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Hungarian secret agent reveals in detail how serious the Russian threat is

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2017.03.21. 07:03
Secret agents, counter-intelligence officers do not give interviews to the media very often and it is even more unique when they do so under their real name and with their own face. Ferenc Katrein worked for the Hungarian civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years, including a stint as an executive head of operations, and dealt with sensitive cases such as the Roma murders of 2008-2009 or defence against Russian secret services. However, in 2013 he felt he can no longer identify with the leadership and resigned, he has lived abroad ever since. In his exclusive interview with Index.hu he talks in detail about the efforts of Russian secret services and how it feels like when allied NATO agencies ask someone if his boss really worked for Moscow.

Index: What can we know about your career?

Ferenc Katrein: I worked for the Hungarian National Security Office (NBH) and then for the Constitution Protection Office (AH) between 2000 and 2013. My main areas of expertise were extremism, mainly the far-right and international terrorism, and counter-espionage. The highest-ranking position I reached was executive head of operations, I later became chief adviser to the director general. I currently live abroad as a civilian.

Did you tell your family about your job?

My close relatives knew where I worked. But they had no idea what exactly my job was, and they didn't know why and where I had to travel from time to time. This interview will surprise them too.

Why did you leave the service?

Defining some terms

Covert agents and deep cover illegal operatives ('illegals'): The quasi-legal representatives of intelligence are those covert agents (spies) who are usually disguised as diplomats, soldiers etc. and are delegated to a foreign country, for example to an embassy. They are openly working for a foreign state and only their real activities are hidden. On the contrary, illegal agents completely infiltrate the given country’s society, often even the fact that they are foreigners is hidden. 

Military and civilian national security agencies: In most countries, the military and non-military (civilian) national security agencies work as separate organisations. The former is usually overseen by the military, the general staff and the Ministry of Defence, while the control and structure of civilian agencies can be more varied.

The services may deal with foreign intelligence (spying, influencing, etc.) or domestic issues (counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, countering groups threatening the constitutional order), and there are integrated secret services as well, which do both at the same time. 

Hungarian civilian intelligence agencies, AH, NBH, IH: The Hungarian civilian counter-intelligence agency was the National Security Office (NBH) between 1990 and 2010, which the Fidesz government renamed to Constitution Protection Office (AH) in 2010. Their even earlier predecessors before 1989 were the Ministry of Interior’s III/II department (counter-espionage) and the III/III department (internal security).

The tasks of the AH: “It reveals and counters foreign secret service efforts and activities harming or threatening Hungary’s sovereignty, and its political, economic, defence or other interests; reveals and counters undercover activities aimed at changing or disrupting Hungary’s constitutional order with illegal tools; reveals and counters efforts to commit terror attacks by foreign powers, organisations or individuals”. 

Counter-terrorism operations were transferred to the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Centre (TEK) in 2010, the competences of different organisations have not been clear since then. 

The Hungarian foreign intelligence agency is called Information Office (IH).

Hungarian military services, KNBSZ, KFH, KBH: Since 2012, Hungary’s military secret service has been the Military National Security Service (KNBSZ), which was established by a merger. 

From 1990 to 2012 military intelligence or espionage worked separately, this was the Military Intelligence Office (KFH). “It obtains, analyses and passes on knowledge on military policy, military industry and military-related information affecting security policy originating from abroad or related to foreign countries that are needed for governmental decisions” – this was the task of the independent KFH. 

The Military Security Office (KBH) was responsible for counter-intelligence, its tasks were as follows: “it reveals efforts suggesting an offensive intention aimed at Hungary; reveals and counters foreign secret service efforts and activities harming or threatening Hungary’s sovereignty”. 

The established practice is that the military security agency monitors and neutralises those in “uniforms”. For example, they deal with agents of foreign military intelligence (like Russia's GRU) as well as paramilitary extremist groups.

Russian secret services, KGB, SVR, FSB, GRU: The Soviets’ civilian secret service, the KGB has several successor organisations in contemporary Russia, these often compete with each other. The most important of them: the SVR is dealing with classic foreign intelligence activities, and the FSB, which originally specialised in domestic preventive activities but has since overextended its competences considerably, is really active and aggressive in the “near abroad” and elsewhere. 

