NSA FILES : Turkey Is ‘Partner and Target’ for the NSA
Is ‘Partner and Target’ for the NSA
Documents from the archive
of whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal wide-scale spying against Turkey by
America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ. They also show the US worked closely with
Ankara to battle Kurdish separatists.
Several Turkish F-16 fighter jets bombed a
caravan of villagers that night, apparently under the belief that they were
guerilla fighters with the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The group
was returning from northern Iraq and their mules were loaded down with fuel
canisters and other cargo. They turned out to be smugglers, not PKK fighters.
Some 34 people died in the attack.
An American Predator drone flying overhead
had detected the group, prompting US analysts to alert their Turkish partners.
The reconnaissance flight — which was
first reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2012 — and its tragic
consequences provided an important insight into the very tight working
relationship between American and Turkish intelligence services in the fight
against Kurdish separatists. Although the PKK is still considered a terrorist
organization by the United States and the European Union, its image has been
improved radically by its recent success in fighting the Islamic State (IS) in
northern Iraq and Syria. PKK fighters, backed by US airstrikes, are on the
front lines against the jihadist movement there, and some in the West are now
advocating arming the group and lifting its terrorist label.
Documents from the archive of US
whistleblower Edward Snowden that SPIEGEL and The
Intercept have seen show just how deeply involved America has become in
Turkey’s fight against the Kurds. For a time, the NSA even delivered its
Turkish partners with the mobile phone location data of PKK leaders on an
hourly basis. The US government also provided the Turks with information about
PKK money flows and the whereabouts of some of its leaders living in exile
A Leading Target for Spying
At the same time, the Snowden documents
also show that Turkey is one of the United States’ leading targets for spying.
Documents show that the political leadership in Washington, DC, has tasked the
NSA with divining Turkey’s “leadership intention,” as well as
monitoring its operations in 18 other key areas. This means that Germany’s
foreign intelligence service, which drew criticism in recent weeks after it was revealed it
had been spying on Turkey, isn’t the only secret service interested in keeping
tabs on the government in Ankara.
Turkey’s strategic location at the
junction of Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East made the NATO member
state an important partner to Western intelligence agencies going back to the
very beginning of the Cold War. The Snowden documents show that Turkey is the
NSA’s oldest partner in Asia. Even before the NSA’s founding in 1952, the CIA
had established a “Sigint,” or signals intelligence, partnership with
Turkey dating back to the 1940s.
During the Cold War, the US used bases in
Turkey primarily to conduct surveillance against the “underbelly of the Soviet
beast,” as one NSA document puts it. Today, it targets Russia and
Georgia from Turkish soil, collecting information in “near real
time.” Since the outbreak of its civil war, Turkey’s neighbor Syria has
become a central focus of NSA surveillance.
US secret agents have also provided support to the
Turkish government in its battle against the Kurdish separatists with the PKK
for years. One top-secret NSA document from January 2007, for example, states
that the agency provided Turkey with geographic data and recordings of
telephone conversations of PKK members that appear to have helped Turkish
agents capture or kill the targets. “Geolocations data and voice cuts from
Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK) communications which were passed to Turkey by NSA
yielded actionable intelligence that led to the demise or capture of dozens of
PKK members in the past year,” the document says.
The NSA has also infiltrated the Internet
communications of PKK leaders living in Europe. Turkish intelligence helped
pave the way to the success by providing the email addresses used by the
The exchange of data went so far that the
NSA even gave Turkey the location of the mobile phones of certain PKK leaders
inside Turkey, providing updated information every six hours. During one
military operation in Turkey in October 2005, the NSA delivered the location
data every hour.
In May 2007, the director of national
intelligence at the time signed a “memorandum” pledging deeper
intelligence support for Turkey. A report prepared on the occasion of an April
2013 visit by a Turkish delegation to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade indicates
that cooperation in targeting the PKK “has increased across the
board” since the signing of the memorandum. That partnership has
focused overwhelmingly on the PKK — NSA assets in Turkey collected more data
on PKK last year than any other target except for Russia.
It resulted in the creation of a joint
working group called the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell, a team of American
and Turkish specialists working together on projects that included finding
targets for possible Turkish airstrikes against suspected PKK members. All the
data for one entire wave of attacks carried out in December 2007 originated
from this intelligence cell, a diplomatic cable from the WikiLeaks archive states.
Support Continues Under Obama
The deep working relationship has
continued under Barack Obama’s presidency. In January 2012, US officials
proposed supporting Turkey in their fight against the PKK with diverse
measures, including access to a state-of-the-art speech recognition system that
enabled real-time analysis of intercepted conversations. The system can even
search for keywords and identify the person speaking if a voice sample of that
individual has been stored.
