28 February 2014

What's Next in Turkey?

In late December, I posed this fateful question regarding the embattled Turkish Prime Minister: "is this the end for Erdogan?" At the time, I predicted that damaging information about Erdogan and his family members will almost certainly be leaked before the municipal elections in March 2014.

And I suggested that while Abdullah Gul (the President) would be on the rise (along with Deputy PM Ali Babacan), Erdogan would find it very hard to cling on to power and he might be forced to quit sometime this year.
In fact, it is widely rumored in Turkey that more dossiers are being readied and some of them will implicate Erdogan and his family members. One of the ministers who had to resigned openly called for the PM's resignation and said that all of the large construction projects were approved personally by the PM.
As you know, this has now happened.

Last week, an audio tape containing five separate conversations between the PM and his son hit the Internet. (An English language transcript can be found here.) During these conversations, you hear Erdogan instruct his son to give large piles of cash to several business associates for safekeeping. At some point, the son hesitantly tells his father that he almost got rid of everything and there is only 30 millions euros left to move. Only.

A second tape was leaked a couple of days later, in which Erdogan's son informs him of a businessman's offer to pay them only $10 million, a sum apparently much less than what was agreed upon, and Erdogan tells him not to accept the lesser figure.

I am not a moralist and by itself, a garden variety (albeit involving massive sums) grifter story would not be of interest to me. But this case is relevant because it contains telling clues about a coherent plan to unseat Erdogan.

The Original Scandal

The details are here.

I only want to make the following point: It is nearly impossible to conduct an investigation for two years involving senior members of the Cabinet without any leaks. This could only be done if the investigators were members of a tight group, none of whom interested in career rewards that some judicious whistleblowing might bring.

As I wrote at the time, this is why I rejected corruption vs a plot against the government dichotomy: it was both.

In other words, the corruption allegations were correct but the agents who brought them forward were doing it to unseat Erdogan.

Give Him Enough Rope

The aftermath of the initial blow was intriguing. Apart from giving his first ever interview to a foreign journalist, and denying the accusations, Gulen remained silent for the most part. He let Erdogan to be the sole actor on stage.

This calculation paid off nicely. Erdogan's huge overreaction and the autocratic steps he has taken were much more damaging that anything Gulen or his supporters might have said.

He started with a massive purge in the executive branch and dismissed or moved thousands of police officers and state prosecutors. Even to those who knew that Gulen supporters were occupying key positions in state institutions, this undertaking looked more like a cover up than a genuine desire to reform the system.

Erdogan then proceeded with several highly questionable laws. One scrapped the independence of the judiciary and attached the body that appoints judges and prosecutors to the Ministry of Justice. Another law strengthened government control over the Internet and social media by requiring all ISPs to maintain logs for two years and make them available to the authorities. It also allowed the blocking of Websites without court ruling.  

Finally, because Erdogan firmly believes that the only state apparatus uninfected by the Gulen virus is the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT), he pushed a law that removed all Parliamentary oversight of MIT's activities. The law also provides the Agency with much wider eavesdropping powers, including unfettered access to corporate IT systems. It accords immunity to its officers (and collaborators) and makes it a crime to report or leak its activities.

The overreaction and overreach was simply mindboggling.

Predictably, President Gul, a presumed sympathizer of the Gulen movement, signed these texts into law. Since he has no real veto power (he can only send them back for review and has to sign them the second time) he used these opportunities to raise his concerns. Once again, Gul was positioning himself as the statesman, while emphasizing Erdogan's dictatorial choices.

Once it looked like Erdogan won the power struggle and he was feeling invincible, those infamous recordings showed up on YouTube.

Are the Recordings Genuine?

Erdogan's predictable reaction to these serious allegations was vociferous indignation over what he claimed to be doctored tapes.

As you can imagine, I have no way of knowing one way or the other. But I can suggest a couple of pointers.

If these were collages, i.e., dialogues created with separate words taken from different speeches, it would be impossible to end up with a convincing exchange since the human ear is very sensitive to pitch changes such a method would necessarily entail.

It is also not possible to have impersonators to produce such recordings since every voice has a unique frequency imprint and it would be very easy to verify the authenticity of the speakers.

On the other hand, you could slightly edit actual conversations and rearrange some sentences in those conversations to create a much clearer causality. Here is a discussion of these points in English and here is the original research in Turkish.

