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When Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan visited Washington earlier this month, reportedly to brief Congress on the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he came with another agenda:  pressing the Trump administration to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish national whom Turkey accuses of masterminding an attempted coup in July 2016. 

Today, Istanbul got Washington’s answer. The Justice Department indicted two associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, for allegedly seeking to influence American public opinion about Gulen without disclosing the hand of the Turkish government.  (Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, denies involvement in the abortive coup.)

One of the men, Bijan Kian, served on Trump’s transition team. According  Daily Beast contributor Ken Klippenstein, Kian connected Flynn with an Israeli private intelligence firm that pitched Trump’s advisers on social media strategy and the idea of destabilizing Iran with private contractors.

The indictments are an embarrassment to Trump. Instead of pursuing Gulen, as Flynn advocated (and Trump reportedly requested), the U.S. government is pursuing the opposite course: prosecuting Trump supporters and Gulen’s foes in the United States.  

The indictments also highlighted how U.S.-Turkish relations are run by spies, not diplomats. When Trump wanted to hear Istanbul’s account of Khashoggi’s murder, he sent CIA director Gina Haspel. When Turkish president Recep Erdogan wanted U.S. senators to hear Turkey’s view of the case–and of Gulen–he sent Fidan.

‘ Very Unusual’

On December 6, Fidan, chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Office (MIT), visited Capitol Hill.  Unnamed sources told Reuters, Fidan  briefed members and staff of the NATO Observer Group, a handful of senators who advocate for the U.S.-Europe security alliance of which Turkey is a member.

[More on Turkey’s National Intelligence Office]

Amid the drama of CIA director Haspel’s closed-door testimony about the Khashoggi affair, Fidan’s meeting got relatively little attention. NBC News confirmed that Fidan met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers but that was about it. 

Hakan Fidan
Hakan Fidan, Turkish spy chief (Credit: Facebook)

One former senior CIA official told me that a meeting between senators and a foreign intelligence chief was “very unusual” and said he could not think of another time when such a meeting had  happened. 

The meeting was unusual for other reasons. Fidan is a confidante of Erdogan and a chief enforcer for his authoritarian regime. When it comes to imprisoning journalists, Turkey leads the world.  

Fidan also has reputation for sympathizing with America’s adversaries in the region. Steve Cook, a Turkey expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted:

A former Turkish intelligence officer told me much the same thing: that Fidan collaborated with jihadist and Iranian forces in Syria.

The Turkish government was apparently expecting Trump’s help. The president met with Erdogan for 50 minutes at the G20 summit in Argentina on December 1. Yesterday Turkey’s foreign minister said that Trump told Erdogan that the Justice Department was  “working on” the extradition of Gulen.

In fact, the Justice Department is working on the extradition of those who sought to extradite Gulen. At a time when the president is scorning Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt,” the charges demonstrate the Justice Department is willing and able to defy Trump.