The crisis of the Hungarian intelligence services
The head of counterintelligence and the director of operations of the National Security Office (NBH) have departed in the midst of a series of police scandals that led to the dismissal and forced resignation of the entire leadership of the police. Since the beginning of Ferenc Gyurcsany's second premiership, key institutions, including the Hungarian intelligence services, are in a perpetual state of crisis.
This crisis is fundamentally of a political nature. Its eruption can be traced to the events of last September, when the Hungarian prime minister's statements - delivered earlier, but revealed at the time - created a serious legitimacy and moral crisis. Ferenc Gyurcsány could have calmed the state of affairs by offering to resign immediately, or by calling for early elections, but his clinging to power and the impotence of the governing parties led to prolongation and deepening of the crisis. By today, the whole spectrum of the ailing Hungarian state is beset by instability, inertia and corruption.
While the current crisis has amplified the operational chaos, corruption cases and the abuse of power in the Hungarian intelligence services, its roots stretch back to the period of the regime change. Whereas the legal framework and conditions for the operation of the services conform to the imperatives of democracy, 17 years after the regime change, the state security officers of the Kádár-regime still direct the Hungarian intelligence services, whose activities are virtually exhausted in the efforts to salvage the authority of the old guard of the services. While some reforms have been implemented, they systematically and successfully frustrated every effort to restructure the institutional system and to weaken the positions of the Kádárist elite. Currently, five services operate in Hungary: three of which, i.e. information gathering, counterintelligence and the special services operate under the minister of the Prime Minister's Office and two operate under the auspices of the minister of defence responsible for the Military Intelligence Bureau and the Military Security Service.
In light of the current scandals, the four-year tenure of the Orbán-government could be construed as a refreshing interval in the period ensuing since the regime change, when the activities of the intelligence services were accompanied - apart from financial and budgetary rewards - by appreciation in the political and vocational context too. The results were comprehensive: the purging of neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organisations and persons from the country, the obliteration of the headquarters of foreign organised crime and the preservation of the country's security and political stability during the period of the Balkan and Kosovo crises and of joining NATO - are achievements that demonstrated the efficiency of the services and the wisdom of the political direction too.
In spite of - or because of this - the 'old guard' with state security records and strong socialist connections probably felt that the preservation of a rightwing coalition would permanently strip them of their privileged positions and an opportunity to return. It is noteworthy too, that the Orbán-government did not and could not have had a trustworthy professional staff with the help of which it could have participated 'from within' in the operation and direction of the intelligence services. Thus, it was exposed to potential manipulators of the services during the period prior to the elections.
The return to power of the old guard - mostly Russian trained and near to or already over the pension age - that is professionally inept, but trustworthy for the leftwing - had been assisted to a large degree by young leaders, since they misguidedly assumed that the leftwing coalition, too, would need leaders that are professionally competent, would not be politically servile and would preserve the autonomy of the institutions. However, this calculation misfired. The new socialist leadership promptly dismissed the leaders of the more important services (Information Office, National Security Office). However, this was still not enough evidence for the rightwing influential elite to recognise that some leaders of the Hungarian intelligence services - despite the material and moral rewards - were rooting for the demise of the Orbán-government.
The ascent to power in 2002 of Prime Minister Péter Meggyesy, who had a 'Strictly Confidential' position in the past essentially epitomises the reordering that was typical not only of the leadership of the intelligence services, but the entire state administration and public life as well. Fearful of the successes of the Orbán-government, the state security elite socialised in the 'Kádárist' and KISZ (Young Communists) environment, occupied state administrative posts with ruthless fortitude following the political purges. However, the professionalism of this circle was exhausted in maintaining this network. The network, incapable of renewal and of resolving the problems of the EU-member state Hungary, followed the practices of its predecessors a few decades before: devoured the reserves. The deficit -budgetary, financial, political and moral alike - became the hotbed of corruption, abuse of power and the total degradation of professionalism.
During the decades-long period of the Kádár-era, the Hungarian state security services were loyal - not only to the actual socialist power - but to the Soviet services too. To reduce Soviet/Russian penetration and to achieve independence for the Hungarian services were key objectives for Hungary preparing for NATO and EU membership. Purging the services from the Soviet/Russian influence was not just a reasonable expectation of the allies, but a fundamental condition for national independence and the validation national interests too. Thus, it was a priority of the Orbán-government to appoint leaders at the helm of the Hungarian services who were not subjected to direct
Soviet/Russian influence, did not conclude their studies in the Soviet Union and identified with the values of western-type democracy and - from the professional point of view - considered West-German or other European services as a model to follow. Under the Orbán-government, employees at middle-level leadership who studied in Moscow longer than the customary 4+6 months, were not appointed either, since their recruitment in the ranks of the KGB was a real possibility. This practice came to an end in 2002-2003.