The other agency of the USSR was the GRU, the military secret service of the Soviet Army General Staff, which survived the democratic transition organisationally as well and it currently counts as the largest foreign-focused intelligence agency of Putin's Russia. It was mostly the GRU behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the US, but they also had a huge role in the occupation of Crimea. In Hungary, it was also them who were in contact with the neo-Nazi organisation named Hungarian National Front (MNA) that became famed for its role in the murder of a police officer in Bőny. The two sides regularly held joint drills

I felt that the professional values and principles I follow and grew up with were not completely realized in the last period of my service. Therefore, I thought I would not be able to identify with things that do not suit my professional approach.  

Do you have knowledge of individuals specialised in countering Russian secret service activities being sidelined within the service?

Rotating experts working in these fields is especially harmful. Sadly, several internationally recognised experts were redirected to other areas referring to constant reorganisations and so-called optimisation.  

Did you feel that the political attitude towards Russia changed and that the services were obstructed on the political level?

Yes. We were not allowed to perform active operations that were necessitated by professional considerations and international cooperation was less intense than in previous years. But I must emphasise that I was an insider until 2013, there is a new leadership now who I cannot talk about. The current director general cannot possibly have ties to Russia due to his age.

On a scale of one to ten, how serious do you think the Russian threat currently is in Europe?

Nine or ten, the highest level. I followed the events in Cologne closely, where it could be seen how beautifully the whole thing was built up.

A secret service offensive is being waged against the European Union

and influence operations in which the Russians have serious professional experience and traditions are part of this. Russia plays a part in aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence. When it comes to the events in Cologne or other sexual offences they are active in emphasising that the German or Western authorities and the media are attempting to cover up these crimes.

The majority of the offenders in Cologne were migrants who had arrived earlier and they were in contact with criminal groups. 

This is true and this was communicated in an interesting way in Russian media and others taking stories from it. They were not newly arrived migrants, but in that interpretational environment it did not matter. The next stop was the Lisa case, where the Russian side reacted to phantom stories on a really high level, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 

You were dealing with counter-espionage until 2013. Did you know about Russian activities in Hungary?

Of course, as I was working on this field.

Can you estimate how many Russian agents are currently in Hungary? Ex-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said 600-800 recently, but he offered no proof for this. 

The phrase ‘agent’ is professionally highly inaccurate. If he talked about active intelligence officers, this number is highly overestimated. But if we count the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks more realistic. The accurate number is only known by the sending agencies, the Hungarian counter-espionage agency only talks about ‘individuals suspected of espionage’, it is how it categorises diplomats and non-diplomatic (service) staff accredited to embassies. Besides traditional positions offering diplomatic immunity it is worth it to map individuals connected to different state-owned or state-backed companies, airlines, travel agencies, cultural centres, educational institutions, and state-owned media based on professional counter-intelligence considerations. 

Furthermore, it is also hard to say an accurate number because these secret services rather think regionally than on a country-by-country basis. Consequently, it can happen that a diplomat accredited to Hungary acting as an intelligence officer under a diplomatic cover works in neighbouring countries, thus he is irrelevant from a Hungarian viewpoint. Obviously, it must be added immediately that counter-espionage is conducted in a system of alliances, therefore, Hungary as a NATO and EU member has a serious responsibility in holding its own when the alliance is attacked by foreign intelligence or attempts are made to infiltrate it.

How many of the about 50 diplomats of the Russian embassy in Budapest do you think are intelligence officers and how do you find them?

Experience dictates around what share of staff at a given embassy could be ‘individuals suspected of espionage’, which of course depends on the geopolitical and political situation of a destination country. I would say 30-40% with the abovementioned criteria and I repeat we cannot narrow this down only to embassies. Although immunity is only granted by diplomatic passports, the service passports must be checked as well, be it one belonging to a journalist of state-owned media or an employee of a cultural centre. Their national security checks are done individually, which includes checking their pasts in the allied database and a professional risk assessment. Following this, we can talk about which category we put the given person in and what oversight strategy we choose.

