October 11, 2017
Ambassador Bass: I’m very pleased to see all of you here this morning, and I’m pleased to have an opportunity to see members of the Diplomatic Correspondents Association for one last time before I complete my assignment as the U.S. Ambassador in Turkey. And with a lot of regret and sadness I leave this great country.
It’s been a remarkable three years. It’s been a very challenging period in our relationship at different times, including right now, but through all of that there have also been moments when Holly Hanim and I have really gotten an opportunity to experience everything that this country has to offer, including the enormous generosity of spirit and hospitality of so many Turks across this country, and to have a lot of very thoughtful conversations with people on a wide range of topics. And I leave with great affection for the people of this country and great respect for their resilience and determination to prevail through difficult periods, including the one we’re in right now.
We, I think, decided to try to schedule this last week, if I remember correctly, and that’s again, as I said, because I wanted to have an opportunity to talk to all of you one last time and to acknowledge the important contributions that many of you make to helping the people of this country understand the wider world in which we all live and share, and to try to understand some of the depth and complexity of some of the challenges we share, both in the three regions that Turkey is part of, and in some of the other areas where Turkey and the United States often work together, and always try to talk to each other, and learn from each other.
You’ve heard me say any number of times that I believe Turkey and the United States are always stronger when we work together and when we find a way to approach a problem together. We always get better results if we can do that. It doesn’t mean we always succeed in doing that, but we always try to do that and that’s a big piece of the approach and the philosophy of the U.S. government in our relationship.
Obviously there are also times when our two governments don’t see an issue eye to eye with respect to specific aspects of our bilateral relationship, and we’re currently experiencing one of those this week as a result of actions the Turkish government took against some of our local staff, Turkish citizens who work for the American embassy and consulates, and the measures that the U.S. government felt compelled to take in response to that.
I think it’s important to reiterate: it was not a decision that we took lightly. It was a decision that we took with a great amount of sadness and a recognition that it would cause inconvenience to many Turkish citizens who have established ties to the United States, who want to be going back and forth, and similarly, as a result of the Turkish government’s decision, the same thing is happening to American citizens who have reasons to be in Turkey or want to visit Turkey. It’s not in our interest; it’s not our intention to disrupt longstanding relationships between the two wider societies. That is not the objective here by any stretch of the imagination. But there are times in relationships between governments, just as there are times in relationships between individuals, when disagreements arise because the two parties are not communicating with each other in the way that they should to understand each other’s perspectives. And I think where we find ourselves today is a reflection of that phenomenon.
Unfortunately, [maalesef], the U.S. government still has not received any official communications from the Turkish government about the reasons why our local employees have been detained or arrested, and the notion that people in our employ are facing or under suspicion of terrorism charges here. That’s a very serious allegation. It’s one we want to take seriously, and we want to better understand what the ostensible evidences that supports these allegations.
I can assure you that if the United States government thought people working for the Turkish government in the United States in their Embassy or Consulates were members of a terrorist organization, we’d certainly bring that to the attention of the Turkish government and want to work cooperatively with them to address that particular challenge they faced.
We would hope that the Turkish government would approach a similar set of circumstances the same way with respect to us. Unfortunately, so far that hasn’t happened and as a result we really have no basis to evaluate why our local staff has been detained. It appears they’ve been detained simply for performing their normal duties at the Embassy or Consulates which involved a lot of contact with Turkish government officials. And given that they seem to be detained primarily on that basis, we believe it’s important not to place our other employees at risk for legal action simply by virtue of being in contact with Turkish government officials or the wider Turkish public.
It’s our hope that we’re going to be able to resolve this matter quickly, and we’re committed to continuing a conversation that’s already underway between the two governments. Not unlike a number of other conversations between governments on challenging issues, those conversations will largely remain outside the public eye. But we’ll continue to engage the Turkish government to try to address the situation.
And before I take your questions I just want to offer a couple of reflections on the past three years since I’m in my final couple of days.
All of you focus on the immediate problem of the moment, whatever it is. That’s the news cycle and that’s what readers and viewers are interested in focusing on, what’s happening today. I think in the process of doing that sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective on where we were three years ago, what’s happened over the past three years. And it’s a natural human phenomenon, I think, that people naturally, when they look back over a period of time, they tend to remember the tragedies and the suffering that often occurs, and God knows there’s been way too much of that in this country and in the wider region in that period.
