The CIA and a Turkish Coup
September 16, 2016
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Bezci is a visiting researcher at the Stockholm University Institute for
Turkish Studies (SUITS).
Borroz is a Washington, DC-based strategic intelligence consultant.