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Fotó: Huszti István / Index

How different are the profiles of the three Russian secret services, the FSB, the SVR and the GRU in their activities in Hungary?

All three are present in Hungary, earlier we were in contact with them through a liaison officer. What is advisable to know about the world of secret services is that there could be joint issues in which services from opposing sides can and will cooperate with each other. The common denominator with Russians could be fighting organized crime, and mostly counter-terrorism, where we even make a deal with the devil if it is needed and if it is in our interest. Counter-espionage is a much more rigid and closed affair in this regard.

The SVR deals with more traditional intelligence tasks like science, technology, media and the EU. The FSB is the chained dog, they are the ones responsible for the technical-operational protection of Russian foreign representations, diplomatic delivery services, and securing operational actions, monitoring, etc. is also their task. The GRU is specialised in gathering information on NATO and militaries, and if we take a look at what happened in Montenegro recently, the attempted assassination and coup, they are also responsible for the dirty jobs. It is a visible requirement for them to provide a kind of readiness to take action supporting Russian interests in a given country.

In Hungary, it was the GRU that was in connection with the István Győrkör-led neo-Nazi, paramilitary organisation the Hungarian National Front (MNA), they held joint drills with undercover Russian diplomats. Was this also needed to provide readiness to take action and if it was, what does this mean exactly?

I would leave the answer up to the imagination of the reader. But by readiness to take action we mean anything from provoking street riots through the disruption of public services – e.g. news communication or the media – to physical atrocities. All this is suitable for testing a country’s security systems or authorities. Who, when, how and with what forces reacts to these, who takes part in countering these, what the hierarchy for making decisions is and what the decision-making processes are – a lot can be mapped by these actions.

Now that you mentioned street riots: did the services forecast the violent events in 2006? Or at least that the far-right has such a high potential for mobilisation and violence?

I was working in international counter-terrorism at the time, so I didn’t have great insight to what happened.

However, what I did see in 2006 was how our leaders panicked, which leaders stepped up to the task, and which leaders decided to check in to the hospital.

That’s when I realized that our service is asleep at the wheel, and that our ability to respond to such incidents needed serious work — and that’s something we were able to correct more or less and become more proactive on. Until that point, this aspect of service was very dull, and our instinctive reflex for self-defense wasn’t working well.

Were there really leaders who decided to go to a hospital to avoid responsibility?

Yes. You can assume it was not easy from then on.

Returning to Győrkös: after the murder of a police officer in Bőny, the Counter-Terrorism Centre (TEK) dissolved MNA practically in a few weeks. Why did the murder had to happen beforehand?

We cannot push our own responsibility to others, as we also dealt with this area. But it shows how the philosophy of the police and the secret service are different, and since prevention has been transferred to the Ministry of Interior again, the former is the dominant one. Thus, something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start. But obviously this has been going on since the ‘90s, and the passivity of the agencies also played a role in this.

We can then say that action-orientedness is not one of the strengths of the Hungarian agencies.

Action should be taken much more dynamically, but politics defines the agencies.

What could explain in professional terms that Hungarian authorities knew about the connections between the MNA and the GRU and that Győrkös’s organisation also possessed weapons, yet they did not intervene for years?

No professional reason can explain this. Presumably we did not want direct confrontation with a foreign intelligence agency or country.

Was the reason the Hungarian agencies’ fear of the GRU or Hungarian politics’ fear of Vladimir Putin?

I would rather say it is the latter. I do not think that anyone in the Hungarian secret services is afraid of the GRU, which is of course a very well built organisation with a long tradition, but we know and see their modus operandi. If it was I in a position to make a decision, it is certain that this would have to induce an active measure on our part. But these are not decided on internally, these are political decisions. The fact that the GRU and the MNA cooperate is an information of such a high level that the director general would have to inform the political side. 

Does such an information belong to let’s say the five largest national security threats to Hungary in a given year?

Absolutely. But informing Hungarian politics is not enough, this information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO, because it works that way: I get information if I give information as well. But this should have been made known to other agencies because everybody’s fighting its own far-right organisations in Europe, where this is a very specific example of cooperation between the far-right and Russia.