But we’ve also in that period, sometimes in the public eye, or in the news, sometimes outside of the public eye, experienced some important success and made some progress.
I think it is really important to remember that, fortunately, this country has not experienced any significant attacks by Daesh in nine and a half months. And that comes after two years in which there was a significant attack if not every month, then pretty close to that. That’s not a result, the absence of attacks is not a result of Daesh deciding it no longer wanted to try to conduct attacks in Turkey. It’s a result of Daesh no longer being able to conduct the kinds of attacks in Turkey they did in 2015 and 2016.
And all of you remember quite well the terrible tragedy two years ago that we marked yesterday with the terrible bombings at the Ankara train station.
The fact that Daesh is no longer able to conduct attacks of that magnitude successfully in Turkey is the result of a lot of close, intensive cooperation between our two governments and with other governments to address those particular challenges, and to ensure that Daesh could not conduct attacks in Turkey.
There’s been a lot of great work by Turkish security services,
Turkish law enforcement, and a lot of close cooperation with their American and other nations’ counterparts to produce that success.
That is not a small thing when you look at the violence that Daesh has perpetrated in Syria, in Iraq, in Europe, and violence it’s inspired in the United States. And for all the other challenges we are currently dealing with, I’m convinced that the people of this country, the people of Europe, people of the United States, are safer and more secure as a result of the efforts we’ve made together over these three years.
Now that doesn’t mean that Turkey is not continuing to face acute security challenges as a result of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The United States government is mindful of those challenges. We’re very sensitive to them. And we are committed, as we have been, to supporting the Turkish government’s efforts to deal with the sources of that violence and instability. And I’m confident even as I depart, that we will continue to see strong cooperation between the United States government, the United States Embassy, and Turkish counterparts to address the threats that this society poses or faces from the PKK.
And let me just be clear at the outset to maybe save you a couple of questions. The United States government does not support an independent Kurdistan. It does not support the creation of a “Kurdish Quarter.” It does not support changes to Turkey’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. And none of its current policies or actions in this region are designed to bring about any of those things. Full stop.
Obviously, we’ve got some ongoing challenges with how we deal in Syria with the aftermath of Daesh to ensure that Daesh is not succeeded by another Sunni extremist terrorist organization. And we’re committed to continuing to work closely with the Turkish government to address those.
And I would just say briefly, you know, we’ve had a lot of other significant successes over these three years. Despite the sometimes challenging economic circumstances, despite the tumult created in this society by the coup attempt last summer, we still see a lot of vitality and dynamism in the relationship between the business communities and strong interest in American companies working in Turkey and working and serving this market and other markets if the business conditions and the legal framework allows them to do so.
So I think there’s some great opportunities for additional work together if we can resolve our current friction. And I’m confident my colleagues at the embassy, led by our current Deputy Chief of Mission, Phil Kosnett, who will be acting as a Chargé d’Affaires in between my departure and the arrival of a new ambassador. I’m confident our colleagues are going to remain committed and focused on achieving good results for the American people and working to strengthen the bilateral relationship where and when we can.
So with those introductory remarks, I’m happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Mr. Ambassador, before the questions, thank you for meeting with us in this critical period. After two questions, we are going to ask our cameramen to go out. And I’m going to ask you the first question.
Yesterday President Erdogan made a statement about the crisis and he said that we are not accepting Ambassador Bass as a U.S. government envoy anymore. And also he said that if United States Embassy takes this position by, you know, Embassy not discussing with Washington, I will not let any ambassador to sit there, et cetera, et cetera. And what do you think about that two statements of the President?
Ambassador Bass: I think it’s important to correct any misperceptions that your viewers or readers may have about the decision to suspend, temporarily, visa services here. It was a decision taken by the U.S. government, and our spokesperson at the State Department spoke at length, addressed this at length yesterday, and I’d invite all of you to look to her remarks for some additional detail on our rationale and on Washington’s participation in the process.
Media: And the President’s statement about we are not accepting Ambassador Bass as an envoy in Turkey of the United States government?
