Oh, for the good old days ― when the CIA regularly assisted military coups d’états in foreign democracies.
Several former spooks appearing on CNN Friday night to discuss the attempted military coup in Turkey had more than a few pointers for the seemingly amateurish military officers leading the takeover efforts. And at least one contributor seemed more disappointed in their performance than relieved that the coup has thus far failed to topple a democratically elected government.
Leading the pack was Robert Baer, a veteran former CIA officer and author ― and, apparently, a former coup participant.
Baer told CNN anchor Anderson Cooper that the Turkish coup was “not professionally done.”
“I have been involved in coups before,” he said. “They should have taken CNN Turk and closed it down the first minutes, the radio station, social media, the internet. Even if they didn’t arrest [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, they should have taken care of all of that right at the beginning.”
Baer also revealed that he had discussed the possibility of a coup with Turkish military officers in the past few months.
“I’ve been speculating with Turkish officers a couple months ago about a coup and they said, ‘Absolutely not,’” he said. “And clearly they’re not involved, so there’s limited support for this.”
Baer went on to acknowledge that the prospects of the coup’s success were bleak, but he argued that it could still prevail.
“If the Turkish army, these elements, want to go to war with the people, it would mean civil war,” Baer concluded. “And right now, it doesn’t look like it, but you know tomorrow is another day. And certainly people in the Turkish military aren’t certain ― or the government.”
James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA who has advocated for the hanging of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, offered his analysis of the Turkish coup on CNN earlier in the evening, arguing that it was a tactical failure.
“With coups, as with military operations, the plans never survive the first part of the operation,” Woolsey said. “You have to be flexible enough to change your tactics as you’re going through. And it doesn’t sound like these coup plotters had that kind of flexibility.”
The thing about these coups ― and we are certainly not encouraging it; we are discouraging it ― but history shows that if you are going to execute these coups, you have to really mean it. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark
Woolsey, who said he spent six months in Turkey last year, went on to imply that the coup need not change the U.S.’ close relationship with the country.
“I think there’s one thing ― this is not a happy situation and things may turn very sour ― but there is one positive aspect at least, that I’d be willing to share,” he said. “Turkey is a prosperous and progressive place with its workforce.”
“We need [Turkey] and we need to work with it and we need to have it work with us,” he concluded.
Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a former leader of NATO’s presence in Europe, appeared on CNN in the same segment as Woolsey. (Turkey is a member of NATO.)
While Clark shared the criticism of the coup’s tactics, he was more careful to clarify that he was not supportive of military insurrections.
“The thing about these coups ― and we are certainly not encouraging it; we are discouraging it ― but history shows that if you are going to execute these coups, you have to really mean it,” Clark said.
Fighting between pro-coup army officers and the civilians and security forces supportive of the government has resulted in the deaths of at least 265 people, according to The New York Times.
By Saturday morning, the coup appeared to be in its last throes. Coup soldiers occupying major bridges in Istanbul surrendered to forces loyal to Erdogan, while the government detained thousands of troops implicated in the attempted takeover.
Erdogan returned triumphantly to Istanbul, the country’s largest city, on Saturday and his resumption of complete control of the country appears imminent.
The commentary of the former CIA officials about the Turkish coup is particularly notable because of the CIA’s long history of facilitating coups in foreign countries with an eye toward advancing U.S. geopolitical or financial interests. This was especially true during the Cold War, when the U.S. toppled numerous foreign governments around the world that it perceived to be too sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
The CIA is believed to have been at least passively complicit in a number of Turkish military coups since 1960. The U.S. military and intelligence agencies worked closely with Turkey’s national security establishment, sometimes called the “deep state” due to its hidden influence over Turkish politics, as part of the United States’ Cold War-era alliance with the country.
The U.S. has historically also been a partner in the Turkish military operations against Kurdish separatists in the southeastern part of the country ― operations that have routinely drawn criticism from human rights groups. For example, the U.S. helped Turkey find and capture Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
Notwithstanding some of the ambivalent-sounding commentary of former CIA officers, the Obama administration has been unequivocal in its support of the democratically elected Turkish government.
“The President and Secretary [of State] agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed,” the White House said in a statement late on Friday.