The ‘Sledgehammer’ anachronisms

This post was extensively revised on 19/12/10 after fresh research

It is fascinating how sharply the foreign media have diverged in their coverage of the alleged ‘Sledgehammer’ plot. For those of you not up to speed, the trial started yesterday, and you can read what I think is the best report on it at the Wall Street JournalI have articles out for the Times and SETimes.

This trial is one of the most significant to have taken place in Turkey in the past 50 years, and at the risk of sounding redundant, how the foreign press cover it is important to how the outside world perceives Turkish affairs.

The issue that has split the coverage hinges on a series of inconsistencies and anachronisms within the documents that make up the alleged plot.

‘Operation Sledgehammer’ came to light after a suitcase of CDs, documents and audiotapes were given to the Taraf newspaper in January. One of the CDs contained a blueprint for a coup plot hatched back in 2002, including such sensational plans as the bombing of mosques to provoke an Islamic uprising that would create a pretext for a military coup d’etat.

The CD was created on 5th March 2003, according to its metadata. However it contains references to several organizations and institutions that either did not exist at the time or else had a different name when the disk was supposedly created. This can only mean that the CD was not made in 2003, but much later. Someone faked the metadata (which is very straightforward to do) to make it appear it had been made earlier.

This leads to an obvious question: Is the plot itself fake? Yet until very recently, remarkably few news organizations have even mentioned these anachronisms.

On the surface of it, there’s a good reason for this. The people who have brought these inconsistencies to light are the son-in-law and daughter of General Cetin Dogan, the chief suspect and alleged mastermind of the plot.

Dani Rodrik, a Harvard economics professor, and his wife Pinar Dogan, General Dogan’s daughter, have dedicated an entire blog to the inconsistencies. They’ve posted the indictment, along with a detailed presentation on the anachronisms.

Clearly, these are people with a vested interest in the case, can we really rely on the authenticity of documents they have produced? Perhaps this is what Associated Press (as picked up by the Guardian) had in mind in their curtain raiser, which makes no mention of the inconsistencies. This is their take on it:

Prosecutors have not made public any evidence or details of the accusations, but the Taraf newspaper has published what it calls leaked copies of documents pertaining to an alleged conspiracy dubbed ‘Sledgehammer’… Unable to independently assess the evidence, Turks remain divided on the authenticity of the plot and the threat it may have posed.

On the surface, this seems reasonable. The problem is that the indictment is widely available online from other places, including from sources strongly in favour of the trial and investigation. Once Turkish indictments are approved by a court, they routinely become publicly available.

And so Agence France Presse (as picked up by the Daily Telegraph) took a totally different tack, quoting extensively from the indictment:

Analysts have cast doubt on other evidence, especially a series of anachronistic expressions in some papers, suggesting that some documents may be an outright fabrication.

In one striking example, a colonel accused of having attended the seminar has said he was on an overseas duty at the time and that his middle name, which appears in the papers was not officially registered until 2007.

Critics point also at a list of entities the coup plotters planned to control which features associations and hospitals that either did not exist or had different names in 2003.

Many of the examples of anachronisms highlighted by Rodrik and Dogan are found not in the indictment, but addenda that are less readily available. However a significant number are verifiable without any reference to their documents at all. Some are reproduced verbatim within the indictment itself. Even more crucially, evidence for them exists in Taraf’s original reporting of the plot.

The paper published a list of NGOs from the plan that were seen as solidly pro military. This originally included the staunchly Kemalist Turkiye Genclik Birligi. When someone pointed out within a couple of days of Taraf’s original reporting of the case that this organisation did not exist in 2003 (it was founded in 2006), the journalist, Mehmet Baransu, later clarified that this must have been a typo by the military.

He explained that the coup plotters must have omitted a word, and were referring instead to Turkiye Genclik Birligi Dernegi, which did exist in 2003. I have to admit that I haven’t yet examined its website too closely, but if you have a look, I think you’ll agree that it doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to provide the student muscle to back up a Kemalist coup.