The far-right paramilitary organisations of different countries also like to hold joint drills with each other, for example, Hungarians with the Slovak or German neo-Nazis.

Yes, and the MNA also had its own connections, thus such an information is important internationally as well. I hope that it was sent to our partners! 

How many Russian illegal spies, deep cover agents could be in Hungary nowadays?

This is the largest professional challenge. Finding and checking them would require a separate department, as these agents can do the most damage. Russian services are known for thinking perspectively, 10-20 years in advance. They build up the careers of agents settled in the target countries in areas they deem to be important in the long-term, such as politics, energetics, law enforcement, homeland defence, educational-scientific research, the media, etc. Russians, then it was the Soviets, saw in 1988-1989 that the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union will be forced back and democratic transitions were coming in Eastern Europe, so in the last moment they intensively settled agents illegally. But this generation of deep cover agents is close to retirement, so they are looking for opportunities to build new lives in EU countries. And sadly, a great chance was offered by for instance the Hungarian residency bond programme. Especially since AH has 30 days to perform national security screenings, which is nowhere near enough.

Allegedly there was a serious debate on the residency bond programme between Minister for the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister Antal Rogán and Minister of Interior Sándor Pintér, who is overseeing AH. This must not have been a coincidence.

Knowing the system,

it is quite a high risk if we allow such a high number of people into the EU,

especially from places where we do not necessarily have sufficient operational positions. It is of course possible to ask for extraordinary screenings, but I think 30 days is really insufficient to perform their background checks. If we think with the head of the opposing secret service, there is no need for a bigger opportunity. In a reverse situation, I would also take this chance. 

In a given situation, is it worth it for a foreign secret service to pay 300 000 euros to settle an agent only to arrive not under a traditional cover as a diplomat or soldier?

It is absolutely worth it, it is worth even more! Illegal agents are the most valuable connections. It is possible to build up such a legend, personality and life for them which can be used in a wide range of operations later. And since they have no connections to colonies in the given countries, meaning the official bodies of the foreign state, they do not automatically bring the attention of the given countries’ national security agencies to themselves either. Thus, even establishing their contacts are done based on a stricter protocol. It is a more protected, nuanced, longer-term operational construction, which is considered one of the highest achievements in the profession. With the Hungarian residency bonds both the Russians and the Chinese could settle whole families. Of course, other countries have similar residency bond programmes to offer, but none with security flaws similar to the Hungarian situation.

Around 80% of the bonds are bought by the Chinese, the Russians are only in second place. Is this perspective build-up characteristic of Chinese secret services?

Absolutely characteristic. They are the other agency that thinks in decades, only the Chinese used to employ this method less, but now they can build up their own illegal spy rings as well. The Chinese actually used to prefer economic covers back in the day.

There was news about Russian criminals also buying residency bonds, but there were rumours about the Chinese mafia doing this too. Therefore, it is not only foreign secret services but also criminal circles who can exploit this.

We should not have illusions, the two do not exclude each other. Organised criminal circles can be used by the given country’s secret services in many places.

Many also wrote that individuals with ties to minister Antal Rogán earned a huge amount of money on the residency bond programme. Since it is Chinese, Russian and other foreign money, is it a possible national security risk that unknown foreign actors corrupt Hungarian decision-makers this way?

Seriously, what should I say to this? The fact that the system is run through offshore companies, this needs not to be overexplained. Politics obviously has the right to start and maintain a residency bond programme. The task of secret services is to say what kind of security risk this poses and minimalize it. A balance should have been found, meaning that if politics insists on having the bonds, then it should have given AH a chance, time and tools well in advance to build capacities in the given countries.

The story of the illegal visa factory operated from the Moscow embassy by ex-diplomat Szilárd Kiss in the few years after 2010 is somewhat similar, as thousands of visas were given to unknown Russians, criminals, prostitutes and who knows who else. In the meantime, Kiss failed his national security checks twice, while according to what was said in the parliament’s national security committee his wife was in contact with Russian secret services. Were they proper Russian agents?

I would not like to answer this question.

