Special to WorldTribune , April 17, 2020
Commentary by Brad Johnson
At this week’s virtual NATO Atlantic Council event, Turkey repeated its offer to the United States to form a technical working group, including NATO, to resolve a dispute over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. But, before the U.S. considers this offer, another diplomatic conflict with Turkey should be resolved first.
Turkey is holding a local employee of the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul on terrorism and treason charges. The U.S. embassy in Ankara has stated publicly there is no credible evidence against him. Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen, had been legally working as a translator and assistant liaison officer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office in Turkey for 25 years.
Topuz was arrested in 2017. This week, Turkish prosecutors said he should be acquitted on charges of espionage and trying to overthrow the government but should still face a prison sentence on a lesser charge of belonging to a “terrorist organisation” – the Gülen Movement.
Turkish authorities also accused Topuz of working with local police officers and a prosecutor who led a 2013 corruption investigation that implicated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several close senior officials. However, this investigation was perfectly legitimate. The problem was the information connecting Erdogan to corruption was credible and politically damaging. There were even leaked audio recordings between Erdogan and his son allegedly discussing how to hide large sums of money.
As a result, Erdogan immediately cracked down, even seizing full control over the Internet in Turkey, allowing the government to block any sites reporting on the corruption.
DEA has a large global presence and maintains offices within many U.S. embassies overseas. In Turkey and many other countries, the DEA also operates in consulates away from the capital, such as the consulate in Istanbul. DEA officers do not have direct law enforcement authority outside of the United States and cannot make arrests of local citizens. They only work to support local law enforcement and coordinate with DEA offices in the United States and elsewhere.
In Istanbul as elsewhere, the DEA works in a law enforcement liaison relationship with Turkish law enforcement. They work openly with Turkish police, cooperating against narco-criminals.
Erdogan claimed from the beginning that he was framed with the corruption charges by political enemies using false evidence and denied that the recorded phone conversation with his son was him.
This all culminated in 2016 in what Erdogan calls an attempted military coup. Topuz is accused of links to U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan blames for orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt. Once an ally, the Turkish government declared Gulen and his followers a terrorist group in 2014 on the heels of the anti-corruption investigations.
Gulen categorically denies any involvement with, or knowledge of, the coup. Turkey has long demanded the U.S. extradite Gulen, who lives in a compound in Pennsylvania. Erdogan also previously detained an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and attempted to exchange him for links to Gulen which put serious stress on U.S-.Turkish relations. Brunson was “convicted” by a Turkish court of the unlikely charge of links to terrorism, although he was eventually released and returned to the U.S.
The official Turkish government story is that, in 2016, a few Turkish military units attempted a coup in order to oust Erdogan from power. The coup was put down within hours without violence and there is very little information on any punishment of the officers involved — raising doubts over the authenticity of the coup attempt.
Most outside observers have concluded that the coup was staged by Erdogan as an excuse to consolidate power. That would likely mean both Gulen and Topuz are innocent dupes being used by Erdogan for his own purposes.
Despite the Turkish government’s accusations, Topuz’s legitimate responsibilities would have included setting up meetings with Turkish police, translating at the meetings, and importantly providing continuity. As DEA officers are transferred every few years and Topuz had been there for decades, he would often be the person to introduce newly arrived DEA officers to the Turkish officers.
During his decades-long tenure Topuz would have met hundreds and perhaps thousands of Turkish police officers as part of his duties. There is no evidence Topuz did anything wrong or illegal.
With U.S.-Turkish relations strained over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, the Turkish expansion into northern Syria, the U.S. refusal to extradite Gulen, and Turkey opening the floodgates to scores of thousands of refugees flooding into Europe, its time the United States gets tough with Turkey.
The U.S. should demand the release of DEA employee Metin Topuz before any other dialogue. In addition, since Turkey has been trying to leverage the U.S. against Russia, the Trump administration should also slow down rapprochement with Ankara and demand Turkey realign with the core values of the U.S. and NATO before any NATO or U.S. assistance is given to Turkey.
Bradley Johnson is a retired career CIA officer and former Chief of Station at various U.S. embassies. He is also President of Americans for Intelligence Reform, www.intelreform.org