The American ambassador interrupted a Turkish cabinet meeting. He was there to prevent them from deciding to militarily intervene in Syria. He told the Turkish leader that Washington “would not like to see the Turks go beyond their borders. To do so would be a great disservice.”
The prime minister nodded his head and said that Ankara “is deeply grateful and thankful to the American government for the interest it is taking to preserve peace in the area.”
As a result of this exchange, Turkey refrained from moving into Syria. Three years later, a coup removed the Turkish leader from power. The generals behind it executed him shortly thereafter.
As you have likely guessed by now, this does not describe the current situation in Turkey. The discussion happened in 1957, as recorded in declassified State Department files in the National Archives and Records Administration. The coup occurred in 1960. The ambassador was Fletcher Warren and the prime minister was Adnan Menderes.
Syria fell into the anti-Western camp as a result of the ouster of Western leaning President Adib Shishakli in 1954. The coup was orchestrated by the Syrian Communist Party, former Syrian President Atassi, and Druze officers in the Syrian army. After the coup, the communist and Arab nationalist elements seized greater control within the country’s political and military apparatus. Both Turks and Americans perceived further communist take-over of Syria as a vital threat to the containment of communist expansion in the region. The Menderes government considered a military intervention to prevent total communist control of Syria. By doing so, Menderes also hoped to keep resentful military officers busy with Syria. However, Washington sought to disrupt communism in Syria with CIA covert action.
Ambassador Warren did not want Turkey to intervene in Syria because Washington was, at that time, in the midst of trying to remove Syria’s leftist government from power by covert action. CIA funds were deployed to create riots by the followers of former President Shishakli. Turkey was tasked to create border disturbances in the north to justify the use of military force if necessary. An obvious Turkish military threat against Syria was already consolidating the Syrian leftists. The United States also wanted to avoid Turkey, a NATO ally, dragging itself into a hot war in the Middle East.
Although a different situation in a different time, this episode is illustrative for those dealing with challenges in the region today. This decades old story shows that, despite popular speculation to the contrary in Turkey, the CIA had other pressing matters. Analyzing Turkey’s internal politics in a way that might have provided early warning of an approaching coup was simply not something the CIA was resourcing. The one piece of evidence they received that did warn of a coup was dismissed because it clashed with the conventional wisdom of the time.
During both episodes, 1960 and 2016, Turkey played an important role in U.S. policy in the Middle East, and Washington’s focus on the region distracted it from Turkey’s internal instability. In 1960, when putschists removed Menderes from power, CIA analysts were caught off guard because they had been focusing on the overall strategic competition with the Soviet Union. This is likely what happened with the recent coup attempt: The CIA was likely focused on Russia, the Syrian civil war, and how Turkey might advance its foreign policy objectives in Iraq and Syria. As such, we should not be surprised if the CIA failed to pay attention to warning signs that a coup was in the cards. Even if they had some advance intelligence that elements in the Turkish Armed Forces were planning something, we should not be surprised if this was dismissed at Langley because, up until July 15, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the ruling Justice and Development party under Erdogan had never been stronger.
Of course, in Turkey, where conspiracy theories flourish, many today believe the CIA knew about last month’s coup attempt. Even high-level Turkish politicians have voiced that opinion.
But it just does not make sense when considering the CIA has a limited budget and personnel. Its job is to inform decision makers so they can deal with developments that hurt American interests. It must prioritize certain areas. It simply cannot focus on everything. Historical evidence from the Cold War, clearly demonstrates what the CIA’s priorities were in Turkey and how it caused the agency to overlook the evidence of an approaching coup in 1960.
During the late 1950s, the CIA was heavily involved in Turkey for Cold War reasons. It was an ideal spot from which to launch espionage and propaganda operations targeting the Soviet Bloc.
To this end, the CIA conducted many of its operations jointly with National Security Service (MAH), the precursor to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT). Available declassified documents in the American National Records and Archive Administration show that, as early as 1956, the CIA and the MAH were jointly training counter-guerrilla units in Turkish military outposts against a possible Soviet invasion. Meanwhile, declassified British intelligence documents in the British National Archives show Ankara tasked the MAH to deliver weapons to Turks in Cyprus to balance the Greek insurgency there against British rule.
