Turkish Spies Targeted American Organization Led by Former Senior U.S. Officials

Covert investigations conducted by the Turkish foreign ministry’s intelligence arm have targeted a nonpartisan American policy organization that has former high-ranking US government officials on its board of directors.

Classified documents obtained by Nordic Monitor reveal that the Turkish Democracy Project, a US-based nonprofit presenting itself as an international policy organization and established in response to Turkey’s democratic regression toward authoritarianism, has drawn the attention of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government.

The clandestine surveillance initiative, managed by the Turkish foreign ministry’s covert unit, the Intelligence and Research Directorate (İstihbarat ve Güvenlik İşleri Genel Müdürlüğü), designated the organization as a threat to the authoritarian Erdogan regime.

The documentation found in the Ankara police department’s files indicates that Turkish diplomats have gathered intelligence on the organization, its executives and advisory board, subsequently forwarding a detailed report to headquarters in Ankara for further action.

Launched in the summer of 2021, the Turkish Democracy Project has emerged as a vocal critic of the Erdogan government. John Bolton, a former US national security advisor, emphasized the urgency of addressing Turkey’s situation, tweeting at the project’s inception, “It’s time to sound the alarm on Turkey.”

“Under an authoritarian leader, a once-reliable NATO ally is turning its back on democracy and embracing #Russia. I’m pleased to join the advisory council to shine a light on the darkening situation,” Bolton added.

On its website, the organization asserts that “President Erdogan’s Turkey has threatened its regional neighbors, supported extremist groups, deployed men and material in support of conflicts ranging from the Middle East to Europe, persecuted ethnic minorities, destroyed the free press, jailed and killed political opponents, eroded democratic institutions, and spread corruption throughout Turkey’s institutions.”

The project underscores its commitment to fostering Turkey’s embrace of more democratic policies and addressing the ongoing erosion of the nation’s democratic institutions, human rights safeguards and economic prosperity.

The organization’s CEO is Mark David Wallace, a former diplomat who served in the administration of President George W. Bush as the US ambassador to the UN for UN Management and Reform. Its executive director is Madeleine Joelson, tasked with overseeing the planning and management of all programs and initiatives of the Turkish Democracy Project.

In addition to Bolton, the advisory board comprises influential figures such as Joseph Lieberman, the late former US senator who passed away in March 2024, and Frances Townsend, who held the position of assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

Furthermore, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, former foreign minister of Italy; Jeb Bush, former Florida governor; David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights; and Alejandro Wolff, who held various positions at the State Department, are also listed as board members for the organization.

The advisory board also includes two seasoned officers with extensive experience at the Central Intelligence Agency. Norman T. Roule, who oversaw important programs relating to the Middle East during his tenure at the CIA, and Robert Richer, the former associate deputy director of operations at the CIA, both bring their expertise to the project.

The endeavors of the Turkish Democracy Project seem to have greatly unsettled the Erdogan government, prompting directives for government agencies to conduct surveillance on the organization and its affiliates, along with efforts by state-owned and/or directed media to launch smear campaigns and defame the Turkey Democracy Project.

The intelligence gathered by diplomats, including some ostensibly operating under diplomatic cover for Turkey’s main intelligence agency, Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), on the organization was subsequently disseminated to other Turkish government entities, including the police department and the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, as evidenced by the paper trail.

This implies that the organization and its affiliates may face punitive measures, including criminal charges, potential arrest warrants for its members, entry bans to Turkey and asset freezes.

Indeed, the documents reveal that the Erdogan government has incorporated the activities of the Turkey Democracy Project into a counterterrorism investigation, subjecting individuals involved to potentially harsher prison sentences under Turkish law. The Erdogan administration frequently employs the tactic of labeling critics and opponents as terrorists, initiating abusive criminal investigations and court proceedings with partisan members of the judiciary.

A classified communiqué, marked secret on December 2, 2022 and cataloged under file number E-45599763-63044-2022120215341906748, indicates that the intelligence was transmitted by Institution V, a code name believed to denote the foreign ministry’s intelligence section, on November 9, 2022. It bears the signature of Salih Yıldırım, the deputy head of the counterterrorism department at the Security General Directorate.

In the communiqué, Yıldırım explained that the Security Directorate General finalized its own inquiry into the Turkish Democracy Project on December 2, 2022, subsequent to receiving intelligence from the foreign ministry. This information was later disseminated to the Ankara police department to facilitate the construction of a sham case against the organization and its affiliates, in collaboration with the Ankara prosecutor’s office.

Another communiqué, signed by police chief Engin Aydın, the head of the counterterrorism bureau at the Ankara police department, on December 18, 2023, discloses that the police cybercrimes unit was assigned to surveil and target the website, email and social media accounts affiliated with the Turkey Democracy Project.

The comprehensive report compiled by the cybercrime unit on the US organization indicates that the police scrutinized social media accounts and tried to identify the email addresses, physical addresses and telephone numbers associated with the website and social media profiles. Furthermore, the report reveals that the police cybercrime unit attempted to breach the Twitter, now known as X, account of the Turkey Democracy Project by exploiting the password reset function.

Turkish investigators have advocated leveraging the judicial assistance agreement between Turkey and the US to obtain additional information regarding the Turkey Democracy Project website, with the aim of identifying the individuals who registered the website and their corresponding addresses.

The joint efforts of the foreign ministry and the police were subsequently forwarded to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, where the reports were integrated into an ongoing counterterrorism case. This case is currently being adjudicated by a high criminal court in Ankara.

Documents originating from the Ankara police department provide only a partial glimpse into Turkey’s extensive global espionage program, suggesting that the Erdogan government may have targeted additional organizations and individuals in foreign countries, particularly in North America and Western Europe, due to their critical coverage of Turkey.

The use of Turkish embassies and consulates as intelligence hubs experienced a notable surge following Hakan Fidan’s assuming the role of foreign minister in the summer of 2023. Fidan, who previously served as the head of Turkey’s infamous intelligence agency MIT for a decade, played a pivotal role in supporting the Erdogan government’s endeavors, including false flag operations, influence campaigns and the abduction of critics for interrogation under torture at undisclosed black sites.

Fidan brought several senior intelligence officers with him from MIT and strategically placed them in key positions in the foreign ministry, thereby effectively reshaping the diplomatic service into a significant intelligence apparatus.

The foreign ministry’s covert intelligence unit, the Intelligence and Research Directorate, underwent a restructuring, with Fatma Ceren Yazgan, a seasoned Turkish intelligence operative, appointed to lead the directorate. Yazgan played a crucial role in profiling Turkish ambassadors and diplomats, which ultimately led to the summary and abrupt removal of one-third of Turkish diplomats from the foreign service in 2016.

President Erdogan has increasingly relied on intelligence services to sustain his authoritarian regime in Turkey, quash dissenting voices and crack down on opposition factions. The heightened surveillance and intelligence collection efforts abroad are geared towards intimidating critics and adversaries overseas, fostering a climate of fear among Turkish diaspora communities and exerting influence over the foreign and domestic policies of host nations.

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