Leaked emails sent to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law and former Minister Berat Albayrak reveal that Cahit Oktay, a US-based correspondent for the state-run Anadolu news agency who harassed a human rights activist over the weekend, is in fact an Erdoğan operative working to further his boss’s agenda in the United States.
Albayrak’s emails were stolen by a Turkish Marxist group called RedHack.
In an email sent by Halil Danışmaz, Oktay, whose legal name is Mücahit, is praised for being a “clever and sociable individual who is able to get into all kinds of settings by using his press credentials and gather information.”
“He is among those with the ‘best social memory’ about the Turkish-American community,” the email says. “He is one of the people who worked very hard to organize the Foley Square demonstration.”
Danışmaz was the corporate accounts manager at the Turkish Airlines New York office at the time and later founded the Washington, D.C.-based pro-Erdoğan non-profit the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO).
The demonstration Danışmaz was referring to was held in New York City on June 15, 2013 in support of Erdoğan at a time when Turkey was rocked by what is known as Gezi Park protests, which began due to government plans to build over Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces left in İstanbul, and spread across the country.
The email was also sent to Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.
In another email that reads “Urgent” in the subject line, dated June 4, 2013, Oktay discusses the details of a pro-Erdoğan ad planned for The New York Times with Danışmaz. Oktay says: “The cost of a full-page ad is $90,000 if published on the back page and $55,000 elsewhere. But if you place ads three days in a row, the price is reduced to $60,000.”
The email was sent after the news of a fundraising campaign by the Gezi protestors for a full-page ad in the Times. The ad was eventually published on June 7, 2013.
It is not known whether the ad that Oktay was working on was ever published. But according to the Habertürk daily, this was the ad that the pro-government groups were trying to publish:
Danışmaz also tried to get Oktay appointed as press counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. In a 2014 email Danışmaz shares Oktay’s resume with Albayrak and vouches for him, saying “This is an important position for our organization here [in the US].”
In another email Danışmaz this time forwards Oktay’s email nominating a candidate to the position of education counselor at the Turkish Embassy. Danışmaz says he asked Oktay to send that email and says the appointment of their candidate “would be very important in strengthening our organization.”
“There are thousands of students who are sent to the US to study with government scholarships, other scholarships and on their own. These students make up a large human resources pool for us to create a lobby in the academic world … and [for] our other initiatives,” Oktay’s email says. “For that matter, it is important for us to look after the [Turkish] students in the US and prevent other groups from leading them.”
Oktay signs the email for a group called “Herşey Türkiye için Platformu” (Everything is for Turkey Platform), which was led by Danışmaz.
Danışmaz later founded and served as president of the THO, which, according to its website, “promotes discussion and dialogue around Turkey’s role in the international community and issues of importance in the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.”
According to the leaked emails, the THO was founded as a way to “camouflage” the Turkish government’s lobbying activities in the US. The sponsors of the organization include Turkish Airlines, which is owned by Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, and Turkish construction giants Kalyon and Kolin, two of the top winners of public tenders in Turkey during Erdoğan’s term in office. In fact the firms were awarded so many contracts that they made it into the World Bank’s top 10 biggest global winners of public tenders, according to a report.
In one of the emails Danışmaz details a roadmap to “circumvent tax and other impediments in the laws” by hiring journalists who could get access to “American political and bureaucratic circles,” including members of Congress. These journalists would then be paid to write and publish articles in American newspapers and on news sites essentially advocating Erdoğan’s agenda and influencing opinion in legislative circles.