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May 25, 2012, Friday

Operational errors

No matter what perspective you view the scandal that unfolded in Uludere from, it was clearly an intelligence fiasco. It seems that everyone analyzing this incident comes to the same conclusion but no one is actually asking the essential questions, such as how this intelligence fiasco happened, why the mistakes occurred, or how this could all be fixed. The only thing being debated is “who gave the orders to shoot.” And while the answer to that particular question is important, it is not the most essential thing.

I suppose the political opposition in Ankara either thinks that it was the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) ministers or the prime minister himself who gave the orders to shoot; perhaps this is the impression they would like to see created in the public. But this is not right. Even just debating the topic of Uludere within this framework is unfair to the prime minister -- a figure who has been the frequent target of my own criticisms. It is not helpful at all to pull the debates over what occurred in Uludere into the political arena.

In fact, the Uludere incident was really the Sept. 11 of the Turkish intelligence units. Just as the American intelligence community did not pay enough attention to human intelligence sources and instead placed all their focus on electronic intelligence and thus managed to overlook the Sept. 11 attacks, our Turkish intelligence units were also misled after placing too much importance on electronic intelligence. And this is how the Uludere disaster unfolded.

Alright, but how did the intelligence community become so mistaken?

When you are using human intelligence operatives who are working for more than one side, this is when you make mistakes. I believe this is what led to the mistake made in Uludere. The military's big mistake was to try and analyze the evidence provided by electronic intelligence sources not with an objective eye but through the perspective of information being provided by way of national intelligence.

In talking about electronic intelligence, this is how the basic idea of directing intelligence goes: An intelligence unit analyzes all the data it picks up from things like telephone tapping, social network analysis, satellite imagery and wireless communication. This analysis takes place within a certain sequence guided by a particular approach.

This is where the mistakes begin. If the very thesis under which you are operating is wrong, all of the roads leading you towards the results are going to mislead you. And when this happens, you will most likely make mistakes.

This is also the point at which distortions of reality enter the scene. Intelligence units carry preconceived notions about certain regions, and even certain people. For example, an intelligence officer might be convinced that a mafia member will most likely carry on with mafia work after being released from prison. The same goes for his or her views about a terrorist. And of course, this situation does not just apply to Turkish intelligence units; it is true globally. And the statistics on this matter show that generally, this way of thinking is in fact correct.

But there are some exceptional situations when this way of thinking winds up misleading intelligence units in disastrous ways. Let me give an example of a situation that affected me in this way. When my own phone conversations were being tapped by agents from national intelligence, words spoken by me about “I wonder if I should stay in America for a while more” were fit neatly as “evidence” for the conspiracy theories they had already formed in their own minds, and were thus included in a report asserting that “Emre Ulsu is not able to return from America.”

The above described situation reflects the same mentality that has been behind a series of operational mistakes made recently by the intelligence units. In other words, when intelligence units begin to come across evidence and data that supports the preconceived ideas or conspiracy theories they already had in mind, they started adding the data to the files they have going, and this only deepened their convictions on these fronts. And as the files got thicker with evidence, every peculiar situation or event that seems to fit with the foundational thesis that everyone believes is true only deepened the thesis, and seemed to confirm it. And this, of course, led to mistakes.

The first bit of intelligence to come through on the Uludere incident was made to fit with the general thesis that said that Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) operative Fehman Hüseyin had crossed over the border into Turkey and was preparing to act. And since the military accepted this bit of intelligence as definitely true, it applied it in trying to understand the imagery that came from the Heron jets flying above the region, or the conversations that were intercepted.

There was also no effort by the military to question local units on the ground; either they simply did not feel the need to or they were worried about the possibility of leaks, that much is unclear.

But had the military picked up the phone and asked the Ortasu Police Department whether that piece of intelligence was right, we would be arguing over the following today: the information from MİT was absolutely correct, and because the local intelligence sources had asked, the information had subsequently leaked out, resulting in Fehman Hüseyin escaping. In fact, had the military asked local units, and had the commander in charge not given the orders to strike, no one would have even offered thanks that 34 innocent villagers were spared their lives. To the contrary, it is likely that there would have been an investigation into how the information was leaked to local units, thus causing Fehman Hüseyin to escape and the commanders would have been at the center of the said investigation.

Over time, security units actually become enslaved to the very same electronic intelligence gathering tools that we see multiplying every day. These units began to think that technology can solve everything. We see this particularly with computer programs that carry out “network analysis” and the tapped phone conversations which are collected to serve as “evidence” of relations between people that seem pointed to by the network analysis. All of this is actually a vicious cycle for the security units. It makes everything much easier, but also leads to enormous mistakes.

With a reduction of human intelligence in this system, it becomes much easier for certain “hub” characters to become the focus of suspicions. Let's say you are a very social person, and are able to make friendships and ties with people from all different social factions very easily. But let us say a security unit is watching a criminal group from afar, using electronic tapping and wires, and you have relations with some of the people from this group without even being aware of what is going on. A red flag could easily be placed over your head by the police as these electronic pieces of evidence would somehow implicate you.

When there is a time limit on the work the police are doing, or when there is an enormous amount of public pressure, sometimes the electronic intelligence never gets turned into actual physical intelligence. In situations like this, all those under suspicion are arrested and taken in for questioning, and explaining the red flags falls to those under suspicion. The discovery of Ahmet Şık's book at OdaTV is a great example of this.

The police keeping these “hub” personalities under check and control generally do not know who they are -- which is why they are not always able to calculate the reverberations that will result if and when these “hub” people are arrested.

Names like Ahmet Şık and Büşra Ersanlı were completely foreign to me before the police operations that resulted in their arrests. In the end, it is clear that with the prevalence and availability of electronic intelligence these days, the police -- among others -- need to move with much more care than in the past.

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