Ambassador Bass: Look, every government has the sovereign right to decide how it is going to interact with representatives of the diplomatic community and representatives of specific countries, and we certainly respect the Turkish government’s right to establish the parameters for interaction, how and when they’re going to talk to foreign ambassadors. We do the same thing in Washington. And I’m sure Ambassador Kilic has had time when he wished he could see U.S. government officials more frequently than he did, but again, we all, we abide by and we respect the decisions of a sovereign government on interactions with the diplomatic community.
Media: Secondly, we would like to ask, as you know the pro-government media continue asking about the second person who now [is] waiting from the Istanbul prosecutor’s office. That person, he will be inside the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. Pro-government media claim about the U.S. government protect him from the Istanbul Prosecutor’s office. Is there any comment about this issue?
Also, another issue about the Metin Topuz, they are continue to write about Metin Topuz, part of the Fethullah Gulen organization, and he was working for not U.S. Embassy, working for Fethullah Gulen groups. What is your opinion about these two issues? Thank you.
Ambassador Bass: Thank you. So with respect to your first question, all of our local employees, Turkish citizens, are citizens of the Republic, and as such we expect them to follow Turkish law and to interact with Turkish law enforcement when they’re asked to do so, respond to summonses or those kinds of things, and we’ll continue to do that.
We are not preventing any of our local staff from appearing before law enforcement officials if they’re asked to do so.
With respect to the ostensible charges, or the actual charges and the ostensible evidence, against Mr. Topuz or other employees of the Consulate or the Embassy, it’s very difficult for me to comment on it because, again, there’s been no official communication from the Turkish government regarding these matters or the ostensible evidence.
So, in the absence of that, we are left to conclude that they are being held as a result of their work over many years on behalf of the U.S. government, which involved a lot of interaction with Turkish law enforcement officials and other officials of the Turkish government.
Mr. Topuz, as an employee of the Drug Enforcement Agency, was responsible for working very closely with Turkish law enforcement officials to help them deal with organized crime networks and drug trafficking networks in Turkey. That cooperation over a number of years yielded some important prosecutions that put Turkish drug traffickers behind bars and took a lot of illegal narcotics off the streets in Turkey. At the time, that seemed to be acknowledged by Turkish authorities as a good thing.
We’re not aware of any other contacts that Mr. Topuz may have had that exceeded the parameters of his duties, and if there’s concrete evidence to that effect we’d welcome that so we could determine whether he was engaged in things he shouldn’t have been doing, as any employer would be interested in learning that information about an employee.
Media: So with respect to her first question, N.M.C. in one of the U.S. missions right now?
Ambassador Bass: I’m sorry?
Media: Since we are not naming the second person, N.M.C., as far as I remember the capitals.
Ambassador Bass: So no one’s hiding at any of our facilities. And to the best of our knowledge there are not any outstanding requests from Turkish law enforcement officials for any of our local staff to come in and talk to them, or to appear for detention or anything of that nature.
I think we’re going to take a break here, Yusuf, just a minute.
Ambassador Bass: A mountain of microphones here.
Media: Mr. Ambassador, Sevil Erkus from Hurriyet, with regards to the visa measures taken recently. We haven’t seen such a strong measure for the case regarding the relations of two allies, which is directly hurting the citizens themselves. Do you think that it’s, I mean, it’s the worst ever crisis between two allies for the case in relations, bilateral relations?
Ambassador Bass: I’m going to leave it to other people to characterize the quality of the relationship in terms of the historic perspective. Certainly many of you have watched the relationship from this end in much greater detail over many years than I have.
I would say it’s not a normal measure, of course. It’s not something we wanted to do. It’s not something we are enjoying by any stretch. We’re, as I said, as I keep saying, you know, it greatly saddens us. But I would also note that it’s quite unusual for a government to detain and arrest employees of a diplomatic mission without any discussion about the reason for doing so.