If there are such information available on Szilárd Kiss, but I could also name the Jobbik MEP suspected of espionage, Béla Kovács, why have they not been arrested yet?

This is why espionage cases are difficult, because a story is only clear legally when someone is caught red-handed. In any other case, we are talking about something diplomatically sensitive, and the highest-ranking political decision-makers decide on what would happen. However, one must get ready to react instantly whatever the decision is, for instance expelling Hungarian diplomats from Russia. 

To what extent is the case of Béla Kovács, an elected EU politician allegedly spying for Russia, considered extraordinary? How regular is that Russians recruite European politicians or infiltrate state organisations of European countries?

Decision-makers and their inner circle, the experts, the advisors are primary targets for all secret services of the world. It is not even absolutely necessary to approach decision-makers, it is enough to create professional views around them through which they can be manipulated, which also means that the chance for the activity being unveiled is lower. This is why I would consider it important to put external experts, advisors under national security protection when politics starts to employ them in such high numbers. We should also learn from the scandals of Donald Trump's advisors and experts with Russian ties.

The Hungarian government believes it is not the Kremlin but George Soros who threatens Hungarian national security. Do you know if there is a department within AH which previously focused on Soros and the partly Soros-financed NGOs? 

No, not at all. And now I don’t want to pose like I was a kind of out-and-out counter-espionage agent, but my nerves are not really broken by NGOs like Krétakör, the Helsinki Committee or the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and I am not looking for cover in the corner. I cannot really imagine these being organisations who are setting up a violent change of government. But I also do not view combatting corruption as an effort to overthrow the constitutional order.

And that these are the agents of the United States or its secret services?

I have no knowledge of that and in my past I did not come across any piece of information suggesting this.

Then why did the vice-chairman of Fidesz asked Hungarian secret services to investigate these Hungarian NGOs?

I would not like to comment on this in professional terms. But if politics sees something as a serious threat, then the secret service will look after it. I do not know what the result will be.

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Fotó: Huszti István / Index

And for example if they find a bug in the office of a Hungarian NGO, would it be possible that Hungarian agencies planted it?

I think that the comments of Mr. Szilárd Németh (the deputy-chair of Fidesz) or minister János Lázár on this were unlucky because the secret service does its job much more efficiently if politicians do not communicate their requirements beforehand in the media, but simply request agencies silently to do something. And then if someone finds a bug somewhere there would be no conspiracy theories that it must have been the government who planted it. My problem professionally is that too many bugs have been found lately.

I guess if it was the Hungarian secret service planting it they failed because the bug was found. If it was not them, then they failed because they could not prevent an unauthorised actor from illegally gathering information.

That is right. My professional vanity would be really bothered by the case of the state-owned Hungarian public broadcaster and I am not only talking about the wire-tapping scandal. I consider articles on the Hungarian public media broadcasting a lot of messages taken from the Kremlin’s war propaganda a serious warning for the counter-intelligence profession, as the public media should be under special national security protection according to the law. These analyses should be done by the secret service, not by journalists.

After the attack in Brussels, the Hungarian public television featured an expert, Dániel Sógor, who used easily debunkable, completely false Russian propaganda about the terror attack’s perpetrators being Belarussian. 

The public media has a much larger role in informing the public than letting similar foreign disinformation being featured on it. This is a serious warning that there is an error in the system. 

An employee of a Hungarian national security agency is sitting in the building of the public media, right?

I do not know who sits where, but theoretically the public media is actually considered to be a protected object. But the building does not only need physical protection, but operational protection as well, which include the counter-espionage field as well. This is a complex task ranging from the reception to what foreign information offensive the organisation should withstand. 

Despite that, the public media regularly features so-called national security experts who are talking about the failure of the West and the European Union, about Washington and Brussels wanting to settle migrants in Hungary, about the refugee crisis being a controlled invasion and Hungarian policemen serving at the border should be given permission to fire. In addition, now they are also attacking NATO while they are silent on Russia or they even deny that Russia interfered in the US election on the side of Trump.

It is very hard for someone with a lot of experience in the field to keep themselves quiet when they hear this. It is clearly possible to declare what the orientation of this so-called professional group is.

