The global news agenda has been occupied by the COVID-19 outbreak for months. Now it feels like we are returning to "normal" after all. U.S. Justice Department is reportedly dropping its charges against President Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had to resign after 23 days in office in 2017. After this story made the headlines, Trump praised Attorney General William Barr for his courage in taking the initiative to drop the charges. Trump said of Barr, “He’s going to go down in the history of our country.”
However, it was only three months ago that Trump and Barr had a public row. Barr had complained that Trump’s tweets were making it impossible for him to do his job. Perhaps Barr was only bothered that Trump made his announcements through social media, not that the President intended to interfere with Justice Department matters. Barr's stance on the Flynn case has served as a perfect reminder as to why Trump picked him for the job.
Leaving aside the never-ending struggle within the administration, with so many key figures having been fired by Trump since he took office, let us go back to the essence of the Flynn case.
Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), pleaded guilty twice to lying to FBI agents about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington at that time, Sergey Kislyak, during the presidential transition in late 2016. Another charge brought against him was that he had violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by not reporting he had received money from the Turkish government for lobbying on their behalf in the United States a few months before he became national security advisor. After Flynn cooperated with the Justice Department, the FARA violation charge was dropped as part of his plea deal.
Flynn admitted in court in December 2017 that he had indeed lied to FBI agents, both about discussing the sanctions against Russia with Ambassador Kislyak and about his direct relations with the Turkish government concerning his firm’s three months of lobbying efforts in the U.S. on behalf of Ankara. However, earlier this year, Flynn's lawyers signaled that he has been seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. And then came President Trump's move!
No matter what happens to Flynn, the Turkish dimension of the investigation remains open. Flynn’s former business partner, Bijan Rafiekian, and the former chair of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAİK), Ekim Alptekin, were both indicted in December 2018 for “acting as unregistered agents for Turkey in the U.S.” and on a related conspiracy charge.
In the spring of 2017, Turkish-Dutch businessman Ekim Alptekin was included in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. Alptekin testified to Robert Mueller's team on May 24, 2017 when he was in Washington to attend TAİK’s annual conference.
Alptekin argued that he made the lobbying payments to Flynn Intel Group himself between the months August and November 2016. Alptekin explained that he had hired Flynn’s company for consultancy services concerning the investigation and unveiling of the self-exiled Muslim cleric, Fetullah Gülen, who the Turkish government sees as the mastermind of the botched coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
A couple of days after giving this testimony, Alptekin went back to Turkey. A short while later, Mueller’s office subpoenaed him to “correct his statement.” Mueller’s team was convinced that Alptekin was lying and hiding that he paid Flynn’s company on behalf of the Turkish government.
Ekim Alptekin has not been to the United States since then. Thus, he has been a “fugitive” for about three years in the eyes of the American justice system. There is an outstanding arrest warrant against him.
Two weeks ago, Alptekin made an appearance on pro-Trump analyst Michael Doran’s YouTube channel to declare his innocence. Thanks to Doran's interview, we learned that although Mr. Alptekin refrained from turning himself in, he has sent some key documents to U.S. prosecutors via his lawyers.
The most valuable part of the interview, I think, was when Alptekin referred to the encrypted email correspondence that had been attributed to him and said he had sent the decrypted versions of the emails to the prosecutor’s office himself. The reason that the emails were encrypted when the correspondence was sent, Alptekin said, was because they wanted to avoid possible surveillance by the Gülenists while they were preparing to unveil Gülen’s illegal activities in the U.S. Or otherwise, he said, they had nothing to hide from the U.S. government.
In the emails sent to the prosecutor’s office by Alptekin’s lawyers, there was reference to a meeting held on September 19, 2016, the one that the office was using as the most important factor proving that Flynn was working on behalf of the Turkish government. In the indictment, Turkish cabinet ministers participating in that meeting were coded as “Turkish Minister 1” and “Turkish Minister 2” and their names were not openly written. However, I had heard who the two Turkish ministers were from the witnesses of the incident as I was living in Washington at the time Ekim Alptekin was subpoenaed.
