In the following exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Christopher Deliso speaks with Philip Giraldi, a former CIA deputy chief of base in Turkey. Through the interview, readers get a first-hand introduction to the cloak-and-dagger reality of undercover work in one of the world’s most important strategic areas. Iranian assassinations, Turkish eavesdropping and other eye-opening stories allow the reader an intimate inside look into the shadowy, high-stakes game of international espionage.
Mr. Giraldi’s biography and career information are provided after the interview.
Christopher Deliso: First of all, please share some background information about your mission. What exactly was your position in Turkey? For how long were you stationed there?
Philip Giraldi: I served as deputy chief of base of Istanbul from 1986 to 1989. In the CIA, a station is in the capital city, Ankara, in this case, and is subordinate to the Embassy. All other field elements in any given country are called bases.
CD: Right. But I would imagine that as “bases’ go, Istanbul was a fairly important one, no? What were you tasked with doing, primarily?
PG: Istanbul was the largest CIA base in Europe when I was there. Since the Cold War was still going on, most officers were involved in monitoring the Soviet Navy, which had to pass through the Bosporus to get into the Mediterranean.
Intelligence Gathering in Turkey: a “Highly Sensitive’ Operation
PG: We thus paid a lot of attention to the other intelligence agencies operating in Istanbul, most notably the Russians and the Egyptians, both of whom had managed to penetrate the Turkish intelligence services, something that we had been unable to do.
CD:: Really! A Muslim state like Egypt is understandable, but how did the Soviets manage to get inside? And on that note, were there any dramatic Cold War showdowns that you saw?
PG: Re. the Russians in Turkey, there were no dramatic incidents because the Turks were all over their diplomats through surveillance and monitoring. How they managed to penetrate Turkish intelligence I never quite understood, though I assume it was an ideological “fellow traveler” who had volunteered his services. It is my understanding that the Turks never discovered who the miscreant was.
As for the CIA, we did not do much on Turkish internal affairs, leaving that to the US Embassy’s political officers.
CD: Why? Was spying on the Turks out of the question, or too difficult or what?
PG: The CIA did not make much of an effort to develop good sources among Turks because it was extremely perilous to do so, both in terms of US broader equities and because the Turks were very aggressive in a counter-intelligence sense.
CD: That’s interesting- and a little surprising, since Turkey is a very important country for the US. By “broader US equities,’ do you mean diplomatic relations?
PG: Turkey was a key player in NATO and it was therefore considered to be highly sensitive from an intelligence viewpoint. To run an operation to recruit a Turkish official would require coordination at the highest level, because of the potential for serious blowback were it to be discovered.
CD: So are you saying that the CIA did not even try to recruit any Turkish officials?
PG: I knew of only one senior Turkish official who was on the payroll and he was not actually recruited — he volunteered in exchange for lots of money. He was met carefully outside of Turkey by an officer whose identity was not known to the Turks.
CD: I don’t suppose you are at liberty to identify that official?
PG: Honestly, I never knew his name or his job. It was very strictly “need to know’ information, solely for higher-ups.
CD: So there was no formal or tacit agreement between the two governments to not spy on one another, being NATO allies and so on?
PG: There was no agreement between the US and Turkey that we would not spy on each other- I believe that only Britain enjoys that status. Indeed, the Turks did spy very actively on our diplomatic missions, mostly through co-opting the local employees who worked there.
Life under Surveillance
CD: So combining this with your statement that “the Turks were very aggressive in a counter-intelligence sense”- how did this affect you and your colleagues?
PG: Embassy officers who were known or suspected to be CIA were surveilled whenever they went out, had their phones tapped, and their apartments were bugged.
My apartment had microphones in the table lamps, for example, and everything I said on the phone was taped and analyzed. I was routinely surveilled when I went out to lunch, sometimes by teams of as many as one dozen survellants using cars and radios.
CD: That sounds stressful. How did you handle yourself, under the circumstances?
