On Dec. 28, 2011, Turkish fighter jets bombed smugglers, believed to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists, in the Turkish-Iraqi border area near Uludere, sparking outrage in Turkey. The Turkish military stated that the warplanes had targeted the group based on intelligence that suggested a group of armed terrorists would be heading towards the Turkish border to stage attacks against the military. The military did not reveal the source of this intelligence.
The WSJ claimed that the civilian death toll set off alarms at the Pentagon as “it was a US Predator drone that spotted the men and pack animals, officials said, and American officers alerted Turkey.”
Citing an internal assessment by the US Department of Defense, the paper said that “the US drone flew away after reporting the caravan's movements, leaving the Turkish military to decide whether to attack.” It quoted a Pentagon official who said, "The Turks made the call. It wasn't an American decision." The WSJ noted that the incident sparked debate within the US administration and Congress. “It raises an outstanding question for the White House and Congress: How far do we entrust allies with our deadly drone technology?” the article stated.
The paper reported that a US Predator had been on a routine patrol when it spotted the caravan just inside Iraq and moving toward the Turkish border. “The US military officers at the Fusion Cell in Ankara couldn't tell whether the men, bundled in heavy jackets, were civilians or guerrilla fighters. But their location in an area frequented by guerrilla fighters raised suspicions. The Americans alerted their Turkish counterparts,” it said.
US officials told the WSJ that “additional surveillance from the Predator might have helped the Turks better identify the convoy.” Instead, they claimed, Turkish officers directed the Americans who were remotely piloting the drone to fly it somewhere else. “US officials said compliance with the Turks' request was standard procedure,” the report added. Citing an anonymous former senior US military official who is claimed to have been involved in sharing intelligence with Turkey before the December attack, the WSJ said this official and his fellow officers were sometimes troubled by Turkish standards for selecting targets. “The former official said Turkish officers sometimes picked targets based on a notion of ‘guilt by association' with the PKK,” it stated.
The Turkish government and Parliament have been investigating the incident separately, trying to find out how it happened and who is responsible for the deaths of the villagers in Uludere, while public prosecutors have been conducting their own legal probes into the matter. A report by the General Staff, submitted to the parliamentary Human Rights Commission in April, failed to shed light on the questions, including why there was a rushed decision to carry out the strike. The report says the air strike took place in accordance with regulations regarding the cross-border operations of the military, but it does not explain why the decision to launch the air strike was made hastily.
The first group of villagers was killed within a few paces of the Turkish border. Should the group have entered Turkey, the air strike probably would not have taken place. Photos of the scene of the incident clearly show that the victims fell directly next to the Turkish border. Second and third groups of civilians were targeted as they were also near the border, but not as close as the first group. The air strike was carried out after a written order was issued by the General Staff, where several high-ranking military officers watch every second of footage relayed by Herons, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that take video over a given region.
A 230-page report compiled by inspectors from the Interior Ministry that was submitted to Parliament in April claimed that at least 15 of the 34 smugglers who were killed in the air strike by the Turkish Air Forces (THK) as they were crossing the border from northern Iraq into the province of Şırnak's Uludere district were killed with the full knowledge they were not PKK terrorists, and this information was not relayed to higher-ranking officers at the time.
The ministry's report also noted that the video, recorded by a Heron UAV, went blurry for a few seconds, the cause of which is yet unknown. The report noted that the cause of this needs to be investigated. It said, “There could have been another Heron in the region or the F-16 planes may have noticed the presence of another group in the area and re-entered coordinates for the Herons, changing the footage briefly.” The report noted that the military unit that evaluated the Heron footage had acted negligently and ignored the glitch in the footage.
The report states the individuals who gave the orders for the operation did not inform their superiors when they realized, following the first air strike, that the targets were smugglers. It said: “Conversations between officials in the region makes it clear that it was understood the targets were smugglers. In spite of this, superior officers were not informed, making local officials directly responsible for the 15 deaths in the final air strike.”
İhsan Şener, chair of the subcommittee formed to investigate the incident within the parliamentary Human Rights Commission, brushed off the WSJ report, saying the news reports may be part of a counter-intelligence operation. “It does not tell me anything. It is a news story based on anonymous sources. What is important to me is reliable information and documents. We are waiting for a response to a set of questions we posed of the Turkish military to arrive this week. When we collect all the data, we will share our findings with the public in a report,” he told Today's Zaman.
Ertuğrul Kürkçü, a member of the sub-committee and a deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), said that the WSJ report proves the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) gave inaccurate or incomplete information to the commission. “The TSK said in its initial report the intelligence was based on a national source. The WSJ report, which acknowledges the responsibility of the US in [providing] the intelligence, disproves the TSK's explanations,” he told Today's Zaman.
Turkey after its own Predators from US
In 2007, the Turkish government signed an agreement with the US to share actionable intelligence regarding the PKK, opening a new chapter for Turkish security forces who could then monitor PKK activities from US intelligence sources, including aerial images from US drones and satellite intelligence. This cooperation was later boosted during under the Obama presidency, which supported Turkey's request to acquire Predator drones despite resistance from Congress.
The WSJ noted: “The downside to such arrangements, say current and former U.S. officials, is that countries can use US intelligence in ways the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency can't control. Allies have varying standards for deciding who is a justified target. And these partnerships can embroil the US in local disputes with only slender links to the security of Americans.” Congressman Mike Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, asked the WSJ, "What happens if this information gets to the [foreign] government and they do something wrong with it, or it gets into the hands of someone who does something wrong with it?"
The WSJ quoted US officials as saying that mistakes such as the one in Turkey are feeding debate within the intelligence community and the Department of Defense about setting better guidelines for the sharing of US intelligence. “Intelligence officials are divided on the issue. Some say the U.S. should withhold intelligence if it believes an ally might abuse the information. Others warn new rules could slow intelligence sharing during emergencies,” they said.
Commenting on the news story via his Twitter account, security analyst Emre Uslu said the US will likely introduce new conditions for sharing intelligence with Turkey. He indicated that the pro-Israeli lobby in the US is campaigning against the sale of drones to Turkey and is also taking up a position against intelligence sharing with Ankara.
At the Pentagon, Press Secretary George Little told the WSJ said when asked about the strike, “Without commenting on matters of intelligence, the United States strongly values its enduring military relationship with Turkey.”
The US deployed four Predator drones to an airbase in southern Turkey in October, several days before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Paris a Turkish request to purchase MQ-9 Reapers, a larger and more modern version of the Predator, to be used in the fight against the PKK. The request, however, has been controversial, with some in Congress refusing to sell the aircraft to Turkey given Ankara's deteriorating relations with Israel, a close US ally. The deployment of Predators in Turkey was confirmed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in November. “In line with the US plan to pull out of Iraq, Predators will fly for the last time from Iraq on Nov. 22; from then onwards, the four predators currently based in Turkey will be taking over surveillance missions,” he was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as having said.
The issue was reportedly brought to the table during meetings Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel held in Washington last week. He met with his American counterpart, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and was later received by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.