I’m not suggesting that our Turkish employees enjoy the legal protections of accredited diplomats or consular officers under the relevant Vienna Conventions. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about host government actions against the operations of a diplomatic mission holistically, and you know, for the United States government, our local staff in many different countries provide really important contributions to the effective conduct of diplomacy. They help us to understand local cultures. They help us to understand and to work with organizational culture of a particular government. As we all know, different governments, even if they’re organized on paper in very similar fashions, they can work quite differently. And in many cases they’re an important bridge, culturally and operationally, between capital cities. And I think there’s any number of occasions that we could point to where the contributions of Turkish citizens working for the United States Embassy and consulates have kept the people of this country safer, have contributed to increasing prosperity and employment here, and have ensured an ongoing, very rich and deep set of relationships between academic institutions, between other research institutions, and between just regular people who go back and forth or who are interested in each country.
And so when a government takes concrete measures against our local staff, and when that government doesn’t provide any visibility about the reasons for doing so, and when some people in that government choose to essentially try the guilt or innocence of those people in the media and in the court of public opinion instead of in a court of law, that raises concerns for our government, and unfortunately in this case, it compelled us to take certain measures to ensure we would not be putting additional people at risk, and until we could try to understand whether the Turkish government was concerned about possible wider terrorist, quote/unquote, activity or presence in our mission.
Media: Sir, if I may. You described the actual situation between two allies as a current friction. But since I’m not a diplomat as you, and I’m not a very optimistic guy, don’t you think that this current friction like you described is not a bit like the tip of the iceberg because the two countries have in fact major differences on Syria, major differences on PKK, major differences on other issues. And if I may, if this question is settled in the forthcoming weeks and months, I hope, don’t you think that another crisis will arise between Washington and Ankara?
Ambassador Bass: Well, I certainly hope not. And as I said at the outset, we recognize our differences on some important issues, including some important issues that impact Turkey’s overall national security. That’s why we remain committed to trying to work through those differences, and to understand the Turkish perspective, and to try to find a way to address those challenges that Turkey faces together, if possible.
Media: Cansu Canbaz, from TRT. Mr. Ambassador, FETO leader Gulen in the U.S. still not extradited to Turkey. According to evidence that a civilian in the name of Kemal Batmaz stayed Gulen’s home, during his [inaudible]. So do all these evidences compute enough evidence for Gulen’s extradition or not?
Ambassador Bass: That’s a matter for the relevant U.S. court to determine when it evaluates the extradition request as part of our judicial process in response to the Turkish government’s extradition request. We’re not treating this differently than we do other extradition requests in terms of the process it has to go through under U.S. law. And I think one of the challenges in the relationship right now is that there aren’t very many people in Turkey who have a good appreciation for the differences in our legal culture and what that means in terms of how this process unfolds.
In the U.S. system, which is an adversarial system, in which the presumption of innocence is complemented by the ability of the defense counsel to introduce lots of different information as evidence of predetermined bias by the prosecution seeking to influence a judge, as a result of that, U.S. prosecutors, the U.S. government, is very careful about what it says publicly about presumed guilt of individuals it is seeking to bring legal action against. When we’re really serious about a case, we don’t talk about it publicly. We don’t share details about it publicly. That’s because we don’t want to undercut the quality of the case that can be presented in court.
And here again, I would invite all of you to remember that Fetullah Gulen remains in the United States despite the position of the U.S. administration in 2007 which did not support issuance of a Green Card that allowed him to stay within the States and enjoy most of the legal protections of a U.S. citizen. We opposed that in 2007, which by my count is six years before the Turkish government was concerned about Mr. Gulen.
So the notion that the U.S. government gets some kind of benefit from him staying in the States is completely inaccurate and a misreading of the historical record.
Again, out of respect for our judicial process and as a reflection of the seriousness with which we are taking this process, we don’t comment specifically on the particular allegations or the particular evidence that the Turkish government is providing to support its extradition requests. We don’t talk about that publicly because we don’t want to undercut the case in court.
Media: Mr. Ambassador, then why are you reacting to Topuz’s arrestment, and you want from Turkish authorities to release him?
Ambassador Bass: Well, we’re reacting because, again, there’s been no communication between the Turkish government and the United States government about the evidence that the Turkish government says it has that demonstrates illegal activity. The situation in Mr. Gulen’s case is quite different. And when I say Mr. Gulen, I am not imparting on him the honorific in Turkish, please don’t translate that in that way. It’s simply the way we tend to talk about it in English.
Media: There is a difference of opinion between Turkey and the U.S. regarding to definition of terrorism, [Inaudible] Turkish anti-terrorism laws.