While in 2002, under the Medgyessy-government, the dismissal of leaders was probably perceived as an act of petty revenge. At that time, the dismissed officers already belonged to the technocratic class -though employed in the services during the Kádár-era - but in their value-system and principles were closer to the so-called 'reform intelligentsia' than to the state security officers of the older generation. This was not simply a steady secession from the Soviet authority, since at the time the principle of "national interest" was not entirely alien to them either. Because of their age, it was easier for them to communicate with and relate to the 'Fidesz' politicians.
Owing to its capabilities, education and worldview, this leadership segment could have been apposite for the long-term direction of the two main services: counterintelligence (NBH) and information (IH).
It is noteworthy too, that some members of this segment were able to identify with the worldview and values of the rightwing civic government, while others perceived a Hungarian left - similar to the British Labour Party - as a political power to serve under. At the same time, they shared common views, i.e.,loyalty to the constitutional state and the fullest possible autonomy in their sphere of work.
In 2002, the new socialist government removed the leadership of intelligence and counterintelligence from their post, replacing the head of counterintelligence with an officer from the old Moscovite school, while a young officer from the aforementioned group was appointed to head intelligence. At the time this sent a positive signal to the employees of the service and the opposition alike. Soon after however, head of intelligence, too, was changed. The autonomy of the institutions was not a priority in the value system of the socialist government.
In the course of Ferenc Gyurcsány's rule a darker and more worrying picture emerged. At the head of the five ntelligence services only such persons were retained who were prepared to maximally comply with the demands of 'manual direction', did not formulate independent views, as well as tolerated the government's method of making decisions - not with them, but over their heads - empowering more 'trusted' employees to deal with issues. This - coupled with the emergence of György Szilvásy, the chancellery minister responsible for civilian secret services - launched a negative spiral, which by today has rendered the security services totally impotent.
During the first tenure of the Gyurcsány-government, György Szilvásy manually directed the law and order agencies, usually by bypassing the commanders appointed by the authorities. The disregard for the service schedule created immense problems for these strictly hierarchic organisations. Due to the inept political management and the brutal interference in the life of the services gradually led to weaker professional performance, which was interpreted by government politicians as a structural and organisational problem. It must be stressed that the present problems stem not from the structure of the secret service, but from incompetent political direction.
Apart from the weakness and irresponsible attitude of the present leadership, the problem is further complicated by the fact that in Hungary in the course of nearly two decades a private secret service has been established, directed and overseen by 'resigned or dismissed' state security officers. It functions in the form of security companies, which have been hitherto in contact not only with various criminal circles but - through present service leaders - established close contacts with the official and legal secret services. It is of common knowledge that some members of the family of the wife of Ferenc Gyurcsány, the Apró-family, had been employed in the state security services and who - at the time of the regime change - left the services and established security companies that played important roles in enhancing the business interests of the Apró- and Gyurcsány clan, as well as in enhancing the positions of the socialists.
By way of the professionally weak, but servile present leaders, these private secret services - and other shady companies close to the MSZP - were able to establish contacts with state institutions. This symbiosis between the official and private services has dire effects on the performance of the official services. The political leadership has discovered that by appointing some loyal former officers and the help of a few employees, they can control the whole institutional system by passing relevant information to the private security services. These private companies are allowed to operate without any legal parliamentary control against the opposition, or perform illegal business activities, which can be executed with impunity only with the covert compliance of the law and order agencies.
The blurring of the clear boundaries between the state and private services and the creation of this grey zone comprise one of the biggest problems in the life of the Hungarian secret services. If the government were to implement the modification of the structure of the secret services, i.e., consolidate certain services, which would lead to the dismissal of some personnel, the state services could weaken further. It is worth noting that the restructuring and consolidation have serious political implications too. In case of an internal party power struggle, the present minister of defence and socialist politician Imre Szekeres, could become a strong challenger to the weakened Ferenc Gyurcsány. The reduction of the military services and consolidation with the civilian services is not without some rationale, but at present, this move would lead to the disproportionate strengthening of Ferenc Gyurcsány and his circle.
In the course of the last few years, a number of persons have been promoted to the high command of the services. These officers spent their career in very close cooperation with the Soviet/Russian partners after being educated in the Soviet Union. Some leaders of certain services have reached the pension age long ago, but they were allowed to remain in their posts. The price of this was unconditional political loyalty and the disregard for legal-professional considerations. The story of the professional decline of the services is best demonstrated by the departure of the head of the National Security Office, Lajos Galambos, formerly employed in communist state security agency and the rise of his deputy, Sándor Laborc. Galambos - according to press information - endured and personally protected the interwoven network of the secret service and certain criminal circles.
On the other hand, Laborc - by virtue of his close ties to minister Szilvásy - not only escaped the scandal, but emerged as a winner from the case. According to press reports, he could become the head of counterintelligence. If things happen otherwise, he will be appointed as de facto commander, irrespective of the new chief. In light of his background, education and career hitherto, ostensibly he enjoys the trust not only of Gyurcsány and Szilvásy, but most probably of Moscow too.
