State Secret Law may encourage deputies to do their job on arms purchases…

When there is no parliamentary scrutiny or independent auditing mechanism, it becomes extremely hard to know if Turkey’s political and military decision makers are making the right choices while selecting the arms systems required by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to defend the country. Past and current experiences, as well as data on the current strength of the local industry in producing military technology, have proven that in many arms purchases decisions Turkey ends up making the wrong choices mainly because of the lack of accountability and transparency in the process culminating with their acquisition.
Among several examples of such ill-defined decisions are Eryx anti-tank missiles, over which Turkey’s Defense Industries Undersecretariat (SSM) and French missile maker MBDA are now in a Geneva arbitration court to solve the dispute.
In 2004, MBDA took Turkey to the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce in Geneva on grounds that Turkey had allegedly violated contract terms when it cancelled a $486.5 million worth, 10-year-long program for the purchase of Eryx missiles.

Whoever wins the court case in the end does not change the fact that this agreement back in 1998 was signed by generals who claimed at the time that those missiles were needed. It is true that some defects occurred in MBDA missiles during tests in 2004. But terminating the contract on grounds that the Turkish military did not need them anymore does not seem to be very serious as the cancellation of the contract has already been imposing a serious burden on the Turkish tax payers, if not causing weakness within the TSK.

Even the existing mechanisms for democratic civilian oversight of arms purchases could prevent the repetition of such mistakes, provided that deputies have the courage to do so. On the local military technology level there is no bright picture either. Though Turkey has been earmarking around $4 billion per year for arms purchases, the country is dependent on foreign sources for an almost 80 percent for main systems, an unacceptable situation as stated several times by SSM Undersecretary Murat Bayar.

Well, this is of course an unacceptable situation. But how long should this unaccountability on arms purchases last as the country has been striving to adjust its economy to address the increased discrepancy between rich and poor? If members of parliament are not even exercising their already existing rights to debate multi-billion dollar arms purchases, who will do that for the sake of the people who have been generous enough to keep quiet over arms purchases while shouldering the burden themselves?

We, however, should not lose hope. For example, Turkish government spokesperson and Minister of Justice Cemil Çiçek announced on Feb. 26 that several amendments were made to the existing State Secrets Law that will pave the way to make information regarded as secret in the past available to the public. A State Secret Board headed by Prime Minister Erdoğan, comprising of the foreign affairs, justice, interior, as well as the national defense ministers, will be set up. It will decide which documents and information constitute state secrets.

I hope that this board will also play a role in breaking taboos on arms purchases, encouraging deputies to use their already existing authority to debate arms purchases while relaxing the strict rules existing on access to even simple military information. Amendments to the law, I hope, will also open the way for bureaucrats to be obliged to give information to the related authorities on suspected files.

But if we take into consideration the fact that Parliament could not pass a law last year that would have allowed the Court of Auditors to oversee the state property (land, facilities and arms) of the TSK under amendments made to Article 160 of the Constitution because of disagreements between ruling and opposition deputies, difficulties before democratic civilian oversight of the military can be observed.

Perhaps the State Secret Board may encourage deputies to do their job instead of wasting time with rhetoric as they did during the November 2006 debate on the Ministry of National Defense 2007 fiscal year budget at the Parliamentary Budget and Planning Commission.