The NSA offered to install two such
systems for Turkey’s intelligence service. In exchange, the Turks would provide
voice samples for a number of Kurdish activists. Given its close and enduring
relationship with the NSA, agency authorities wrote that they saw little risk
in providing the technology. The only thing NSA experts didn’t feel comfortable
entrusting to Turkey was the automatic keyword search function.
The partnership is managed through the
NSA’s Special Liaison Activity Turkey (SUSLAT) office, which is based in
Ankara. In addition to data, the Americans provide their Turkish partners with
complete interception systems, decryption assistance and training.
Using its internal “Follow the money” reconnaissance unit, the NSA also
tracks PKK’s cash flows in Europe. The Turks reciprocate by providing the US
agents with written transcripts of telephone calls made by PKK leaders as well
as intelligence insights about Russia and Ukraine.
At the same time, however, Turkey is
itself the target of intense surveillance even as it cooperates closely with
the US. One NSA document describes the country bluntly as both a “partner
and target.” The very politicians, military officials and intelligence
agency officials with whom US officials work closely when conducting actions
against the PKK are also considered legitimate spying targets by the NSA. To
that end, in addition to the official SUSLAT liaison office and the
intelligence workers it has cleared with the Turkish authorities, the US has
two secret branch offices, operating Special Collection Service listening
stations in both Istanbul and the capital city of Ankara.
The degree to which the NSA surveils its
partner is made clear in the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF),
a document establishing US intelligence priorities. Updated and presented to
the president every six months, the NIPF shows a country’s “standing”
from the perspective of the US. In the April 2013 edition, Turkey is listed as
one of the countries most frequently targeted by Washington for surveillance,
with US intelligence services tasked with collecting data in 19 different areas
Surveilling Turkish Political Leaders
The document places Turkey at the level of
Venezuela — and even ahead of Cuba — in terms of US interest in intelligence
collection. Information about the “leadership intention” of the
Turkish government is given the second-highest priority rating, and information
about the military and its infrastructure, foreign policy goals, and energy
security are given the third-highest priority rating. The same framework also
lists the PKK as an intelligence target, but it is given a much lower priority
Beginning in 2006, the NSA began a broad
surveillance operation — a joint effort by several NSA units — aimed at
infiltrating the computers of Turkey’s top political leaders. Internally,
officials called the effort the “Turkish Surge Project Plan.” It took
six months for the team to achieve its goal. One document celebrates the
discovery of the “winning combination” and reports that collection
had begun: “They achieved their first-ever computer network exploitation
success against Turkish leadership!”
It goes without saying that the US
intelligence services also had Turkish diplomats in their sights, particularly
those stationed in the United States. A classified document from 2010 states
that the NSA surveilled the Turkish Embassy in Washington under a program
codenamed “Powder.” A similar project for monitoring Turkey’s
representation to the United Nations carried the name “Blackhawk.”
Analysts had access to the telephone
system in the Turkish Embassy and could tap content directly from computers. In
addition, they infected computer systems used by the diplomats with spyware.
The NSA also installed Trojan software at Turkey’s UN representation in New
York. According to the NSA document, it even has the capability of copying
entire hard drives at the UN mission.
The NSA shared many of its spies’ insights
with its “Five Eyes” partners — the British, Canadian, Australian
and New Zealand intelligence services. Within that group, the British had
already developed their own access to Turkey, with its GCHQ spy agency
monitoring political targets in Turkey as well as elements in the energy
Targeting Turkey’s Energy Minister
One classified British document states
that in October 2008, GCHQ tasked agents with improving access to the Turkish
Energy Ministry (MENR) as well as enterprises including the Petroleum Pipeline
Corporation (BOTAS), the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) and the energy
company Calik Enerji. The assignment
also included a list of the names of 13 targets, including then Turkish Energy
Minister Hilmi Güler.
In 2008, GCHQ analysts began reviewing
satellite images of the rooftops of ministries and companies to assess what
types of communications systems they were using and the possibilities for
infiltrating them. The documents do not indicate whether those efforts bore
Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek is
also explicitly named
as a GCHQ “target,” despite the fact that he is a dual
Turkish-British citizen. Nevertheless, a surveillance order against him
includes, among other things, two mobile phone numbers as well as his private
Gmail address. When questioned by SPIEGEL reporters, GCHQ officials said they
do not comment on the details of operations.
When The Guardian newspaper
ran a short story last summer about a planned
spying operation against the Turkish finance minister on the occasion of his
visit to London in the run-up to the G-20 summit in 2009, officials in Ankara
were so angered that the Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador and
criticized the “scandalous” and “unacceptable” operation.
Contacted for a response to the surveillance operations conducted by the NSA
and GCHQ, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said “such things”
would only be discussed at the diplomatic level.
Additional research conducted by Peter