Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen denies that he and his supporters have recorded and leaked private government conversations. (Selahattin Sevi/Agence France-Presse)
ANKARA — A flurry of cyberattacks that has deeply embarrassed the Turkish government in recent months has raised concerns among some NATO officials about vulnerabilities in the country’s cyber defenses, diplomats and analysts said.
Since Dec. 17, unidentified sources have leaked audio recordings allegedly belonging to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his family members, Cabinet ministers, prominent businessmen and media executives, mostly implying corruption.
Erdogan has acknowledged the authenticity of most of the recordings and admitted that even his “encrypted” phone had been tapped. He cites as the culprits an ally-turned-foe, an Islamic preacher with a global movement whom Erdogan says is supported by “foreign powers,” and a network of Turkish officials who have created “a parallel state” — the enemy within.
A recent and probably most embarrassing leak, made public on YouTube on March 27, details a top-secret meeting between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu, National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan and Gen. Yasar Guler, deputy head of the Turkish military.
During the meeting, the quartet was heard discussing possible false-flag attacks on Turkish targets to drag Ankara into the war in Syria. Davutoglu said the content “was largely authentic” and the video’s release meant “declaring war on Turkey.”
Davutoglu and Gen. Necdet Ozel, chief of the General Staff, have ordered technical intelligence experts to start parallel examinations into the leaks.
A Turkish diplomat said April 16 the investigation had not produced any results.
A colonel said April 15 the military investigation was in progress, but it had discovered no evidence identifying the perpetrators.
“The March 27 leak clearly illustrates Turkey’s vulnerability against cyberattacks. It could have been a military espionage case, recorded but never leaked into the public domain, instead kept at an enemy headquarters. We are certain that there is enough good reason for the alliance to be worried about potential attacks against a member state,” a NATO ambassador said in a telephone interview April 18.
“The Turkish leaks since [mid] December most likely are the results of internal political fighting,” the ambassador said. “But they show us how Turkey is exposed to the risk of a more serious attack, say, from non-NATO states and/or terrorist organizations.”
One NATO defense attaché here said the scandal “is not something we can comfortably ignore and think is a political war between rival Turks. If Turkey cannot protect itself against this kind of cyberattack from unidentified political rivals, how will it protect allied data from more serious attacks from more serious rivals?”
The leaks are widely believed to be the work of government officials loyal to Fethullah Gulen, an influential Islamic scholar residing in the US who runs a global network of schools, businesses and charities.
Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan, is believed to be operating a network of agents within the Turkish government whom Erdogan says is trying to topple his government by a campaign of embarrassing leaks. Gulen has vehemently denied all allegations.
Another NATO defense attaché here said, “We do not feel comfortable with the thinking that it must be Gulen’s men. If a clandestine network can tap an ally prime minister’s encrypted phone for years without detection, that’s a cyber threat to the alliance.
“We expect Turkey to better fight any enemy, Turkish or non-NATO, against any cyberattack of this importance,” the attaché said. “We don’t normally have ally foreign ministers’ top meetings with their countries’ intelligence chiefs released on YouTube with perfect sound quality.”
Ironically, the scandals erupted when Turkey claimed to be building solid cyber walls against threats. Only last year, the country hosted about a dozen conferences on cybersecurity and new technologies.
Speaking at the last one, in November, Col. Cengiz Özteke, commander of the General Staff’s division for electronic systems and cyber defense, said the military now considers cybersecurity as the country’s fifth force.
Murad Bayar, Turkey’s top defense procurement official for a decade until the end of March, said in November, “cyber defense has become an indispensable part of our national defense.”
Bayar, now a chief adviser to Erdogan, also said the government views cyberattacks “as a national security threat.” ■