PG: When your apartment is bugged as mine was, you just talk normally and never ever talk about work.
CD: Would it have been foolhardy to remove those devices?
PG: If you remove the microphones, they would just put more in- in the end, it’s better to know where they are than to have to guess.
CD: Did you ever try to deceive them by speaking nonsense, or code, or things that would send them on a wild goose chase?
PG: No- you don’t play games with them, because then they really get mad and come after you with everything. And you don’t want that.
Persian Assassins and a Foiled Plot
CD: So if you did not work on recruiting Turkish officials, what were some of your other focuses?
PG: Well, what we did do was a great deal of work on international terrorism, often working closely with the Turks. In fact, I worked almost exclusively against terrorism-mostly Iranian.
The Iranians and Libyans were the big terrorism players in those days. The attacks were all state-sponsored. For example, the Iranian regime would send hit teams of Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) to Turkey and Western Europe when they wanted to kill critics and political opponents.
CD: How did the CIA do against this threat? Were you able to stop them?
PG: We were reasonably successful, but the Iranians in particular were very good and often were able to identify and assassinate our agents.
CD: Wow! Are you saying that roving teams of Iranians were able to go around eliminating CIA officers?
PG: Not exactly- when I say “agents’ I mean in the broad sense of the definition- these were sources of information who were Iranians, not Americans.
CD: Do you have any specific names or examples?
PG: I don’t recall their names, but if you were to go back to the late 1980s and search in papers like the IHT, as well as the European press, you would find some names of Iranian dissidents who were assassinated in Turkey. These were people who were providing information to the US Embassy and CIA station in Ankara.
Later, after my time in Turkey, the Iranians also rolled up at least two large groups of CIA-recruited agents who were reporting with invisible writing from inside Iran, one in around 1991, and one about ten years later.
This was also reported in the international press. The arrested agents were tortured to death. The first group was exposed when a CIA clerk sent letters to all of the agents all at the same time, from the same mailbox, and all in the same handwriting- the Iranians picked up on it immediately and arrested the whole group or nineteen.
CD: What a disaster? Was there any agency political fallout because of this fiasco?
PG: No- nobody in CIA was punished for the egregious “error in judgment,” and the chief of the field element responsible was, in fact, promoted.
CD: If we speak about underlying causes, how do you explain the Iranian government’s ability to identify and eliminate CIA-associated Iranians?
PG: They were very successful, first of all because Turkey was the door into Europe; it was the only country bordering Iran that did not require Iranians to have visas to enter. It also harbored a very large Iranian expatriate community.
CD: Was the Turkish government unable to stop their assassins? Or were they allowing them to take out your agents for some reason?
PG: No, they weren’t “allowing’ them, but in a sense they had to tolerate them. The Turkish police and intelligence service were very active against the Iranians, but the problem was beyond their capabilities. Hit teams would cross the border, travel to Ankara or Istanbul, kill someone, and be back across the border by the next day. The Turkish government did not make waves about it, because Turkey was very dependent on Iranian oil at that time.
CD: Can you point out any specific successes on the anti-terror front during your time in Istanbul?
PG: While I was in Turkey, we did manage to thwart one terrorist operation, in which two Libyan agents were preparing to bomb a wedding at the US airbase in Ankara. We stopped the attack before it happened, fortunately.
Another successful operation that I recall, dramatic in a different way, again involved a Libyan agent. He produced the doctor who had appeared on television with Moammar Gadhafi, after President Reagan bombed Tripoli. The doctor was holding what appeared to be the body of a young girl, claimed to be Gadafi’s daughter who was reportedly killed in the attack.
According to the doctor, Gadhafi had no daughter and the whole thing was staged. It was one of those rare instances where the report had immediate impact, going to Reagan and to Margaret Thatcher directly.
CD: Were you aware of any connections between Iranian terrorist groups in the Balkans, and/or Turkish intelligence and Balkan Muslim groups, Bosniaks, Albanians, etc? For example, some reports have claimed that the nascent Kosovo Albanian militant movement was nurtured in Turkey, with the assistance of MIT in the 1980′s.
