Benjamin Baird/Washington, D.C.
For more than a decade, a series of Turkish-American Political Action Committees (PACs) have served as a clearinghouse for political donations originating from known and suspected Turkish foreign agents. Their donations appear to represent a foreign Islamist regime’s sophisticated attempt to manipulate U.S. elections and purchase support for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The “Ten Thousand Turks” (10K Turks) campaign is a coalition of PACs established, as it claims, to improve US-Turkey relations. However, many of the coalition’s most frequent donors hold leadership positions at Turkish American organizations founded to support AKP interests, and other contributors have been identified in leaked emails as part of a secret lobby acting on behalf of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Still others were forced to register as foreign agents for accepting millions of dollars in lobbying expenses from the Turkish Embassy.
10K Turks donors have aroused suspicion from the FBI and presidential campaign advisors. They work for AKP-owned corporations and business associations and maintain close ties to the Erdoğan family. Despite overwhelming evidence implicating these individuals as Turkish government loyalists, they continue to operate with a free hand inside the Beltway.
The target of this apparent political influence scheme includes Turkey’s closest allies in Congress as well as its fiercest critics. Turkish funding has polluted both of America’s major political parties and extends from the halls of Congress to the smallest city governments.
Members of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations such as Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Steve Chabot (R-OH) have staked their election bids in no small part on Turkish PAC funding. Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) benefited from 10K Turks money despite sponsoring legislation to sanction Turkey.
The Middle East Forum (MEF), a think tank established to preserve American interests against Middle Eastern and Islamist threats, has contacted members of Congress to warn them about the PACs, informing campaign committees that they may have been targeted by a subversive political influence operation. The communities most affected by Turkish meddling — Armenian, Kurdish and Greek American — have joined MEF in asking campaign committees to return 10K Turks donations.
“Erdoğan is clearly doubling down on his American influence operations,” Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told Armenian Weekly. “Even as he openly undermines US interests and our true allies in the region, he and his associates are pumping cash into Washington, DC to muffle the growing chorus criticizing Ankara’s actions.”
The preeminent PAC within the 10K Turks campaign is the Turkish Coalition of America PAC (TC-USA), which includes subsidiaries in the Midwest, the Northeast, and California. Lydia Borland, who lives comfortably earning $180,000 a year as a registered foreign agent of Turkey, played an instrumental role in founding TC-USA and is a regular donor.
Also a part of the 10K Turks campaign, the Houston-based Turkish American PAC was established with the adversarial mission statement of countering “slanderous campaigns carried out by several ethnic groups in the USA … ” It is no coincidence that multiple 10K Turks donors have been exposed as part of clandestine AKP operations to spy on and intimidate Kurdish, Armenian and Turkish dissidents living in the U.S.
Despite this, TC-USA treasurer Lincoln McCurdy insisted in an email to MEF that “the PACs encourage their donors to always put America first and discourages [sic] the importation of Turkish domestic politics into the American sphere.”
A crash course on Turkish espionage efforts in the U.S. was involuntarily supplied in 2016 by a series of hacked emails between Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and his Turkish American proxies. These correspondences implicated several 10K Turks donors in a covert lobbying campaign.
According to Albayrak’s emails, Turkish American businessman Halil İbrahim Danışmaz first approached the Erdoğan family in 2012 with plans “to infiltrate Capitol Hill and the U.S. security establishment through front organizations and lobbyists under the guise of journalism.” Two years later, the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO) was formed, and it has since served as an unofficial lobby of the Erdoğan government, hosting pro-AKP panels and sending members to testify at congressional hearings.
THO and other Turkish American proxy groups eventually captured the attention of the FBI, which interviewed Danışmaz and others for “attempting to infiltrate into the circles of American politicians on behalf of President Erdoğan and spying (or working as a secret agent) on behalf of the Turkish government in the U.S.” In addition to Danışmaz, FBI officials interrogated at least three other Turkish Americans who were the leaders of suspected front organizations and, crucially, were regular contributors to the 10K Turks campaign.