Those who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.

One must go outside and see if there is war. And if there is not, let’s think about it.

What goals could Russian secret services have in Hungary realistically? We must admit that we are not the most important players in this region.

Referring to all of the above: when the Hungarian secret service cannot even push the result of a national security check through politics, as it happened in the Szilárd Kiss case, or when the Hungarian public media airs things we see it does the Russians will come to the conclusion that the track is clear. They can calmly follow their agenda, not much harm can befall them. They have more space for manoeuvre in Hungary than they would in other places where the counter-intelligence is much more aggressive.

How imaginable is it that Russian agents infiltrated high levels of Hungarian secret services?

The case of General Lajos Galambos has been an interesting and damaging issue. Regardless of what the result of the case was legally, the suspicion itself that the leader of Hungarian counter-intelligence between 2004 and 2007 could have been turned by the Russians, and several others could have worked for them, is quite serious.

What was the essence of the case?

Exactly what the media wrote. General Galambos made it possible for Bulgarian colleagues to perform polygraph tests on active Hungarian colleagues.

And those Bulgarian colleagues were in fact Russian ones.

Precisely. But all this was reported by the media, there is nothing new under the sun.

How did it feel to live through this inside the 'company'?

It is very hard for us to talk about this, I served with many of those affected for shorter or longer terms. It was shocking, and for me it is to this day, that nothing more serious could happen in the life of an agency. And even today it is unknown what the end result of the whole affair will be. Think about the situation when we had to do professional negotiations with our foreign partners on counter-espionage while our former number one leader was suspected of this! Do you know what kind of questions other EU-NATO partner agencies who knew our director general personally asked us and what kind of correct answer we could give them? How can we manoeuvre in the international intelligence environment, how deep is the information they are sharing with us?

How does it materialise when the confidence of NATO partner agencies is shaken in Hungarians because of this or for other reasons?

There are different cooperation forums where active information exchange takes place and for instance they show case studies to each other. If this loss of confidence materialises then there will be no specific joint issues. You are in the international bloodstream if you have joint issues with other agencies, not only in counter-espionage but in counter-terrorism as well. If these are there, you are in the club. If these are not there, you are on the periphery.

If Hungarian secret services had to be ranked in terms of their commitment to NATO, which would be the most committed and the least committed?

I will not answer that, since every one of them has to be committed to NATO. And this is what the comments of the so-called experts lack: stating that we are EU and NATO members and want to stay that way. NATO is a community militarily and in terms of secret services, this is how things must be looked at.

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Fotó: Huszti István / Index

To what extent do you agree that before merging military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service (KNBSZ) Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO, while military counter-intelligence – which many of the leaders of AH originate from – was an organisation with strong connections to Russia?

I agree.

And do you agree that before 1989 the Hungarians were completely subjected to the Russians and we practically worked for the Soviet Union?

Of course, but not only the Hungarians, but everyone from the Czechs through the GDR to Cuba. The Czechoslovakian secret services were for example used specifically for transatlantic operations. Just as the Comecon, every agency had its own profile. 

What was the profile of Hungarians in this secret service cooperation?

One of the areas of focus that the KGB signed over to their Hungarian partners was collecting information on the Vatican systematically. But there was constant Russian demand for acquiring COCOM-listed technical tools and technologies under embargo. Furthermore, a marked part of journalistic activities was also under the responsibility of Hungarian secret services. Another task was constructing illegal intelligence lines for the Soviet comrades in a way that the agents were settled in the West after they stayed in Hungary for some time. 

What do you think about the fact that the current leadership and some staff members of Hungarian secret services are professionals who had already been active before 1989? Did their loyalty to the Russians suddenly cease to exist after the democratic transition? How can we imagine this? 

This is complicated because the political and professional parts are different. But if you want a clear answer, then yes, it is problematic that those from before 1989 are still in the system. The Czech service BIS practically sent anyone who was active before the democratic transition packing and then built a completely new agency with the help of the British intelligence. With this the BIS practically allowed Prague to become a safe haven for spies for a long time and 5-8 years had to pass before the new officers got the hang of it. For this a political decision was needed and it came with a price. But currently they do not have problems like in certain cases the Estonians, the Latvians or others do, where the Russians’ men continued to play an important role in the system. 