PG: We were aware that MIT was meddling in the Balkans in support of local Muslims. This was somewhat of a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. However, as far as I know, we never had any more precise details regarding the MIT activities in the Balkans.
CD: Now, with the Cold War long gone and a totally different power dynamic in effect, do you think that the CIA preoccupations of your time have now changed- and that they now do do more on Turkish internal affairs?
PG: I assume CIA is now doing more reporting on Turkey, but I don’t know that for a fact. It would be a very tough target and considered very sensitive if it were to be exposed, so I don’t think there is much likelihood that much is going on.
Thoughts on the Sibel Edmonds Case
CD: Let’s speak for a moment regarding the case of former FBI translator and whistleblowerSibel Edmonds. Your summary of the case in the American Conservative was rated the best such one so far by Sibel herself. How much of what she has disclosed can be verified independently?
PG: I have not attempted to corroborate Sibel’s story as I have no resources to do so. And it would appear that the government gag order she is under precludes the type of confirmation that would be desirable.
CD: Can you elaborate at all on the role of neocon and other actors mentioned in your article, who were allegedly involved with illegal arms sales and more, such as Doug Feith, Richard Perle, Eric Edelman, Steven Solarz and Marc Grossman?
PG: As my article stated, the preoccupation with Turkey of the key neocons named is curious indeed. It is plausibly explained by their interest in Israel and their connections to the weapons industry in the US, Turkey, and in Israel.
I can recall Solarz showing up in Turkey in 1986 after he left Congress, and the connection with Perle and Feith in particular is well documented. I don’t know if the illicit arms sales are still going on, but I would suspect they are. Weapons dealing is big business and there are many players in it.
CD: You also mention Turkey and false end user certificates in association with illegal proliferation to dangerous states. Was this something you were involved with monitoring when in the CIA? What about special teams like the Brewster Jennings outfit? Did they operate or have a predecessor working with you at the time?
PG: I have no inside information on CIA or US government monitoring of arms sales to third parties a la the work of Brewster Jennings. When I was in Turkey, I was not aware of any US government interest in such matters and there was no non-proliferation staff at headquarters.
CD: The exact period in which you were in Turkey, 1986-1989, was important for the Pakistani nuclear program. Did you have any awareness of the oft-attested Turkish-Pakistani cooperation in this regard?
PG: I don’t know anything about Turkey-Pakistan re. proliferation – I suspect the [CIA] station did not have any interest in it at that time.
The Future of US-Turkey Covert Relations
CD: Many observers, and most pointedly the neocons, have declared that there has been a breakdown in relations with Turkey since the invasion of Iraq and the Turkish refusal of a northern attack route for the US. How bad are things really?
PG: I certainly know that the relationship is regarded as cool and that the Turks are extremely mistrustful of the United States, primarily due to our failure to suppress PKK activity in northern Iraq. The neocons, of course, would like to see Turkey join in a new crusade against Syria and Iran, but that is not about to happen.
CD: So has the CIA’s intelligence-sharing cooperation with Turkey also suffered because of this chill?
Intelligence cooperation with Turkey has always been so-so. They share information only when it is completely in their interest to do so, not otherwise.
CD: So is Turkey now being categorized at the policy-making level as more of a hostile power than a friend? If so, Will the US be able to win back Turkish trust?
PG: Turks really dislike the US because of the mess in Iraq and the impending mess that our unquestioning support of Israel means for the region. And the Turkish government has reflected that antipathy. If you want to change the perception, you have to change the policy. Not likely to happen, is it?
CD: Indeed. But, speaking pragmatically, do you think the CIA has sought to reach out more to allies such as Greece, Cyprus, Georgia or Bulgaria, for example, to make up for any information deficit that may have occurred since 2003?
