Ambassador John Bass Interview with CNN Turk’s Hande Firat

Büyükelçi John Bass CNN Türk stüdyolarında Hande Fırat ile birlikte.

July 19, 2016 | CNN Turk Studios, Ankara

CNN Turk’s Hande Firat: (as translated.) Welcome from CNN Turk studios in Ankara. We have a very important guest here with us, the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara. Why very important? Because in a way, the U.S. is one of the countries at the center of the debate around what Turkey has been going through since the night of July 15. We will discuss all of these. Welcome.

Ambassador Bass: Hoşbulduk.

Hande Firat: Let’s start right away. We will have questions to Mr. Ambassador about Fethullah Gulen’s extradition, as well as the criticism directed from Turkey towards the United States. Mr. Ambassador, Turkey is going through four very important, perhaps historical days since the night of July 15. I would first like to thank you very much for accepting our request for an interview. So, let’s get started right away. There are criticism and allegations against the U.S. from Turkey both in the press and from some circles that the U.S. had a role in the coup attempt. What do you have to say about these criticism and accusations?

Ambassador Bass: Well Hande, let me first thank you for giving me some time today. First thing I want to say is to everyone in this society, who is suffering after the terrible trauma of the weekend’s events – başınız sağolsun ve geçmiş olsun. We, as friends and allies of Turkey, have been touched deeply by this event. We feel the pain of the Turkish people. Those of us who were here, particularly those of us in Ankara – including many of us who were in the Embassy that night – know how deeply disturbing it was for all the citizens of this country. I want to say, categorically, since there seems to be some doubt about this in the Turkish media, that the United States government did not direct, support or know about the coup [attempt] before it happened or until it was underway. We have a very wise senator in the United States who once said that “people are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts” and I find it disturbing that some of the people commenting about the alleged U.S. role – they’re entitled to their opinion, but they have no facts to support that opinion.

Hande Firat: You have spoken very clearly; however, I will ask you this once again. The U.S. — for example, the [Turkish] National Intelligence Organization is said to have had intelligence at 4 P.M. that there may be or is some sort of activity within the Turkish Armed Forces. Did the U.S. have any intelligence at 4 PM, 5 PM, before the movement started, or just before it got under way, suggesting that there was an activity along these lines, that there was going to be a coup attempt? I want to ask you again very clearly.

Ambassador Bass: The first we knew about the coup [attempt], or the plans around it, frankly, was at the moment when I, and my colleagues around town, first saw the aircraft making those low-level passes over downtown, and when the helicopter gunships opened fire on the various facilities around town. We had no prior knowledge or indications that something was about to happen, and we certainly didn’t – for a period of time we didn’t know what was happening. And one of the reasons we immediately went to the Embassy was so we would be in a position to talk to Washington and try to give them as accurate a picture as we could. And indeed, somewhere around 11:30, or quarter to twelve, that night I was on a video conference with the White House, listening to tanks rolling by the Embassy and firing in the immediate vicinity. So we were able, I think quite quickly, to let Washington know that there was significant military action underway and – once we were able to reach people in the Turkish government – to understand that it was an illegal attempt to overthrow a democratically-elected government, which we quickly rejected and continue to condemn.

Hande Firat: Well, despite all this— you are iterating these words, you even put out a written statement yesterday, and that statement was actually very clear; but you are making even more remarkable statements right now. Despite all this, I will ask you this [question], because it is a very serious allegation. For instance, a columnist today used the words, “America tried to kill Erdogan”. As Turkey, we know that two helicopters took off en route to Marmaris and their target was the President; however, “America tried to kill Erdogan” is another accusation. Will you answer this question specifically?

Ambassador Bass: Well, I find the allegation outrageous and, again, completely unsupported by any facts. And, you know, let me say it again – the United States had no prior knowledge, did not direct, did not support [this attempted coup]. And, frankly, had we had prior knowledge, we would neither have supported it, or done anything other than to bring that information to the awareness of the democratically-elected, legitimate government of Turkey. So, these allegations that, somehow, it would be in the interest of the United States to unseat the elected leader of a NATO ally – I find just beyond the pale.

Hande Firat: You have expressed your stance very clearly just moments ago, on the issue of democracy; however, there were some views, analyses along the lines of “it is down to the last straw [to break the camel’s back], Erdogan is responsible”; some, I think it was Michael Rubin, if I am not mistaken, saying things like “Is a coup coming?”. Therefore, for example, if I am not mistaken, Robert Fisk already has a piece saying “the danger is not averted, it can happen again”. It may be that the U.S. is being discussed in Turkey because of all of these [pieces]. What do you have to say about that? Are these views or analyses [being done] with the knowledge of the U.S. government? Or, do they have nothing to do with the U.S. government? People want to know this as well.

Ambassador Bass: These absolutely fall in the category of opinion, frankly, and I’d put them back in the same category as the opinion I was talking about here in Turkey. People are entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And it’s certainly true there were commentators in the U.S. who were speculating about things, without a body of evidence or any facts to support their speculation. That happens in societies with free media, as you know – people are free to say things they believe, or they speculate, and everybody else is free to criticize them and to point out when they vary with the facts. So in this case, as we often do in Washington, we had some people out very quickly offering their opinions. But those opinions were not supported by the facts, and certainly did not reflect the views of the U.S. government.