If I were to venture a guess, I would opt, like I did previously, for both. That is to say, I believe that it is highly likely that the gist of the conversations is accurate but some editing might have taken place to sharpen their direction and content.

Who Could Eavesdrop on Encrypted Phones?

The day after the tapes hit YouTube, Erdogan inadvertently blurted out that "they are listening to government's encrypted phones."

In the tapes, you hear his son mentioning a secret number and Erdogan talks about encrypted phones, so we can safely presume that these conversations took place on a secure line using encrypted phones, like the one you see on the right.

The question is this: Assuming, as I do, that the bulk of the conversations is authentic (even if edited), how did they eavesdrop on encrypted phones? People who simply maintain that the Gulen supporters might have done it are missing an important point.

Unless you are the NSA, the only way you can listen in on these conversation is to get hold of the encryption key. In Turkey, encrypted phones sold to private citizens can be monitored with a court order as their encryption keys have to be made available to the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK).

But the encrypted phones used by ministers are exempted from this practice and they use 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), which is impossible to crack through blunt computing force.

In short, unless you have backdoor access or have the actual encryption key, there is no way you can monitor such conversations. That leaves two institutions, one is the NSA, the other is MIT. While I am sure the NSA listens in on all world leaders, I seriously doubt that they would willingly leak anything.

That leaves MIT, the executive branch institution most trusted by the Prime Minister.

Will People Care?

In Turkey, bribe accepting politicians are the equivalent of cheating presidents in France: they are part of a natural order of things. And indeed, opinion polls show that there is barely a move in Erdogan's popularity.

But this could change rapidly.

Let's look at this logically: If there was a plan to unseat Erdogan what do you think the next steps would be?

If I were implementing such a plan, I would continue what I have been doing, that is to say, leak allegations, give him space for his shadow boxing, let him deny the whole thing aggressively. And when he starts to feel like he is gaining the upper hand, hit him with video recordings of these alleged incidents. Does it not make sense?

Even Erdogan's staunchest supporters would desert him if they saw his family stuffing money bags into the trunk of several S-Class sedans.

I actually don't know if they have the appropriate visuals for these events but if something like that shows up on the Internet in the coming days, you can bet your last Lira that this whole things was a plan to get rid of Erdogan.

Why and Who?

The "why" is fairly easy.

In the last year, Erdogan made huge blunders in the region. He sided with Jihadis in Syria just to gain leverage against Kurds, he failed to start a peace process with Turkey's Kurds. He alienated all the Sunni powers in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt (there is no Turkish diplomatic representation in Egypt and the last ambassador was declared persona non grata). And he stood by as Iran rose to prominence and Turkey lost most of its leverage.

In short, he disappointed his most important ally in a big way.

Domestically, since May, Turkish economy is in a free fall. The lira is down, the current account deficit is huge, unemployment is high and there is a net capital outflow. Not surprisingly, Middle East funds are now shunning Turkey.

I will let you guess the "who" using my black hole analogy.

What's Next?

I stand by my prediction in December.

What they want -let's call them the markets- is for Erdogan to leave and Ali Babacan to replace him as the Prime Minister. In that post, I also emphasized Abdullah Gul's impressive re-branding and his bright future.

I still think that they would be the dream team, Gul, the newly branded centrist statesman as President and Babacan, the brilliant technocrat, as Prime Minister.

Incidentally, this is what the Economist said this week:
Still, the conventional wisdom is that, unless voters feel the economic pinch, few will be bothered by their rulers’ sleaze. Should this prove wrong (and several people now expect AK to lose Ankara), Mr Erdogan’s fellow AK party members may at last decide it is time to replace him. 
Mr Gul is still touted as one possible successor. Another is Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister, who has a spotless reputation.
If that happens, that is, if Erdogan leaves, Gul remains President and Babacan becomes the Prime Minister, expect smooth sailing in the region.

The American plan will be back on track, peace with Kurds will have a genuine shot, the Syrian conflict will finally have a reasonable framework and the Saudi-Sunni silliness will be in check.

If Erdogan refuses to go, dark clouds will get darker for Turkey and the region.

04 February 2014

The Significance of Google's "Do No Evil"

This summer, as a result of series of hard o duplicate coincidences, I found myself working as a consultant for a large company's rebranding efforts.