At a seminar I attended yesterday, some of this was put to Professor Emrullah Uslu of Yeditepe University, a defender of the case. His explanation was that the military must have continued updating lists of NGOs long after the entire plot had been shelved, something that he said was in line with their archiving policies. 

This doesn’t stand up (though I didn’t have a chance to ask him about it further) given that the CD’s metadata shows according to the indictment and a report by TUBITAK, that it was created in 2003, and so something was obviously faked at some point.

What can we draw from all this? Even approaching these anachronisms (and there are apparently many, many more of them) as skeptically as possible, it is difficult not to conclude that there are serious doubts over the authenticity of key data relating to the plot.

The Turkish media is so partisan that its reporting on this case isn’t of interest to me in this context, however I think it’s astoundingly irresponsible of international news organizations to ignore the issue in the way they have.

The domestic reality is that none of this may matter much. In Turkey ideological positions are so deeply and passionately held that no detail, no matter how earth-shattering, can realistically change the political discourse on such a deeply divisive issue as the Sledgehammer trial.

Kemalists will claim they knew all along that the plot was cooked up. Those who (quite rightly) believe Turkey’s military, as a political entity, must be smashed will simply dismiss these as lies and propaganda, or else claim they are mere details of limited significance within a wider context. The constituency of open minds is too small to make a difference and anyway, facts have little traction in a society in which people have an almost limitless capacity for conspiracy theorizing, and in which all sources of information are viewed with deep cynicism.

But these observations regarding Sledgehammer and the fact that they have been so totally ignored for so long should, I believe, prompt serious questions about the way in which Turkey is presented abroad. The broad narrative peddled by journalists, analysts, and academics for some years now is that the AKP, whilst no angels, are a democratizing force. Their struggle with the military may not be pretty, but hey, this is what progress looks like in Turkey.

I don’t question that since the AKP came to power Turkey has become a better country in a huge number of ways, many of which relate to the driving force of the EU accession process, and one of which is the clipping of the military’s wings. But when people use this narrative as a justification for ignoring serious problems they are failing to judge Turkey by the standards to which it publicly aspires.

Turkey may be laying old demons to rest, but if it is summoning new ones in order to do this then that should be reported.

7 thoughts on “The ‘Sledgehammer’ anachronisms

  1. ozaktasus says:

    First of all, I have nothing against the inconsistencies or anachronisms of what was prepared by the Prosecutor’s Office. I am not in a position to judge since I didn’t have a look. It could be clumsiness, ill intentions or even document fabrication. All I can say is that the lawyers of the defendant side are not impartial observers and it is very natural for them to make best use of any deficiency during the trials.

    There is however the taped evidence. All of the seminars were recorded on tapes. The conventional reel tapes—not digital recordings—which are very hard to refute. It is very easy to recognize the voice of General Doğan (and possibly the other officers). Months ago during a live program on Habertürk TV a short segment of the tape was played and General Doğan was asked: “Sir, is this your voice?” General Doğan answered: “Yes, I believe I said something like that.” That particular segment of the tape didn’t contain any significant matter. However, the entire collection of what General Doğan said in those tapes are enough to constitute a court case, even if the whole written documents are falsified.

    Those who want to ridicule the Sledgehammer Case have a basic argument: “How on earth can the 1st Army commander (stationed in Istanbul) lead a coup d’etat without the consent of the General Staff in Ankara”. I don’t think that the series of seminars were planned as a precursor of a military takeover. The generals of the 1st Army knew very well that a coup against the AKP government was not possible. I believe General Doğan organized the seminars as a sort of defiance of Chief of Staff General Özkök for not having done anything to prevent Tayyip Erdoğan coming to power. General Özkök disbanded this clique of generals some months after the seminars. General Doğan retired in August 2003.

    As for the claim, why did the generals tape the seminars which could constitute to be solid evidence against them. The answer is simple for anyone who is familiar with the role of Turkish military in politics. Noone would have foreseen 195 officers being tried with breach of law against a legitimate regime (along with the approval of General Staff). Such was unthinkable back in 2003, so it is not surprising at all that the generals of the 1st Army came up with bold presentations during the seminars.

