosecutor's orders. After the removal of the prosecutors and police chiefs who were involved in the investigation, Erdoğan managed to whitewash the crimes of his associates.
In addition to business deals conducted with the help of Erdoğan's abuse of authority, al-Qadi family members and their associates had also pursued a secret Muslim Brotherhood agenda with respect to Egypt and Syria. Al-Qadi had secretly met with both Erdoğan and Turkish intelligence chief Fidan multiple times on his visits to Turkey. During some of his trips to Turkey, al-Qadi was still under UN and US sanctions, and he was supposed to be denied entry to Turkey. Yet Erdoğan sent his own bodyguard to pick him at the airport and to make sure he was allowed to enter with no paper trail.
One of the intercepted conversations featured the voices of President Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, and his son Bilal, suggesting the two had attempted to hide large amounts of cash in their family home after the corruption investigation was made public in December 2013. The recording was leaked to YouTube in 2014.
The disclosure of intercepted phone conversations exposed how deeply Erdoğan's government was involved with criminal and terrorist networks.
In another incident that took place at the end of October 2013, Ömer Sertbaş, a chief adviser to former Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Binali Yıldırım, found out that his telephone was under surveillance as part of an investigation by the İstanbul Police Department's Financial Crimes Unit. Sertbaş had been put under surveillance as part of an investigation into bid-rigging by the İstanbul Public Prosecutor's Office, and prosecutors alleged that Yıldırım had received kickbacks from a number of businessmen.
The disclosure of the intercepted secure phone conversations not only embarrassed the Erdoğan government publicly but also exposed how it was deeply involved with criminal outfits and terrorist networks. In response the Erdoğan government retaliated against officials at TIB and TÜBİTAK as well as members of the police and the judiciary who had simply done their job under the law and complied with court orders on the wiretapping of suspects. Starting in 2014, many officials were summarily and arbitrarily dismissed for exposing the Erdoğan government's dirty dealings and were jailed on fabricated charges.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.