In the spring of 2003, Şenkal Atasagun, then-director of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), met with a group of journalists in Ankara over lunch. He informed them off the record to “keep an eye on the 1st Army [in İstanbul]. They are preparing a coup over there…”
Mustafa Balbay, then-chief of the Ankara bureau of Cumhuriyet -- a Kemalist daily, put this quote in his diary (now part of the evidence in the Ergenekon trial) and did nothing to chase this potentially explosive story to expose whatever truth lay behind it. What Cumhuriyet did, instead, was to publish a completely different “story” (based on an anonymous source within the top command) headlined “Young officers feel uneasy” on May 23, 2003. The headline hinted at “growing disgruntlement” within the army against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.
Then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök (having already confronted Çetin Doğan, the commander of the 1st Army, with his coup plans tête-à-tête in early May), met with the press three days after the Cumhuriyet story and lashed out at the anonymous source, indicating that a campaign of manipulation through the press was already in action. The “cool” and rational top general was obviously under immense heat at the time. Ankara was close to the boiling point, and it would not go unnoticed by the US Embassy.
Robert Pearson, the US ambassador those days, chose the dramatic title “Defining the Republic of Turkey: The General Staff and government struggle with themselves and each other” for a lengthy “secret” cable he sent to Washington on June 6, 2003. Pearson analyzes in detail why the top officers were unhappy and why the coup was almost impossible at the time. The top brass is, he wrote, “Unhappy within itself (Özkök is being pressed by a group of six to eight senior officers who hold what a broad range of journalist, political, and national security analyst contacts characterize for us as ‘Eurasianist, status quo, keep-military-procurement-secret’ views…”
The army is, he continued, “Unhappy with the AK government, which proclaims itself conservative-democratic, but which the TGS [Turkish General Staff] and most of the rest of the Kemalist Establishment … charge is both incompetent and carrying an Islamist torch. … Unhappy with the fact, flexibility and speed of change in the world. … Unhappy with change at home, where social change from below, a growing freedom of debate about many hitherto taboo subjects, and the government’s attempt to avoid submitting its newest package of EU Copenhagen Criteria-related reforms to the military-dominated NSC [National Security Council (MGK)] for review all suggest that, as ordinary Turks consider where their country should go, the Turkish military is beginning to lose its position as the ultimate arbiter of republican probity.”
The cable explained further that the “lone ranger” Özkök was trying to achieve a number of goals with the press conference, denying Cumhuriyet’s report: Among them were preventing such stories to come out in the press; presenting the army as “monolithic” on major issues; declaring that the TGS and the AK Party government are not on the same wavelength; rejecting any discussion of a coup “under this roof” but to leave the public at large on alert by emphasizing that the armed forces will continue their secularist struggle within the constitutional framework; and defending himself against charges against him that he is too democratic and Western-oriented to be a strong guardian of core “secularist” values.
But he did not convince his opponents, the cable argued, and puts forth a list of names. “Our defense and national security contacts identify seven of the generals opposed to Özkök as Land Forces Commander [Aytaç] Yalman, Jandarma Commander [Şener] Eruygur, First Army Commander Doğan, Aegean Army Commander [Hurşit] Tolon, Second Army Commander [Fevzi] Türkeri, and NSC SecGen [Tuncer] Kılınç, with [Yaşar] Büyükanıt described as playing it both ways.” Furthermore, the cable predicted that “he [Özkök] can retire two of this group in summer 2003, and two more in summer 2004. He will promote a significant number of three- and four-star generals and can change up to 80% of the senior TGS staff this year.” It proved to be partially true: Doğan and Kılınç were retired in 2003; Yalman and Eruygur in 2004. Pearson warned the story does not reach a “happy ending” despite his finding that no coup seemed likely in 2003. He concluded: “What is clear is that Özkök’s briefing neither satisfied those in the military who oppose his approach nor intimidated AK. The tensions between the military and AK, and within each institution, will continue and affect Turkey’s ability to set itself on a consistent course in any direction.”
Indeed. From mid 2003 on, Turkey entered stormy waters, marked by strong tension, murders, further coup planning, a closure case and shocking revelations about the military. The cable emphasizes -- indirectly -- the importance of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, and its findings highlight further the value of a full testimony by Özkök -- a key witness of “interesting times.”