    Hakan Ozaktas
    Dec 19, 2010

  2. About me says:

    Dear Hakan,
    I totally take your point in regard to the seminar. About the clumsiness of the prosecutors, I don't doubt that that's the case, but these anachronisms are not only contained in the indictment, but in Taraf's original reporting as well.

    Far more of them are detailed by Rodrik and Dogan's daughter, who claim they are found in coup documents given to them by Dogan's defence lawyers and which form part the addenda to the indictment.

    Even if you accept the hypothesis that everything Rodrik and Dogan are publishing has been deliberately falsified by their defence lawyers, you can still verify several of these anachronisms without any reference to anything originating from the defence team.

    The fact one of these anachronisms is contained within the actual key 'Balyoz' coup document itself- the bit with Dogan's name written under it in which they say how they'll carry out a coup, proves that the key evidence is fake, and create serious doubts about the authenticity of the whole thing.

    In regard to the audiotapes of the seminar- I agree they are irrefutably real- and maybe they do contain evidence of criminal activity. I don't know. But as far as I understand (and I'm happy to be corrected) they ostensibly contain a hypothetical discussion by Dogan et al about all the brutal stuff they'd do in the event of an Islamist uprising.

    I say ostensibly, because obviously the prosecution claims there was nothing hypothetical about the discussion- this was a situation they planned to create themselves.

  3. About me says:


    But the key point is this: without the evidence contained on the dodgy CDs, you can only allege they they were discussing nasty things they'd do in a hypothetical situation. That's a whole different ball game from alleging that someone was planning to blow up mosques and shoot down one of their own fighter jets in order to spark chaos as a pretext for a military coup d'etat (I defy anyone to write this sentence down without being stunned by how ridiculous it is).

    You cannot infer this from the audiotapes alone, and without the evidence on CDs 11 and 17, you cannot infer it at all.

    I have no interest in defending Cetin Dogan. Perhaps he is a monster. Perhaps he was planning a coup. All I'm saying is that he almost certainly wasn't planning this coup- and this is the one that 200 people are on trial for.

    Maybe some of them have blood on their hands. Maybe many of them have a lot of blood on their hands. And Perhaps by some wider sense of justice they are getting what they deserve. I'm sure many, many Turks believe this.

    But I believe this wider narrative conceals the basic significance of what we're witnessing here. Is justice being served in any legal sense? Are we observing the rule of law? Emphatically not. 200 people are most likely being framed for a plot that never existed.

    My personal theory on it is that someone got hold of the audiotapes, realised they had some possibly incriminating material regarding some detested figures of the military establishment, and decided to cook up some fake evidence to turn it into something more substantial. They may have been acting in good faith. They probably thought: 'Dogan must be planning something, let's create some fake smoke to help us find the real fire.'

    Perhaps this wouldn't matter so much if this trial wasn't perceived in the minds of many, many people as part of Turkey's democratization process.

    Turkey's government has continuously played on its people's yearning for a better, freer country, but for anyone who truly cares about the future of democracy in this coutnry, what is going in this trial should pose serious questions about how Turkey's legal system is operating today, and to what uses it may be put in the future.

    What motivates my own interest in this matter is more basic. Not only does this trial stink, it blatantly stinks. As a journalist reporting on it, I'd feel like an idiot if I didn't write about this. The fact that these anachronisms have not received more attention is stupefying given their implications.


  4. […] to have prepared these documents or attended coup-planning meetings. The documents also contain countless anachronisms, such as names of organizations and places that didn’t yet exist in 2003 or were changed after […]

  5. […] to have prepared these documents or attended coup-planning meetings. The documents also contain countless anachronisms, such as names of organizations and places that didn’t yet exist in 2003 or were changed after […]

  6. […] purged.  This theory is strengthened by the inconsistencies and anachronisms used in the trial’s evidence, but this whole story is remarkable in light of the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, […]

  7. […] to have prepared these documents or attended coup-planning meetings. The documents also contain countless anachronisms, such as names of organizations and places that didn’t yet exist in 2003 or were changed after […]

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