This is not my field of expertise but I know enough about the corporate world and I am a full-fledged contrarian. So I accepted the assignment. It turned out to be a fascinating exercise.

I explained to them that when you are a large company with many activity areas that touch upon people's daily lives, it is very important that they perceive you as a benevolent force. And for that to work, you need to be and to act like a benevolent giant.

I gave them Google as an example.

Google's informal motto is "Don't Be Evil" but it is generally rendered as "Do No Evil."

Why is that curt reassurance necessary?

Well, think about it.

Google knows everything about your digital footprint. You look for a plane ticket, the following day all the Web sites you visit contain airline commercials.

You check a site in Bahasa and if you refuse Google's helpful offer to translate it for you, an hour later you are served ads in that language. Gmail has your entire mail history, in searchable format and any key word in any message will trigger new ads for you.

Here is what a journalist found out when he researched how much Google knew about him.

Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Translate contain information about your activities, your location and your interests. Picasa has your pictures, Google Drive safeguards your valuable data. Blogger maintains your blogs, YouTube holds on to your video clips.

They introduced Google+ not as a competitor to FaceBook but as a unifying framework for all these services and data. You are a blogger, your Google+ identity ties you to your content and enlarges your readership. You are a small business owner, your presence in Google Maps is enhanced through Google Plus Local Business pages.

Your online searches, your presence and activities in Google+ Communities and your data in all Google services are solidified in one detailed, accurate and perfect identity. While Google+ features only 540 million users (FaceBook has 1.2 billion), it is growing faster than FaceBook or Twitter.

Actually, the comparison with FaceBook is silly. I have been avoiding FaceBook for years and I have suffered no loss. But it would be utterly impossible for me to function on the Internet if I were to try to avoid Google. They are ubiquitous and their services are very hard to ignore.

As a result, Google knows a lot about most of us.

But what makes Google different is the way they go about their business.

Those of you old enough might remember this: Microsoft almost gave away Word (and it had no copy protection) until they destroyed Word Perfect. Same thing with Excel and Lotus 123. Then they bundled these products into Office, they installed a very hard to break copy protection scheme and charged an exorbitant price for it. We all bought it and used it because, by then, we had no choice. But we resented every minute of it.

Google does not work that way. They are not into destroying other companies. Picasa is not there to kill off Flickr or Instagram. It is there to collect more of your data.

They also do not like to force you into things. If they wanted to, most of us would be obliged to sign up for Google+. Instead, they develop excellent services and give them to you for free to entice you to come in.

This is where "Do No Evil" slogan becomes important.

If I am aware of what Google does and if I have some freedom not to sign on this, that or the other Google services, I don't mind Google selling my information from the services I use. I would have minded it if it was Microsoft, Apple or Oracle collecting my data because rightly or wrongly, I perceive them as capable of doing evil.

I am quite aware that there are many people who do not share my vision of Google. But the reason I trust Google is the fact that they actually operate differently than most companies.

Or as I told my client, they practice what they preach. Without that unison, they could not maintain that brand image.

Let me give you an example.

There is a secret Google Lab called Google X. Their operating principle is rewarding failure. Yes, you read that correctly. It is not that they want you to fail all the time. They are simply aware that unless you remove failure from the equation, most people will not look into outrageous solutions.
You must reward people for failing, he says. If not, they won't take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don't reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation's spirit. 
Can you say Microsoft?

The Lab has three simple operating principles.

One, you have to identify a problem to be solved. Even brilliant ideas are discarded if they do not address a specific problem.

Two, the solution should be so amazing and effective that, it it worked, it would eradicate that problem.

Three, "there has to be some reason to believe the science or technology underpinning that solution, that makes us think the idea is only mostly crazy."
As an example, he cites the problem of a million people dying on the roads each year. The science fiction solution it came up with was driverless cars that don't crash. Google has now clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles of testing that suggests this technology will work and could transform our world.  
Tellingly, unlike every other corporation operating in what we euphemistically call the free market, Google Lab projects never take into account whether their solution would make money. They believe that you need solid marketing if your solution is incrementally better. But if the solution you cam up with is exponentially better, "the money's going to come and find you in a fair and elegant way."

