Center for Turkish Progress

Obama-aligned think tank's ties to Turkey under scrutiny

President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan / AP
May 22, 2013

Days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan landed in Washington, D.C., for a series of high profile meetings, an influential liberal think tank with ties to the White House released a report that highlighted its cozy relationship with wealthy foreign benefactors from Turkey.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) issued a report, "Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey," on May 14 that critics say downplays the Turkish government’s increasingly authoritarian crackdown on press freedoms.

CAP did not disclose in the report that it receives money from a Turkish business group named TUSKON. The organization has donated at least $25,000 to CAP in order to gain entrance into its exclusive Business Alliance, according to the Nation.

The report was funded in part by the Turkish branch of billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. However, CAP’s ties to TUSKON went unmentioned.

TUSKON has close ties to the Erdogan government and, with CAP, jointly hosts an annual "fact finding" trip to Turkey.

Attendees on the junket are given access to senior Turkish government officials. CAP and TUSKON have also jointly held several luncheons at which U.S. commerce secretaries have spoken.

Experts on Turkey argue that CAP has not been transparent about its financial relationship with TUSKON and that the money could be influencing the think tank’s academic work.

One insider speculated that CAP intentionally took a soft approach in order to preserve its close relationship with TUSKON and other groups connected to the Turkish government.

"I can certainly understand the inability of CAP to put out a fair report" on freedom of the press said one D.C. foreign policy insider with intimate knowledge of the Turkish government. "They’re very much interested in access" to Erdogan’s camp.

"The softness of this report is therefore no surprise," added the source. "It does raise a lot of questions about whether they can even write a fair report" on such issues.

The report attempts to justify and explain Erdogan’s crackdown on the press as a "necessary, if sometimes unpleasant, correction" that will bring about increased democratic reform.

Turkey currently imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world. Leading journalist advocacy groups such as the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) have repeatedly cited Erdogan’s government as "world’s worst jailer."

Of the 232 journalists imprisoned worldwide at the end of 2012, 49 were in Turkey. China and Iran are the next most egregious offenders, according to CPJ.

Erdogan was not asked by reporters to explain his pursuit of the press during a joint press conference May 16 with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Former Middle East Pentagon advisor Michael Rubin said CAP "gives Erdogan too much benefit of the doubt."

"What CAP doesn't address is that Erdogan stacked the bodies which police such things," said Rubin, who claims that an Erdogan confidant served him with a lawsuit last month after he lampooned the Turkish government.

"Erdogan goes above and beyond in his response [to press criticism]—personally suing even political cartoonists who lampoon him and his government," Rubin said.

However, the CAP report blames anti-government ethnic groups such as the Kurds for spurring unrest and provoking government suppression.

"So far, the government’s behavior has tended toward greater repression. But a disclaimer is necessary before delving into the details of the imprisonment of journalists and media ownership, as well as direct and indirect censorship in Turkey," CAP states in its report, which was authored by senior fellow Michael Werz.

Werz has gone on CAP’s annual TUSKON-sponsored trips. During one such trip in 2010, CAP chairman John Podesta praised Werz’s pro-Turkey work during a speech before TUSKON officials.

Werz did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon request for comment.

Werz accused free press advocates of overreaching in his report and said they were undermining "the wider political effort to ensure reform."

"Turkey today is more democratic than in the past, if perhaps less socially liberal," the report says.

"The blame [for the crackdown] must not be placed solely on the government," CAP’s report concludes.

CAP also obscured the nature of the Armenian genocide, in which Turkey systematically slaughtered more than 1 million Armenians.

The Turkish government has never acknowledged the mass killings as genocide. The report only refers to the genocide as simply, "the death of more than 1 million Armenians during and after the First World War."

CAP did not respond to multiple Free Beacon requests for comment on the report and its ties to TUSKON. This included requests for its TUSKON-backed trip itineraries, as well as for information about potential funding that may have been provided by TUSKON.

CAP’s most recent trip with TUSKON was held in February, according to the Nation.

"The CAP delegation met with U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and senior Turkish government officials," wrote reporter Ken Silverstein.

"A former CAP staffer told me that TUSKON had ‘amazing access’ and ‘could call anyone in the government and get us a meeting or interview,’ Silverstein wrote. "As a result of the Turkish group’s support, CAP was ‘totally in the tank for them.’"

TUSKON is also a known affiliate of the Gulen movement, whose charismatic spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, has come under fire for spreading his Islamist theology across the globe.

A wealthy businessman and spiritual guru to millions, Gulen is viewed as a cult-like personality among critics who have accused him of building a global Islamic empire.

TUSKON is believed to operate as the Gulen movement’s small business arm, lobbying government officials and forming business relationships with Western organizations such as CAP.

"Tuskon is happy to make use of the network of the Turkish religious leader, Fethullah Gulen, who has had huge success in setting up Turkish private schools across the world, and not only in Muslim countries," according to Le Monde Diplomatique (LMD), a French magazine.

"There is a clear synergy between the entrepreneurial Gulen movement and Tuskon," LMD reported.

CAP’s Turkey report also drew fire from the political left.

"What's with CAP report on press freedom in Turkey?" tweeted Turkey expert Aliza Marcus, a former spokeswoman for the liberal fringe group J Street. "Or was goal actually to whitewash press abuses and Kurds issue?"

"This CAP report on press freedom in Turkey spends more time apologizing for Erdogan than lamenting jailed journos," Marcus later tweeted.

"CAP report is absolute disgrace," she added.