Two additional Turkish PAC donors aroused suspicion during the 2016 presidential race when a leaked email to Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta warned that Erdoğan was looking to buy congressional support through political donations. “Am told that the Erdogan crew also tries to make inroads via donations to Democratic candidates, including yours,” wrote Michael Werz, an expert on Turkey with the Center for American Progress. “Two names that you should be aware of are Mehmet Celebi and Ali Cinar.”
As it happens, Çinar was previously the treasurer at TC-USA’s New Jersey branch, the senior-most position at a subsidiary of the 10K Turks campaign. He subsequently replaced Danışmaz as head of THO when the businessman left the U.S. in the aftermath of the FBI probe.
Albayrak’s leaked emails also revealed instructions, direct from the Erdoğan family, to use political donations as leverage against the government’s enemies.
“In close races make contributions to opponents if [candidates] sign a letter denouncing Gulen and asking the state department for his extradition. If they don’t [sign the letter], go to the incumbent Congressmen,” wrote Bilal Erdoğan, the Turkish president’s son, authorizing a budget of $30,000 per candidate.
He was referring to Fethullah Gülen, an influential Turkish cleric living in exile in the U.S. whom Erdoğan blames for a failed 2016 coup. Although Western intelligence agencies are dubious of this claim, Gülen’s extradition has been at the top of Erdoğan’s foreign policy objectives.
Besides the numerous suspected proxies who have contributed so generously to the Turkish PACs, the campaign has accepted money from registered foreign agents of Turkey. David Saltzman and Günay Evinch, partners of the Washington, D.C., law firm Saltzman & Evinch, have accepted more than $15 million from the Turkish Embassy over two decades.
Yet, the pair and a third partner were only forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the summer of 2020, despite a 2019 Wall Street Journal report identifying the law firm in a plot to collect information on Turkish dissidents in the U.S. Saltzman and Evinch are among the 10K Turks’ most generous patrons, and the firm has provided legal services for the PACs, as well.
In email correspondence with the Middle East Forum, McCurdy defended TC-USA’s record, arguing that “the majority of PAC donors are secular-minded Turkish Americans, who are law-abiding and tax-paying citizens” that “oppose Islamic extremism.”
Yet, this isn’t always the case. In another leaked email 10K Turks donor Murat Güzel wrote: “To stand by Erdogan and do whatever we can against evil powers is not just an act of kindness but rather an ‘Islamic obligation’ upon all of us.” Other donors have employed similar pan-Islamic language, participating in rallies that promoted Erdoğan as the “true leader” of a worldwide Ummah, or Muslim community.
Furthermore, 10K Turks has also accepted donations from MÜSIAD-USA leaders, an Islamist business association with close ties to the AKP. Notably, MÜSIAD has provided financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement that seeks to establish a global Islamic caliphate — a goal echoed by Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman pursuits.
One month after MEF revealed its investigative findings to McCurdy, TC-USA renamed and reorganized its Northeast PAC, calling it the National Coalition of Turkish American Women’s PAC, while changing its Midwest branch in January to the National Coalition of Turkish American Lawyers PAC.
The timing of the Northeast PACs rebranding, less than a week before the 2020 election, may have been an effort to distance itself from its problematic donor base. However, Derya Taskin of New Jersey, an executive committee member of the newly formed Turkish women’s PAC, is an AKP surrogate.
Before joining the PAC, Taskin was a candidate for a senior position in the AKP’s North American wing. At a 2017 Women’s Day celebration in Paterson, New Jersey, she was accused of using her political influence to persuade law enforcement to look the other way when AKP supporters assaulted a pair of female protestors.
If 10K Turks PACs are uninterested in purging their donor lists and committees of Turkish proxies, congressional lawmakers and their campaign committees are obligated to resist these foreign influences on their own. If members of Congress are not up to the task, additional oversight is not only warranted but imperative to U.S. national security interests. Otherwise, Turkish internal politics will play a hand in the 2021 elections and beyond.
Benjamin Baird is director of the Islamism in Politics project at the Middle East Forum.