The two persons Ekim Alptekin introduced to Michael Flynn in a meeting room of New York’s Peninsula Hotel on September 19, 2016 were Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Berat Albayrak, who was Energy Minister at the time. Peninsula New York is the hotel President Erdoğan and his delegation stay at every year in September while attending the UN General Assembly. As a matter of fact, when Flynn got together with Turkish cabinet ministers, it was the week when the UN General Assembly took place in 2016. Mr. Alptekin indeed admitted organizing the meeting in a letter he wrote to Turkish daily Hürriyet's Ertuğrul Özkök in June 2017.
At the time, Özkök focused, unsurprisingly, on the former CIA President James Woolsey’s allegations that the attendees of the meeting discussed kidnapping Gülen and secretly bringing him to Turkey. That was definitely a spicy headline to run, and the American press also loved reporting on this story through Woolsey’s delusions. However, soon after he came up with his allegations, we learned from a Reuters story that Woolsey — independent of Flynn’s company — was after a 10 million dollar contract to lobby for the Turkish government, which was about 20 times more than Flynn's offer!
To me it is quite striking that U.S. prosecutors found Woolsey's claims worth basing an indictment on. It just does not make sense: a retired three-star U.S. general seriously contemplating abducting Gülen for only 500,000 dollars!
If we go back to our core topic, Ekim Alptekin has been claiming from that day on that even though he had direct contact with Flynn and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, he says he was not able to convince Albayrak and Çavuşoğlu to hire Flynn’s company. For this reason, he paid for the work himself. He said he paid the Flynn Intel Group in three installments a total of 530,000 dollars until November 2016, but because he couldn’t receive the desired service from the lobbying activity, he took back 80,000 dollars of this amount. On the other hand, the prosecutor’s office has made the implication that this 80,000 dollars was the commission the Turkish government was paying Alptekin. Moreover, according to the indictment, the fact that even though the company Alptekin owned, named Inovo BV, was based in the Netherlands, the payment to Flynn Intel Group was made through Alptekin’s Turkey bank account, proving that the money actually came from the Turkish government. Alptekin, on the other hand, said he had to make the transaction from his Turkey account because an urgent transfer was requested at that time. He said, “If the logic behind the Dutch company was to hide the Turkish leg, then why would I pay from my Turkey account?”
On the other hand, during Bijan Rafiekian's trial, certain correspondence between Alptekin and Rafiekian surfaced as proof of the prosecutors' claim that then Turkish prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, had approved the Flynn Intel Group for their propaganda work in the U.S. in October 2016
As of today, neither Alptekin nor the prosecutor’s office have taken a step back from their own arguments. However, Flynn’s business partner of the time, Bijan Rafiekian, who was being tried together with Alptekin, was acquitted because of lack of evidence eight months ago. The prosecutor’s office appealed the decision. It might well be speculated that if Alptekin had also participated in the trial in the U.S. court in those three years, he might have been acquitted from the same charges as well due to lack of evidence. However, now that he has been running away from the justice system for long it is highly likely that things would be quite different for Alptekin.
What I gathered from the interview he did with Michael Doran is that Alptekin does not want to take the risk of spending some time in prison, even if there is a possibility of acquittal at the end.
The actual aspect of this case that I have been following from the beginning is the absolute silence by Ankara. Albayrak and Çavuşoğlu, from the time these claims were voiced until today, have almost played possum. For instance, there was nobody from the Turkish Embassy in the court hall in Virginia during the trial of Flynn, in a case in which two names from the current Turkish government and a former prime minister’s photos are in the file. I don’t remember seeing even one sentence from the ministers concerned or any other Turkish government official supporting Ekim Alptekin, who has been saying for three years, “I took it as my civic duty to show the real face of Gülen to the Americans. For this reason, I spent that much money from my own pocket.” Not a single word of appreciation or sympathy for Mr. Alptekin's efforts was uttered by President Erdoğan's camp. One truly wonders…