It was Dec. 9, 2013. Distrust and tensions between the government and the Gülen Movement had resurfaced over a proposed plan to shut down private preparatory schools, many of which served as a recruiting ground for the movement. Fethullah Gülen, who leads the movement, released video footage of his conversations with disciples in his U.S. residence to send messages to Turkey and manage the ongoing crisis with the government. In retrospect, two things about these talks have been carved into the memory of the Turkish people.
The first was a particular scene where Gülen moved his hands and arms rapidly whilst invoking the punishment of God on whomever side has wronged the other. His body language spoke volumes about his fury at the developments, while each curse was followed by a vocal "amen" from his followers. The footage shocked and appalled the viewers, as the leader of a self-proclaimed movement for tolerance sending such a message to Turkey looked like bad news – which it was. Just a week later, on December 17, members of law enforcement and the judiciary with alleged ties to the Gülen Movement launched a massive operation against the government under the pretext of corruption charges. "May God set their homes on fire," Gülen had said during the cursing session, and the children of several cabinet ministers were arrested within hours. Later, it became clear that law enforcement had illegally followed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family, and intercepted their communications for an extended period of time. Starting in the immediate aftermath of the Dec. 17 operations, the unlawfully-acquired recordings were systematically leaked to the Internet.
The second most memorable aspect of Gülen's talks was a peculiar statement in a speech that affiliated news outlets widely publicized, where he showcased the extensive intelligence network that he commanded. One night, he said, he had received news that a senior public figure would make a mistake about his private life, and immediately took action to prevent the said individual from this near-mishap. Noting that he saved a man from "committing a sin" at the time, Gülen noted that "many such events" have occurred in the past. This statement understandably called for the following question: How could Gülen receive news about an individual's private life that none would otherwise know about?
There were two possible explanations: First, the Gülen Movement had ample manpower at its disposal and such momentary updates could be transmitted through the ranks of a hierarchical organization. It was, however, quite obvious that manpower alone would not always be enough to gather such sensitive information – which is why public debate focused on a second explanation, namely illegal eavesdropping.
After the Dec. 17 operation, an internal investigation revealed that members of the law enforcement had illegally wiretapped hundreds of thousands of people under fake names and based on false charges. It became clear that the shadow state intercepted the communications of journalists suspected of "membership in an armed terrorist organization." Various artists, academics and bureaucrats, in turn, had allegedly formed criminal gangs. An executive of Young Civilians, an NGO promoting democracy against military guardianship in Turkey, was charged with "terrorist activities." The situation got so out of hand that this NGO executive, who famously attended a formal reception at the Presidential Palace with Converse sneakers to raise awareness about civilian politics, had to make a public statement to deny his involvement in terrorist activities. What an ongoing internal investigation has revealed in just a few months falls outside the scope of this column, but authoritative sources indicate that the wiretapping scandal represents but the tip of a very large iceberg.
The first operation against illegal eavesdropping took place on July 22, as 110 members of the law enforcement with alleged ties to the Gülen Movement were arrested in Istanbul. The court subsequently ordered the formal arrest of 31 policemen on charges of espionage and illegal wiretapping, while the presiding judge announced that there was evidence suggesting that Prime Minister Erdoğan's phone calls with foreign leaders, among others, had been intercepted. The overall sense is that more public officials face arrest over illegal wiretapping and espionage.
Eavesdropping, which inherently refers to a direct violation of privacy, is a practice in which democratic states engage on legitimate grounds and in a rather limited scope. Such precautions aim to protect lives and fight crime. In this sense, universal values set clear limits for eavesdropping and thereby safeguards the targeted individual's legal rights and private life. Democratic societies have invariably developed strict rules about surveillance.
Eavesdropping, after all, represents a superhuman power. Knowing intimate details about an individual amounts to mind-reading, as every single detail about their private life, ideas and plans become available to the wiretapper. When such an ability falls into the wrong hands, like an illegitimate organization, it may inflict irreparable damage and make the wiretapper feel like they are in possession of absolute power.
Turkey's homegrown wiretappers, too, did believe that they wielded absolute power. The lust for intimate knowledge as a means to attain greater power consumed them, and led them to intercept and record more and more communications. This collection of personal data served their own agendas, as they misbelieved that the authorities would never discover these irregularities. Truth, however, has a bad habit of surfacing sooner or later. And now the wiretappers will account for their acts in a court of law.