Ambassador Bass: Yes, there is. And that’s, again, one of the other differences that not simply the United States but many of our other friends and allies have with the Turkish government and it’s a matter of ongoing discussion and often debate between two governments.
We feel very strongly that there are certain types of speech that should be protected even when it is objectionable, even when it makes people angry. And clearly, the Turkish government has a different viewpoint on that, and we’re not shy about expressing our concerns when we see that applied as in the case, yesterday, of the conviction of the Wall Street Journal reporter for what appears to us to be simply a reporter doing their job, presenting objective information about an important situation for readers. The Turkish government clearly feels differently, and is not shy in return about expressing its viewpoint to us.
So I expect we’re going to continue to disagree about that particular topic and we’re going to each, I’m sure be trying to persuade the other government of the validity and importance of our respective arguments.
Media: Mr. Ambassador, actually, you have said that there is no communication between two governments about the Metin Topuz case. I want to know the diplomatic traffic, communication between two foreign ministries. I think there was a talk between Tillerson and Cavusoglu. Did you inform the Turkish government about the visa decision? Why they take this position? And is there any effort to talk to Turkish government?
Ambassador Bass: As I said at the outset, the two governments are continuing to talk about the current suspension of visa services respectively. And we’re going to continue to try to address the matter in a way that enables us to lift our temporary suspension of visa services.
I can’t prefigure the outcome because it’s going to depend on those ongoing private conversations, and I’m not going to comment on the private diplomatic conversations between my minister and his counterparts.
Media: Mr. Ambassador, have you expect any high-level conversation today or happened yesterday between the ministers or —
Media: Between Trump and Erdogan —
Ambassador Bass: It’s very challenging for an ambassador in the field to prefigure what a head of state or a minister in the capital will decide to do with a day. So I don’t think it’s constructive for me to opine on whether or not a call will happen in a particular period of time.
But I would say, I would not lean too heavily on the occurrence or the absence of a call as a signal. There’s quite a bit of conversation between the two governments below the ministerial level, and I’m sure that will continue even in the absence of higher level calls.
Media: After all those conversations, what is the expectation of the U.S. government from the Turkish side? I mean which step do you expect from the Turkish government to take in order to lift the visa suspension?
Ambassador Bass: Again, that’s a matter for discussion between the two governments so we can be sure the Turkish government understands the rationale behind our decision, and we can better understand the rationale behind their decision and try to find a way back to regular visa operations.
Media: Are you awaiting the release of Metin Topuz or waiting some kind of —
Media: What kind of action you are expecting?
Ambassador Bass: As I said, that’s a matter for discussion between the two governments, and better left to those diplomatic conversations.
Media: And in the —
Media: I want to talk about the prior diplomatic conversations. They are blaming U.S. side and Turkish side. What is the evidence you have? What they answer you? What they say as an answer to you? And we know that you want to visit Minister of Justice, but he rejected. So is there any, was there any chance for the evidence, what the Turkish side says?
Ambassador Bass: So again, I’m not going to characterize the content of the conversations. I would just go back to what I said earlier which is we have yet to see from the Turkish government any evidence or any specific communication regarding the circumstances or the evidence that led to the detention of our colleague. And the ongoing inquiries into another one of our colleagues.
Media: As you said, it was quite an unusual move by the U.S. government. After this decision there was some comments in the media and also I’m sure you have seen that. The main reason behind this is not the arrest of Metin Topuz or local staff, but as you have mentioned, there are other issues which Turkey and the U.S. does not see in the same way. Like, you know, the timing of the decision was coinciding with the Idlib, the start of the Idlib operation, by Turkey, Russia and Iran. And also Turkey is in a very active diplomatic relation with Russia lately, trying to buy S-400 missiles.
Is there any other reason behind this decision that is more than just arrest of Topuz? Thank you.
Ambassador Bass: No. [Laughter].
Media: There were some arguments, even the Prime Minister mentioned yesterday, the trial of Halkbank director who was arrested in the U.S., he draw attention to. And also another issue is the trial case Zarrab case that we do expect to be completed. Do you see any relation?
