Turkish intelligence and the Cold War

Luke Frostick writes: In April 1957 US Ambassador Fletcher Warren burst into Prime minister Menderes’s cabinet meeting to try and prevent him from taking military action in Syria. Menderes had to make a hard choice. This is one of the more dramatic moments in Egemen Bezci’s new book Turkish Intelligence and the Cold War: The Turkish Secret Service, the US and the UK.

Luke Frostick 

In April 1957 US Ambassador Fletcher Warren burst into Prime minister Menderes’s cabinet meeting to try and prevent him from taking military action in Syria. Menderes had to make a hard choice. He could ignore the American advice for the sake of Turkish foreign policy gains and his personal agenda of keeping the discontent military busy. Or he could risk the withdrawal of American intelligence, technical and military support and the all important economic aid that he hoped would prop up his falling domestic popularity. In addition, military action in Syria also ran the risk of exposing Turkey to full-blown war with the Soviet Union. 

He opted to take Ambassador Warren’s advice.

This is one of the more dramatic moments in Egemen Bezci’s new book Turkish Intelligence and the Cold War: The Turkish Secret Service, the US and the UK. Ambassador Warren’s intervention in Menderes’s cabinet meeting is one of those rare instances where the murky web of Cold War intelligence gathering, influence and diplomacy burst into the open. It was a brief glimpse of the complex web of behind-the-scenes communication and multilateral cooperation and deception between Turkish intelligence, the CIA and MI6. Bezci’s book tries to throw some light on the world. 

One of the first things I found helpful for thinking about Cold War espionage was Bezci’s use of the term ‘intelligence diplomacy.’ It refers to nations using their intelligence services to communicate and coordinate with each other and at the same time advance their national interests in parallel with regular diplomacy.This concept is particularly useful in the Turkish context as intelligence diplomacy evolved and grew as the relationship with the USA and the UK did. Battered after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Independence War, the policy makers in the newly-founded republic knew they would have to work with the great powers to develop technological, military and economic capabilities. The book demonstrates that without huge resources of their own, they had to develop a system of intelligence diplomacy to forward those goals.  However, there was a fear within the Turkish government that as a minor player could gain from their more powerful allies without becoming ‘stooges’. Bezci demonstrates how during World War II, intelligence was used to play off the facist powers, the British, the Americans and the Soviet Union against each other.

The connections made between the newly developing Milli Emniyet Hizmeti during World War II would continue to serve the intelligence service into the Cold War. Intelligence diplomacy became more sophisticated, creating a fine balance of interests and cooperation between America, Britain and Turkey. The three countries did not trust each other. They all had different goal particularly in the Middle East. Their espionage was not just focused on the Soviet Union, but also on each other. Furthermore, the British and American saw their Turkish partners as easy targets for Russian spying. Though, given that the MI6 chief was Kim Philby, one of the most notorious soviet double agents in history, the British might have been better worrying about their own house.  

For Turkey there were real benefits for the Turkish government working with with MI6 and the CIA. Bezci identifies three core priorities that the Turkish state wanted to get out of the relationship: fiscal and technical aid, the expansion of Turkish influence in the region and security guarantees to protect them from the Soviet Union. One could also add suppression of internal dissidents, though the book demonstrates that the Turkish state had a harder time convincing their allies of this. 

The Turkish intelligence service was not incredibly effective at its role of gathering information. They did not have sophisticated radar for monitoring the Soviet Union and their attempts to infiltrate behind the Iron Curtain didn’t have great success. Bezci records that in some cases, ambassadors posted abroad would simply translate local newspapers and pretend that it was hard won intelligence. What the book shows is that despite their weakness, Turkish intelligence didn’t let itself get pushed around by its bigger partners within NATO and CENTO. They were able to very successfully leverage their geographical advantage and their own human intelligence. By carefully controlling information passed to their allies and playing British and American interests off against each other, they could advance their goals considerably, both in moments of crisis and in the day-to-day operation of intelligence diplomacy. Though of course there were failures as well, they avoided becoming the stooges of America and in fact were able to punch above their weight and gain concessions disproportionate to the nation’s size. Intelligence diplomacy as Bezci says is asymmetrical. 

Although the book does have its limitations,,to a large extent they are not the fault of the writer. Significant amounts of the information in the book comes from declassified CIA documents, but equivalent declassification have not come from Turkish intelligence or MI6 and in some cases information has been destroyed. I would have liked to have seen more about Turkish intelligence’s involvement in the domestic politics of Turkey and their role of suppressing internal dissidents. In conversation with Mr Bezci, he pointed out to me that actually a lot of suppression of dissidents, particularly Kurdish groups, would have fallen to the gendarmery rather than the intelligence.In addition, I was also curious to know about the role of Turkish intelligence in the coup against Menderes. Again in conversation, Bezci had a simple answer. Although there may have been intelligence officers involved in the action against Menderes, the relative size and unimportance of the intelligence services compared to the army meant that any role that intelligence officers may have played in the coup would not have had a huge impact on the course of events. But as mentioned above, it is hard for an academic to draw conclusions on a topic for which evidence simply is not available. 

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the modern context. The days when the American ambassador could influence policy are long gone. American Turkish relations have hit an all time low. The disagreement and misunderstandings on Syria policy in particular seem to be symptomatic of a rift between the respective intelligence services. Moreover, although Ankara has been able to get considerable concessions out of President Trump over Syria this year, I couldn’t help but wonder to what extent the messy but functioning intelligence diplomacy that was so important to the U.S Turkey relationship during the Cold War has completely broken down. 


Luke Frostick is the editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books. His articles on Turkish politics and art have appeared in Open Democracy and Cornucopia. His short fiction has appeared in a range of magazines.