Dr Oz’s vote in 2018 Turkish elections renews criticism

As Dr Mehmet Oz embarks on a bid for the US Senate, the TV star has been largely reluctant to discuss his ties to Turkey, where he retains his citizenship, and dismissed criticism from political opponents that he is hosting any so-called “dual loyalties”. “

But a photo of Oz voting in Turkey’s 2018 presidential election angers some national security experts, especially after said recently he was “never politically involved in Turkey in any capacity”.

“The decision to vote in a foreign country’s election is problematic from a security clearance perspective,” according to John V. Berry, a former government attorney who specializes in federal security clearances.

After a rocky start to the campaign, Oz recently earned former President Donald Trump’s coveted endorsement, bolstering his chances of winning the Republican nod. But political opponents have continued to target his ties to Turkey – a strategy the Oz campaign and others have called xenophobic vilification. If elected, Oz said he would renounce his Turkish nationality.

Asked about the photograph, which appeared in June 2018 on the Facebook page of the Turkish Consulate in Manhattan, Brittany Yanick, spokesperson for the Oz campaign, confirmed its authenticity to ABC News and confirmed that Oz did indeed vote in the 2018 election. According to Yanick, Oz voted for opposition candidate Muharrem Ince during his unsuccessful campaign against Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan. She denied that Oz’s vote amounted to “political involvement”.

“Voting in an election is very different from being actively engaged in Turkish government political work, which Dr. Oz was never involved in,” Yanick told ABC News. “There are no security concerns.”

Elected officials are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as civilians seeking security clearances for sensitive government work; Once sworn in, lawmakers have access to classified information, unless the executive branch denies them certain information.

But the civilian background check process can also “provide a framework for analyzing whether or not someone is trustworthy,” according to Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, a public interest law firm in Washington. non-profit. And for McClanahan, voting in another country’s election would trigger a “giant flashing red light.”

Born and raised in Ohio, Oz said he retains dual Turkish-American citizenship to care for his mother in Turkey, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. He also served in the Turkish army for 60 days in the early 1980s – apparently to retain his Turkish nationality – and maintains real estate in Turkey, and has a deal with the country’s national airline, Turkish Airlines.

“Any one of them would be enough to torpedo a [security] permission,” McClanahan said. “Taken together, I wouldn’t put a good chance of this person getting clearance anywhere.

Turkish voting records indicate that the 2018 presidential election was the first in which Oz participated. Prior to the 2014 elections, Turks living abroad could only vote by returning home or by going to polling stations set up on Turkey’s borders.

Yanick, the campaign spokesman, said Oz had no plans to vote in the 2018 election, but decided to vote while he was at the consulate to discuss his “humanitarian work on behalf of Syrian refugees in Turkey”.

“It was during an election season, so he voted,” Yanick said.

Other security experts ABC News spoke to expressed less concern about Oz’s vote in 2018. Steve Aftergood, senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said that because Oz was transparent about his ties to Turkey, his dual nationality alone is more of a political concern for him than a national security risk.

“The fact that [Oz] has made no effort to conceal that his dual nationality counts in his favor,” Aftergood said. “Voters will have the opportunity to decide whether or not it concerns them.”

Security experts consulted by ABC News stressed that the country in question is important when considering potential risks of foreign influence. A person’s ties to Turkey, a NATO member and a strategic ally of the United States, pose a far less threat than China or Russia.

But in recent years, Turkish President Erdogan has shown increasingly authoritarian behavior, jailing journalists and summarily silencing opposition voices. Erdogan has also strained ties with the United States by purchasing Russian weapons systems.

Richard Grenell, the former director of national intelligence under President Trump, called Oz’s understanding of Turkey an asset in the fight against authoritarianism.

“It is frankly un-American to suggest that first- and second-generation Americans are unworthy or suspect of working as a US public servant,” Grenell said. “They have seen fascism and totalitarianism and are actually more lucid about what is at stake.”

Background check investigators consider “the totality of the circumstances” when investigating those applying for security clearances, said Sean Bigley, a national security attorney and former Trump representative on the National Security Education Board. . Bigley said Oz’s risk portfolio would likely include its existing financial ties to Turkey.

According to financial statements submitted in April, Oz owns several hundred thousand dollars worth of real estate in Turkey, including a building that he rented for free from the Turkish Ministry of Education. The building is being used as a student dormitory, according to its disclosure form, and “is subject to ongoing trust and estate litigation.”

The disclosure form also shows that Oz signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s national airline. Experts say the airline has moved ever closer to Erdogan since 2018, when he appointed himself president of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which holds a 49% stake.

In 2018, Oz appeared in a Super Bowl ad for Turkish Airlines, and in 2021 he appeared in a four-minute info discussing the airline’s COVID-19 safety protocols as a brand ambassador.

Any wealth Oz accrued through his interests in Turkey, including the airline deal, would only reflect a small part of his full financial picture. In total, Oz’s disclosure shows that he and his wife together own between $104 million and $422 million in various assets and holdings.

Even so, says Bigley, “if I advised [Oz]I would suggest divesting of any assets or…financial ties to any Turkish government entity.”

Oz has been criticized for not using his notoriety as a platform to speak out against Erdogan’s crackdowns on the opposition and other democratic setbacks. Some suggest that Oz’s continued financial interests in Turkey deter him from criticizing its leadership, as it could put Oz at risk of having its Turkish assets seized.

“It’s in the nature of the Turkish system and authoritarian systems more generally that people who don’t want to be targeted by the state bow down to leaders or keep quiet,” said Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign. Relationships. “There are many examples of people who dared to criticize Erdogan and were forcibly stripped.”

Nicholas Danforth, a non-resident fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, an Athens-based think tank, agreed.

“If you wanted to have a lucrative career as a Turkish Airlines spokesperson, you certainly couldn’t say anything negative about Erdogan,” Danforth said.

According to several press articles published since the launch of his campaign, Oz met Erdogan at least twice, in 2014 and 2018and attended events with officials from Erdogan’s party. Oz said attending these functions was normal for a Turkish-American of his stature.

When asked if Oz had taken a public stand against Erdogan, Yanick provided ABC News with comments Oz made at a January 2022 campaign event in which he said he “would be the harshest critic of Erdogan” in the Senate.

“The country I respected when I was growing up – Turkey, the country my father left – was a secular country where there were no significant elements of Islamic rule, period,” he said. declared. “And it was not a dictatorship.”

Hailed in the West as a charismatic leader with the potential to return Turkey to its secular roots, Muharrem Ince fell to Erdogan in the 2018 elections by a substantial margin – 52% to 30. Ince drew support from a broad coalition of anti-Erdogan parties, but has also expressed controversial views, including an interest in renewing ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Ince was not a model of democracy, human rights and tolerance,” Cook said.

As one of Turkey’s most recognizable figures in the West, Oz is not the first high-profile candidate to face accusations of so-called “dual loyalties”, a claim reminiscent of attacks on Catholics, Jews and members of other religious and ethnic groups. in previous generations.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump accused Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, of maintaining a dual loyalty to Canada, his country of birth, even though Cruz had renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2014. concern for the arrangement of Oz.

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