Not Just Turkey |

7 Phone-call Scandals That Rocked the World

As Erdogan fumes over leaked tapes of calls to his son, it's a fine time to recall phone taps that endangered or even ended careers.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

The relevation that recordings exist of allegedly incriminating phone conversations between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son, Bilal, has shaken Turkey to the core. In the recordings, which were uploaded to YouTube , Erdogan and his son reportedly discuss millions of dollars – specifically, the need to get rid of the cash that's stashed at home and whom to give it to.

Time will tell if the December 17 recordings – which Erdogan insists are “immoral” fabrications – will be the straw that breaks the back of his 11-year rule.

Of course, this scandal is not the first in which recorded conversations have embarrassed public figures. Haaretz brings you seven incidents where phone calls have reddened faces, and endangered – or even ended – careers.

'F*** the EU'

Early last month, while the United States and the European Union were in talks about the unrest in Ukraine, a leaked recording of an apparently bugged phone conversation was the cause of much embarrassment to the Obama administration. In the recording, also uploaded to YouTube, a voice said to be that of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, speaking with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, referred to the EU with an offensive four-letter word that begins with “F.”

Discussing the UN’s role in trying to end the Ukraine crisis, she said: “So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the UN help glue it and you know, f*** the EU.” The two also discussed the power of Ukraine’s three main opposition candidates.

The U.S. did not confirm or deny the veracity of the recordings, but Nuland apologized to the EU nevertheless for her reported comments. For their part, the State Department and the White House noted the fact that it was a senior Russian official who drew attention to the leaked recording in the first place.

“I think it says something about Russia’s role,” said White House spokesperson Jay Carney.

Mother of all wiretap scandals

Long before YouTube became a veritable depository of leaked recordings of bugged phone calls, Watergate, the mother of such scandals, led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon. The affair blew up in 1972, when the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. were broken into and burglarized, with documents being photographed and phones tapped.

Nixon initially attempted to cover up his administration’s involvement in the scheme, which was undertaken out of the fear that his re-election bid would fail. In the end, however, he incriminated himself with his own surreptitious recordings of phone calls and conversations in the White House. The recordings were made on a voice-activated system that had been installed in various rooms in the building, including the Oval Office, in 1971.

In one recording, Nixon was heard authorizing payment of money to former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt Jr., one of the men involved in the Watergate break-in. The president himself resigned in 1974 to avoid impeachment. A source within his administration, known as Deep Throat, later revealed to be one William Mark Felt, who had been a top FBI official, helped bring the scandal to light by leaking information to The Washington Post.

Israel's mini-Watergate

In Israel’s very own mini-Watergate affair, transcripts of recordings of a 2010 phone call between then Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his aide, Col. Erez Weiner, led to a political scandal that shook the IDF and the government.

At the center of the so-called Harpaz affair was the “Harpaz document,” which surfaced in 2010, and the mutual dislike of Ashkenazi and then Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz, an associate of Ashkenazi’s, forged the document in order to keep Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant from succeeding Ashkenazi as chief of staff. Specifically, the document described plans by Barak’s associates to launch a smear campaign aimed at Ashkenazi.

As part of the investigation into the affair, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’ office transcribed a number of conversations recorded in the former chief of staff’s office. According to the transcripts, some of which reached Israel’s Channel 10 in 2012, Ashkenazi and Weiner seemed to be colluding and coordinating their responses to the Harpaz document.

Monica Lewinsky’s confidante

Secretly recorded phone calls were also at the center of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trials in 1998-9: namely, more than 20 hours of phone conversations, in which former White House intern Monica Lewinsky confided to her friend Linda Tripp about her romantic liaison with the president.

Tripp, who worked with Lewinsky at the Pentagon's public affairs office, began taping the phone calls on the advice of a friend, and later handed the recordings over to independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose investigation led to impeachment procedures. Tripp was also the person who convinced Lewinsky not to send “that blue dress” to the dry cleaners.

Last year, the National Enquirer reported that it had gotten its hands on a "sex tape” that Lewinsky recorded for Clinton in November 1997, the year before the scandal broke, but the veracity of that recording has not been verified.

‘Squidgygate,’ ‘Camillagate’

In August 1992, the UK’s Sun newspaper ran a story with the rather unusual headline of “Squidgygate.” “Squidgy” was the nickname used by an alleged lover of Princess Diana, in recordings of intimate phone calls that were leaked to the tabloid. Friends of the princess have said that the leak was intended to smear Diana at a time when her relationship with Prince Charles had hit a real low.

“Camillagate” followed a few weeks later, when the transcript of an at-times explicit phone call between Prince Charles and his then lover – and now wife – Camilla Parker-Bowles, also hit the headlines.

At an inquest into Diana’s death in 2008, her former bodyguard Ken Wharfe said he believed the “Squidgygate” recordings were made by British surveillance agency GCHQ, and then broadcast on a loop until they were picked up by amateur radio operators, who then passed them on to the press.

Listening in on the chancellor

Last October U.S.-German relations hit a serious low when it was revealed that the Americans had been listening in on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellular phone. The chancellor’s phone number had been on a National Security Agency since 2002, according to a report in Der Spiegel just months after NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden began to leak information revealing the organization’s massive surveillance operations.

German intelligence looked into the report, and a furious Merkel phoned President Barack Obama to ask him directly whether her phone was indeed tapped. Der Spiegel reported that Merkel’s phone was monitored as recently as some weeks before Obama visited Berlin last June.

Obama apologized to Merkel when she phoned him, and told her he was not aware of the bugging. Although there were no actual leaked recordings to speak of, the incident caused serious embarrassment for the administration, and serious harm to relations between the two countries.

This was not the first U.S. phone-tapping incident involving the German capital, however: Back in the 1950s, the U.S. and Britain collaborated to bug Soviet headquarters in Berlin. In “Operation Gold,” the CIA and the British Intelligence Service listened into Soviet communications via landline, by means of a tunnel under the Soviet-occupied part of the city.

Last but not least: Gibson & Baldwin

In 2010, Hollywood star Mel Gibson, who is probably as famous for his violent, often drunken, often anti-Semitic rants, as he is for his movies, was taped by his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, shouting violently at her on the phone, using explicit and racist language. The two were in the midst of a custody battle over their daughter when the recording was leaked; the actor-director was also under investigation for domestic violence.

A few years earlier, in 2007, an angry voice-mail message that actor Alec Baldwin left for his then 11-year-old daughter, Ireland, was also exposed in the press. He ostensibly called his daughter “a thoughtless little pig” because she hadn’t answered the phone when he called. The message was probably leaked by Baldwin's ex-wife, actress Kim Basinger; they were also in the midst of a custody battle at the time.

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Turkish riot police use water cannons to disperse protesters using firecrackers, during an anti-government protest denouncing corruption.Credit: AP
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara February 11, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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