At the same time, the CIA watched the Turks closely, making sure they did not drag Washington into any larger conflict with the Soviets. This was a possibility because Ankara tended to have ambitions in the Middle East that were beyond its capabilities. Declassified documents in the Eisenhower Presidential Library, for instance, show that during the American intervention in Lebanon in 1958, Turkish president Celal Bayar ordered MAH to contact tribal networks in Iraq, specifically near Mosul and Kirkuk. MAH was to do this in order to lay the groundwork for a potential Turkish invasion.
Washington kept itself well abreast of Turkey’s regional ambitions, but it was less aware of discontent growing within the Turkish military. The Menderes government spied on officers who were demonstrating explicit discontent to the Menderes government. Police wiretapped them, sending some into early retirement and publicly demoting others. This sowed the seeds of dissent that led to a group of army officers who would shortly lead the successful coup. Yet the CIA did not anticipate this happening, despite reporting to the contrary.
Indeed, just a year before the coup, the CIA received information directly from the Turkish Minister of Defense Ethem Menderes, who stated that “if the present repressive tendencies of the Democratic regime continue, military leaders will intervene and a dictatorship will result.” The CIA assessed his views to be “politically colored” and, therefore, of questionable accuracy, according to a declassified Presidential intelligence briefing.
The CIA did not give the information enough attention because it was focused on the Cold War — not on monitoring the Turkish military for possible coup plots. At that time, most of the CIA’s energy in Turkey was dedicated to conducting U-2 spy plane operations, organizing stay-behind networks, and waging covert actions and espionage missions against the Soviets. The agency simply did not have the bandwidth to develop an informed view on potential coup leaders or their intentions. The Cold War framework overrode all other considerations.
It is safe to assume that Vice-President Joe Biden was most likely being totally honest when he tried to counter speculation regarding advance U.S. knowledge of the July 2016 coup attempt: “The United States of America, did not, did not, have any foreknowledge of what befell [them] on July 15.” Today, as was the case in 1960, the CIA is focused on larger regional matters, most notably the Islamic State, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and Russian moves in the region. Turkey is largely seen through the prism of these issues. The fundamental question of concern for CIA analysts focused on Turkey is: How will Turkey help or hinder Washington’s foreign policy?
On top of this, the importance of the military in Turkish political affairs has diminished significantly since the coup that toppled Menderes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen to that. Through a series of purges, he has achieved what no other civilian leader before him has: the destruction of the old “deep state,” a military dominated clandestine network to shape politics and judicial process. Through a series of purges — most notably the so-called Ergenekon, or “sledgehammer” trials from 2008 to 2011 — Erdogan removed the army from its position of power.
In this environment, the CIA would naturally be less inclined to take indicators seriously that the army would remove Erdogan from power. Even if the agency were not distracted by the Islamic State and other geopolitical matters, most analysts—both in the agency and elsewhere—would not have suspected the old Deep State would carry out one last death throe.
And when reading between the lines, CIA statements indicate the agency did not know what would happen. Director John Brennan, when asked if the CIA saw the July 15 coup attempt coming, said the agency sensed a storm was coming, but not that it had clearly identified such a scenario as a serious possibility:
There have been a number of actions that the [Turkish] government has taken to try to address some of what they perceive as opposition domestically. So [the CIA was] aware of the pressures the government was under.
Pending new evidence, looking at the 1960 historical comparison, and using common sense, there is little indication the CIA had foresight into last month’s attempted coup. Though there may certainly have been murmurings about a coup in its intelligence-gathering apparatus, it was likely overlooked, as occurred in 1960. Despite what the conspiracy theorists say, the CIA was likely as surprised by the coup attempt as the rest of us.
Egemen Bezci is a visiting researcher at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS).
Nicholas Borroz is a Washington, DC-based strategic intelligence consultant.