In the present crisis, the Hungarian prime minister is attempting to tighten control over the services even more. The new head of the NBH will be even more loyal and obedient leader than his predecessor and his task - apart from political loyalty - will include the dismantling of the last bastion of professionalism too.
With the participation of active and former employees of the secret service, a non-profit foundation ('Together for Each Other') was involved in a billion forint-worth of customs swindle and attempted to buy protection from the anti-crime organs. Its fall was not due to the police, or the secret service, which is involved in crime fighting too (i.e., the 'interior' agents), but to the Customs and Excise police that functions under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance.
In order to investigate the connection between the 'Together for Each Other' Foundation and the National Security Office (NBH), the Fidesz proposed the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry committee. The committee would be comprised of ten-ten members and the Fidesz would provide the chairperson, while the socialists would delegate four persons, the largest opposition party three, the KDNP, the MDF and the SZDSZ would delegate one each to the body, which would function for six months - according to the plan. Several dubious circumstances surround the foundation that defrauded the state budget by 1.2billion forints, which, too, justifies the creation of a parliamentary inquiry committee.
In recent years, the interference of the NBH became a regular practice in the election campaigns - to the advantage of the MSZP. The assemblies and campaign rallies of the opposition have been threatened by alleged terrorist attacks, extremists that attempted to discredit the opposition with their provocative behaviour were given a green light, attempts were made to intimidate two journalist who decided to photograph the building of the country house of the chancellery minister who is also responsible for overseeing the secret services, etc.Investigations are also warranted to discover why the leaking of the prime minister's speech at Balatonöszöd, the so-called 'eavesdropping' case, did not yield any results. It is still not known how a recording of the prime minister's speech was taken out of a guarded government building.
In light of press reports, it is possible that either the prime minister himself, or the chancellery minister halted the inquiry, or swept the results under the carpet. Another question is how and to what degree were the activities of opposition parliamentary deputies, politicians and individuals in the course of antigovernment demonstrations observed last autumn and whether illegal phone tapping was carried out during that period. The fate of this information should be investigated too. The suspicion has arisen, too, that the secret services are gathering information for the prime minister's circle about anti-Gyurcsány activities within the Socialist Party (MSZP).
Increasingly more speculations are emerging in the Hungarian press concerning the strong influence the so-called 'Scientology Church' has gained in government circles, particularly in the sphere of the health service. A summary of the 2006 annual report of the NBH suggests that the service is intensively examining the dubious activities of the 'small church'. Recently, a high-ranking counterintelligence officer refused to answer questions of opposition parliamentarians in this respect, arguing, 'the parliamentarians do not have the required screening' in order to access such sensitive information.
Consequently, it is open to speculation that the 'scientologists' have de facto influence on the current health service reforms in Hungary. In the course of the reforms in Hungary virtually all psychiatric asylums have been closed, which is in line with the programme of the scientologists. Such a twist could seriously affect relations between the two governing parties, as well as cast a shadow on the future of the prime minister too. The question is what position the new leadership of the NBH will assume and represent on this and on similarly sensitive issues.
Ferenc Gyurcsány referred to Putin's Russia as a 'model of democracy'. In view of the current state of the Hungarian secret services, we might come to the conclude that the most important tools of Russian democracy that employs the secret services for daily political purposes - 'have found their place' in Hungary too, under the direction of a not less ambitious prime minister.
Experts well acquainted with the Hungarian secret services have warned that the events that came to light recently might be just the tip of the iceberg. Without questioning the significance of the current incidents, there is cause for concern that these cases could divert the attention of politicians and the public from strategically important issues, i.e., energy security, gas supply security, the magnitude and scope of Russian political influence with respect to the secret services and in Hungarian public life in general. It is a relevant question too, whether illegal activities in Hungary, such as drug trafficking and trading nuclear-grade weapons and arms are taking place with the knowledge, or with the active participation of the secret services?
The entire political 'manual direction', the abolition of the autonomy of institutions and their leaders, the strengthening of private security and secret service companies belonging to the sphere of interests of the prime minister and the socialists, as well as their intertwining with the state services is a grave problem. Furthermore, some experts are seriously concerned about the fortification of the 'Russian line' in the ranks of the services. This goes beyond the promotion once again to leading positions of persons who attended KGB training (i.e., a high-ranking officer of counterintelligence) and those who collaborated with the Russian service for decades (the director-general of intelligence). It is still more serious that - according to uncorroborated information - the aforementioned commander with excellent government connections demonstrably represents Russian political and economic interests within the counterintelligence, as well as at parliamentary committee hearings.
The spread of criminal activities and the entrenchment of the overall moral crisis have left a deep scar on the professional activities of the Hungarian secret services and their professional evaluation too. The current secret service has permanently stripped itself of the myth of being an 'independent expert'.