Crucially, the director of the Lab adds that this has always been Google's way of conducting business.
"Things like search or translate, things like maps, have been in the public domain free to the users but often without advertising or any form of compensation - sometimes for many years - when Google didn't make money on it or even have a plan to make money on it and Google was just 'Let's make value for the users. We'll figure out how to make money later'." 
One other thing.

Unlike every other company out there with an Alpha male at its helm running a tight and hierarchical ship, Google takes another approach to management.
Google managers need to keep their staff happy because, Mr Teller says, you don't need your manager's permission to leave a particular section if you believe they are behaving in an obnoxious manner. 
"Not only will you leave but everyone will leave and that guy is going to find himself voted off the island by his own people," he adds.
That's why I believe them when they tell me they won't be evil.  

01 February 2014

Will Hillary Clinton Run in 2016?

It is an open secret that Hillary Clinton is the leading contender in the 2016 presidential race. In fact, she is the biggest Democratic front runner of all times.

According to Washington Post, she holds a 6 to 1 lead over other Democratic candidates. Joe Biden is second with 12 percent and Senator Elisabeth Warren is third with 8 percent.

Moreover, the largest Democratic Super PAC (Priorities USA Action) has just declared that it is regrouping to support Clinton's presidential ambition. They have a huge Rolodex and they can raise billions.

Besides this extremely favorable situation, she has another advantage: there is no clear front runner on the other side.

The Republican Great White Hope Chris Christie is embroiled in a slow burning scandal. With a leaked letter accusing him of having prior knowledge of the Fort Lee incident and many subpoenaed witnesses waiting to testify, this has all the makings of a prolonged investigation with many pitfalls along the way.

Tea Party candidate Paul Ryan fizzled out when Romney - Ryan ticket performed poorly and I doubt that this time around the mainstream media will give him the same benefit of the doubt that they were willing to extend to his math-defying, if not fraudulent budget proposals.

The Libertarian candidate, the junior senator from Kentucky Rand Paul is unlikely to go far in the GOP primaries. Marc Rubio in an unknown quantity for federal politics. And despite what McCain says, Bobby
Jindal will never, ever get the majority of GOP primary voters.

And there is also the consideration (rarely mentioned in these situations) that she is by far the most qualified candidate. When she ran against Obama, I was convinced that she would have made a much better president. For one thing, her Health Care Act would have been much more progressive than Obama's (can you say "single payer"?) and she would have been a much better negotiator than the President on contentious issues.

Perhaps more importantly, it would have been much more difficult for the National Security State folks to bamboozle her. She was in the White House before and she knows how the system works.

Obama was an easy prey for these guys and they quickly positioned themselves around the inexperienced President and impressed (and intimidate) him with one scary scenario after another. From Guantanamo to NSA, there is a whole list of terribly conservative policies Obama acquiesced to during his first term.

I seriously doubt that Clinton would have gone along with the same policies.

Therefore, when we ask the question, "will she run?", the obvious answer is, she would be a fool not to. Although a lot of things can change between now and the elections, right now, it looks like it would be impossible for her to lose.

There is, however, a reason for her not to run: to leave the door open for Chelsea.

It is not an outlandish idea. When asked whether he or Hillary would be a better president, Bill said:
"Day after tomorrow, my wife, because she's had more experience," Clinton told CNN's Piers Morgan when asked whether Hillary or Chelsea Clinton would be a better president. "Over the long run, Chelsea. She knows more than we do about everything."
There is more to it than a flippant answer. The Clintons have been carefully grooming her for higher office. She went to the right schools, married the right person, stayed away from any kind of embarrassing situations. It is almost as if all her major decisions were made with a future vetting in mind.

She is also much more media and image conscious than her feminist mother, who sometimes give in to her hippie roots, when it comes to her public appearances.

I think this would the only hesitation in her mind.

She knows she can win, she knows that she is more than qualified and would make a great president.

But she does not know whether her Presidency could prevent Chelsea from running for the same office down the line. Three Clintons in, say, 46 Presidents might be too much for the country.

I personally hope that she does not run and support Elisabeth Warren, as I think Warren is more progressive than Clinton at this point.

But human nature is what it is. Just the fact that Warren would be the next likely candidate (Biden can never get elected to anything outside Delaware) might push Clinton to go for it.

To become the first female President is not something that could be easily relinquished.

And I get that.