Turkey moves to centralize electronic surveillance

Streamlining Turkey’s intelligence operations and increasing cooperation between the country’s military and civilian intelligence gatherers is under way but will take as long as two years to complete, according to a senior security official.

A senior security official said over the weekend that the General Staff had agreed to a proposal from the civilian government to transfer the administration of the division to the National Intelligence Organization, or MİT.

“A protocol between the military top command and MİT was signed recently,” the official said. “The protocol orders that the military will completely abandon the [surveillance] garrison and the intelligence agency will take over.”

In a landmark move on March 8, Turkish authorities announced they were bringing the military’s electronic surveillance under the management and operational control of MİT, which effectively means a civilian control over such capabilities.

The official added that it could take up to two years before the takeover is complete. “MİT’s surveillance unit is a huge department, and it will take several months before these assets can be appropriately moved to the Bayrak garrison,” he said. “The entire technical infrastructure will be moved, the military and intelligence personnel will be oriented for work under the same roof, and all that means a couple of years before everything runs perfectly.”

During the Cold War, the Bayrak garrison in Gölbaşı, near Ankara, was established as the military’s top electronic surveillance and intelligence asset. Known as the military’s “ear,” the garrison operated under the command of the Turkish General Staff.

The garrison employs more than 50 civilian and well-trained personnel who also will be transferred to MİT’s disposition. It also operates two vessels for electronic surveillance; these too will be transferred to the intelligence agency.

Some of the garrison’s tasks included critical radio operations as well as interceptions. Meanwhile, MİT, which reports directly to the prime minister, has its own Electronic and Technical Intelligence Unit, or ETI. The security official said ETI would completely move to the Bayrak garrison, together with its personnel and intelligence-gathering assets. “The protocol means that MİT’s ETI will take over the control of the military’s main intelligence-gathering and interception unit,” he said.

Cutting costs

A military official said the transfer and takeover is the result of lengthy deliberations that led to the idea that running a separate electronic intelligence unit meant duplication, overlapping and unnecessary costs for the military.

“We trust that MİT will run the garrison as efficiently as the military, and a centralized unit will mean savings in an extremely costly work,” he said. “MİT has the capabilities to perform all kinds of electronic surveillance duties. It would have been a waste of resources if we ran a separate network for the same purpose.”

The security official said the new system would make sure that the military collects intelligence from MİT. “MİT has several clients, and now the military is on the list. In a way, for the military, this is outsourcing for better efficiency,” he said.

“In any case, both institutions work for a single goal. Single-source intelligence gathering for military and/or nonmilitary intelligence purposes will not hinder efforts for the common goal,” the security official said.

The Bayrak garrison is not the Turkish military’s only intelligence asset. The General Staff also will rely on a soon-to-be operational military satellite, the country’s first, for intelligence-gathering missions. Under present provisions, the Gokturk military satellite will remain under the General Staff’s control.

Turkey two years ago signed a nearly $345 million contract with the Italy-based Telespazio for the construction of Gökturk, which is scheduled to be launched in 2013. The Italian defense giant Finmeccanica owns 67 percent of Telespazio, and the rest of the shares belong to France’s Thales.

Umit Enginsoy, HDN