Hande Firat: Another dimension of the issue is Fethullah Gulen. Fethullah Gulen is in the U.S.. Turkey has requested him to be extradited. Today, another file, I mean a new extradition process comprised of four files, has been initiated. I will ask something beyond the legal and bilateral treaties. Does the U.S. protect or patronize Fethullah Gulen? Why? Is it that difficult to extradite Fethullah Gulen?

Ambassador Bass: So let me state explicitly – the United States has – the United States government has no direct involvement with, direction, consultation – we don’t work with Fethullah Gulen or his organization. With respect to the extradition proceedings, I’ve seen the reports that the Turkish government is presenting, to the U.S. government today, a request for extradition. Haven’t seen that myself – I assume it will be presented in Washington, and I’m confident that, once it is received, it will be evaluated by our legal professionals in our Justice Department to look at the body of evidence that is presented and evaluate that from the perspective of violations of law. And, if there’s a strong case there, I’m sure we will act appropriately and accordingly. As to your point about why this has taken so long – from our perspective, we’ve been waiting to receive a legal set of documents from the Turkish government outlining their case against Mr. Gulen and their evidence for his violations of law. Now, clearly as a resident here in Turkey, Friday night’s actions, and the apparent involvement of a large number of his supporters, is a compelling and grave threat to the security of this country, [one] that bears the full seriousness of the law being applied to investigate it, and bring those responsible to justice. But we believe that it’s also important that that occur, whether it’s here in Turkey or the United States, through due process under the rule of law, and in full respect of democratic institutions, including the judiciary.

Hande Firat: Mr. Ambassador, we have heard probably the most explicit statement during this period from you. Because, with regard to evidence, I was actually going to ask you this: What more evidence does the U.S. want? Especially after what happened on Friday night, many people are asking this question, “What evidence does the U.S. want?” You have said that the trial files are being waited upon. I think, the information we have also suggesting this — we have some information that an umbrella indictment against the Fethullah Gulen terrorist organization is being sent to the U.S. That’s one, I think you mean this. Secondly, there is also — you may want to answer this first because I will have one more question related to this. I believe there is a comprehensive file making its way to you as evidence. I am not mistaken, aren’t I?

Ambassador Bass: Well, I haven’t seen the specifics, so I can’t comment on what they may contain. I would just note that we will be, again, looking for clear evidence of involvement in illegal activity that merits prosecution. And, if there’s compelling evidence in facts included in the submissions, I’m sure we will act accordingly.

Hande Firat: Of course, with that, I will ask you this too. The Prime Minister made a statement today, and in fact, many people are bringing up similar topics and asking this question to you, the Americans: “When the towers were brought down on September 11, did you seek and ask for evidence against terrorists?” He used the words, “You are asking for evidence now, but did you ask us about evidence on September 11?” What would you like to say about these words by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim?

Ambassador Bass: Well, I haven’t seen the Prime Minister’s comments specifically, so I’m not going to address them – but I would say to those who say, you know, “Did we look for evidence, did we ask for evidence after the terrible tragedy in New York on September 11?” – and the answer is yes. And we pursued criminal prosecutions against the people we were able to identify who were part of that plot, but did not participate on that particular day, and a number of them are serving long prison sentences in the United States as a result of that intensive investigation and subsequent prosecution. So, I don’t think we have a double standard here. I think we’re just trying to be consistent in our application of the law, because we believe it’s so important that everyone have confidence in the democratic process that produces justice.

Hande Firat: All right, on to the last two questions. I want to ask quickly and clearly. So, with regard to the issue of Fethullah Gulen, he also has a residence permit. Is something like the cancellation of his residence permit in advance a topic of discussion? Because, this is also something that is being debated.

Ambassador Bass: I’m not an expert in citizenship law, and I think you’d be in a better position to get a U.S. expert in our immigration and citizenship law to speak to that. I would just note, as a lawful permanent residence of the United States, Mr. Gulen enjoys some legal protections and an opportunity to due process. But, beyond that, I can’t really speak to the details, and again would invite you to talk to an appropriate legal expert in the U.S.

Hande Firat: Now, because of the time [constraint], I am asking you the last question. We discussed all of these issues and you have made some important statements; however, you are also someone who has many friends and has been living in Ankara for some time. Were you frightened? Were you worried? What were your feelings that night about children, the future, and democracy? And of course, I would like to ask you [to convey] your messages about democracy as well.

Ambassador Bass: Well, that’s not the first coup I’ve been through, or attempted coup, and I lived in Baghdad for a year and went through some pretty violent incidents while I was there in 2008 and 2009. And I was quite frightened, as were all of my colleagues at the Embassy, [and] as were all of the people we were talking to around the city as we tried to get information. And I would say it was a combination of fear for our own safety, but, I think, also fear of the unknown, and the uncertainty of what was happening to the fabric of democracy in this country. And, you know – again, I would just say, in case anybody still has any doubt about it, how deeply offended we were that people, who had sworn to uphold and defend the security of this country under a democratically-elected government, would choose instead to violate lawful orders, and violate the chain of command within the military, and attempt to unseat a democratically-elected government. That’s contrary to our beliefs as Americans. It’s contrary to what we expect to see in governments across the NATO alliance – which is, in addition to being a security partnership, an alliance of shared values.

Hande Firat: Thank you very much. The U.S. Ambassador to Ankara answered CNN Turk’s questions on some very important topics, the recent coup attempt in Turkey and Fethullah Gulen’s extradition. See you next time.