PG: I don’t know, but anyway it wouldn’t matter substantially. The Greek, Bulgarian, Cypriot, and Georgian intelligence services are no substitute for Turkey, which is both geographically and culturally pivotal to our ability to monitor developments in Iran and elsewhere.
CD: What can you say about how the current Israeli war in Lebanon will affect the traditional Israeli-Turkish alliance?
PG: Well, concerning the impact of [what is happening now in] Lebanon, you must be aware of the fact that the so-called “friendly” relationship between the two countries is very narrowly focused. It is largely the Turkish Army’s General Staff that keeps the relationship going, because it provides access to US military assistance and weapons that would otherwise be embargoed.
The Turkish public and the government, on the other hand, are rather ambivalent, if not hostile, to the relationship. And they are now very angry about the attacks on fellow Muslims in Lebanon.
CD: After you left the CIA base in Turkey in 1989, have you continued to keep in touch and to visit the country?
PG: Yes- since 1989, I have visited Turkey frequently and have good friends there. My most recent trip was a year ago. I follow Turkish political and security developments closely.
CD: Mr. Giraldi, thanks very much for your time and insights. Much appreciated!
PG: Thank you- my pleasure.
Philip Giraldi served as a staff officer in the Central Intelligence Agency for sixteen years, culminating in his selection as Chief of Base in Barcelona from 1989 to 1992. He was designated the Agency’s senior officer for Olympic Games support, and was named official liaison to the Spanish Security and Intelligence services. During the lead-up to the Games, he also expanded his liaison activities through contacts with the Security Services of a number of European, Asian, and Latin American countries. Working closely with the Barcelona Olympics Security Committee, Phil helped develop the overall Olympics security plan and became the principal briefing officer on security preparations for the United States Government.
Prior to Barcelona, Phil specialized in intelligence collection and counter-terrorism operations throughout the Middle East and Europe, often working in coordination with the local government security services. In Istanbul, he successfully worked against a number of Middle Eastern terrorist targets. In Hamburg, he developed information on illegal technology sales in Western Europe. InRome, he ran operations focused on economic espionage and counter-terrorism.
Since 1992, Phil has been engaged in security consulting for a number of Fortune 500 corporate clients. He is the founder and President of San Marco International, an international security consultancy, and is also a partner in Cannistraro Associates of McLean, Virginia.
Over the past four years, he has specialized in post-September 11th issues for his clients and has also done contract work for the United States government. Phil has been designated by the General Accounting Office as an expert on the impact of illegal immigration on terrorism. As a counter-terrorism expert, he has been brought in to assist the Port Authority of the City of New York in its planning, has assisted the United Nations security organization, and has helped develop a security training program for the United States Merchant Marine. He has conducted security surveys at a number of international airports and ports in Latin America and Asia.
Phil was one of the first American civilians to travel to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and he has assisted multinational corporations in the upgrade of their security at overseas sites to help them comply with the Patriot Act. Prior to September 11th, he specialized in international risk assessments and “due diligence” investigations. In many cases, his investigations have developed information that led to corporate decisions not to go ahead with planned overseas joint ventures. To meet the needs of clients, he has traveled extensively, most particularly in Latin America, south Asia, and Europe, and has built up a world-wide network of working-level contacts in the security, political, and economic sectors.
Phil is a recognized authority on international security and counterterrorism issues. He appears frequently on National Public Radio and is a Contributing Editor who writes a regular column called “Deep Background” on terrorism, intelligence, and security issues for The American Conservative magazine. He has written op-ed pieces for the Hearst Newspaper chain, has appeared on “Good Morning America,” MSNBC, and local affiliates of ABC television. Phil has been a keynote speaker at the Petroleum Industry Security Council annual meeting. He has been interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, FOX News, 60 Minutes, and Court TV. He also prepares and edits a nationally syndicated subscription service newsletter on September 11th issues for corporate clients.
Phil was awarded an MA and PhD from the University of London in European History, and also holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honors from the University of Chicago. He speaks Spanish, Italian, German, and Turkish.
July 30, 2006