And one more question, with respect to the Pastor and the words of Erdogan. How do you evaluate? I mean I remember that you have many times while meeting with us you have encouraged rule of law in Turkey, the freedom of press in Turkey, and today the relations reached a level which is so sad for both countries.
Do you see a relation in all of these?
Ambassador Bass: I can’t comment on any connections that the Turkish government might be drawing because, again, we haven’t had specific communications from them about the reasons for the detention and arrest of our local staff members.
I would say with respect to Reverend Brunson, again, we’ve seen nothing to date which suggests that any of the charges against Reverend Brunson have any merit. And he appears to be being held simply because he’s an American citizen who as a man of faith was in contact with a range of people in this country who he was trying to help, in keeping with his faith. And at a time when there were lots of interactions between many different people in society, and for some reason, some specific set of his interactions suddenly are being classified as support for terrorism, for membership in a terrorist organization. I have yet to see a consistent description of which specific terrorist organization he is supposed to be a member of. People don’t seem to have had a straight answer on that within the Turkish government.
So you know, for all those reasons, we believe he should be released. And U.S. government officials have continued to encourage the Turkish government to release him.
Media: His Excellency, please correct me if I am mistaken. I think it was in July. You have received a official [inaudible] from the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor regarding a phone call which might from the U.S. Consulate and the Embassy premises to Adil Oksuz [inaudible]. So have you replied to this [inaudible], and if you have [inaudible] why almost two months —
Ambassador Bass: I would I guess dispute your characterization of the request as a “official” request. There’s an established process that the two governments signed and abide by regarding the formal exchange of law enforcement or investigative information concerning specific criminal cases under investigation, or the subject of court action. And there’s established process for each government to request that information from the other government. And to the best of my knowledge, that process was not pursued with respect to the inquiry you’re talking about and we’ve received no official request under the normal parameters for which information of that nature is requested from the Turkish government. And as to why that would be, I’d invite you to talk to the Ministry of Justice.
Media: Could you make it clear this, you have received official letter from the Topuz prosecutor, and you just said that you still haven’t received official request? Still I am trying to understand. What kind of documents or requests do you expect?
Ambassador Bass: I’d invite you to talk to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice and ask them to explain to you the process under our bilateral agreements to which both governments are bound, that they follow when they are formally requesting information from the U.S. government. There is an established process. It doesn’t involve individual prosecutors mailing letters directly to the Embassy after they’ve already announced publicly that they’re asking for that information.
Media: Mr. Ambassador, at your video message, you mention about another issue, this is before the Metin Topuz, Hamza Ulucay, who was arrested in Adana, and who is the claim about the PKK link, PKK organization.
What happened about the Ulucay case? Did you get any official information as the U.S. embassy? And also did you get, do you still contact with the Hamza Ulucay? What happened in the Ulucay case?
Ambassador Bass: So that matter is still before Turkish courts, and because it is a case that is in court currently I don’t want to say anything that might disrupt those proceedings. But I would say I continue to strongly believe that Mr. Ulucay is facing charges simply because he works for the U.S. government and was engaged in duties on behalf of the U.S. government, which he had been engaged in for many years, which previously had not been considered to be criminal behavior.
Last question, I’m afraid, because I have to go.
Media: The first thing was, did you, these are both technical, because of that visa procedure is a new one, will military staff of U.S. effect on this, in Incirlik, affect from this visa issue. This is the first one. Because there are new military staff coming. Will they need visa?
And the second question, did U.S. government inform Turkey about the custody of Halkbank Deputy General Director Hakan Atilla, before his custody?
Ambassador Bass: So with respect to your first question, you’d have to ask the Turkish government. There are standing agreements for how respective military personnel enter and exit each country. And you know, we abide by Turkish law and our commitments in that regard.
With respect to your second question, I don’t recall. We would have to go back and check. So I can’t give you a definitive answer at the moment.
And with that, colleagues, I’m sorry. I’m already going to be late for an appointment.
Media: When are you leaving exactly?
Ambassador Bass: I’m leaving this weekend.
Media: Did you change the dates?
Ambassador Bass: No change in dates. And in fact I’ve been here a bit longer than normally would be the case, particularly for somebody who’s headed to Kabul.
Media: Maybe if our President agree with me we take a photo all together because our last meeting —
Ambassador Bass: I’m happy to do that.
# # #