Was this ever considered within Hungarian national security agencies or did you ever see such plans?

I became an employee at the company much later, this should have been decided on in 1991-1992. But as I see we have only moved further away from this since then.

Would you support the publicity of all pre-1989 dossiers?

We can delay it as much as we want, but it must be done. When I was inside the house I of course said that it should not be done. But now that I have been outside for a while and I see how much damage can be caused by leaks on who was and who was not an agent I would say let’s do it and start fresh.

Did you ever approach someone to turn them into an agent or informer?

Naturally.

Is approval for the methods of achieving this different than it had been before 1989? Is there any method you believe only a dictatorship uses and nowadays you refuse to use it?

We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of moralizing to this degree, executing the task is the most important thing. But it does happen that something is professionally unfounded and hard to represent.

I mean physical aggression, blackmail, threats as pre-1989 methods. How characteristic are these nowadays?

Not at all and I never used it. But let’s be honest, pressuring someone into becoming an agent is in the toolkit. However, anyone who has spent some time in this profession knows that this cannot be maintained in the long-term, it is an inefficient and counter-productive tool. 

Thus, you are not using them for professional rather than moral reasons?

For a security officer, moralizing works differently than it is for an average person. In short: if you are in a situation when a sleeper cell activates itself in Budapest and it depends on acquirable information if they commit a terror attack or not, then I think it is possible to extend the definition of the toolkit used in intelligence operations. But naturally even this cannot overwrite everything.

If the agencies of today’s democratic system need to turn someone into an agent from an extremist group, how many approvals are needed from leadership to do this?

This must be approved on several levels, I would not like to say a number. This is a very well documented, hierarchic system. There are no solo dancers here, leaders always have a lot of responsibility resting on their shoulders. Turning someone into an informer, an agent must be part of the daily routine. On the one hand, this is not such a big thing as outsiders think it is. On the other hand, it is much more complicated than that. From the use of technical tools through completely mapping someone’s personality to doing an environment assessment this is preceded by a lot of analytical work. Basically, it is only possible to conclude if someone’s suitable to be turned into an agent after all this is done.

One agent like this was István Csontos, who turned from being an informant to the Hungarian military counter-intelligence to an accomplice to the Roma murders in 2008-2009. Later it was revealed that military counter-intelligence repressed the information that Csontos had been their agent during the investigation and they even met him at the time the murders were taking place and one counter-intelligence officer even lied about him afterwards. What was the reason for this? Did they want to defend the honour of the uniform?

I do not know what kind of honour of the uniform we are talking about when people are dying. In these cases, there is no such thing. But I did take part in several meetings when all the affected organisations, services were at the table. And I did not hear many pieces of supportive information from the military branch either.     

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Fotó: Huszti István / Index

 So you were an affected party in the investigation into the Roma murders?

Yes, but I do not want to talk about that. Later I also took part in hearings on the off-site hearings of the national security committee.

Earlier you said that moralizing is not the job of security officers. Did you feel remorse because the racist serial murders were not prevented or stopped during they were happening?

Yes, absolutely, I also had to deal with my own conscience. Everyone who worked on this case, be they policemen or secret agents, I think will take the fates of these six people to the grave and they will never forget it. Everybody was shaken and everyone needs to take responsibility for their own mistakes. 

Hypothetical question, but was it possible to save more lives?

If I wanted to be really dramatic I would say yes. But we will never know this.

Did the secret services manage to reassuringly clarify their own responsibility in the case of the Roma murders?

Absolutely not. The National Security Office, the predecessor of the AH, was screened correctly and naturally we had to present the events to MPs as well on the off-site hearings. Then, contrary to the results of the national security screening, contradicting the findings of the report, the mandates of several of our leaders were revoked, including mine. It is completely natural that whoever worked in this field had to take the blame. I was later even rehabilitated, I became chief advisor to the director-general.

However, with regards to our colleagues from the military, several questions remain open. I did not experience investigations, hearings of similar intensity in their ranks.

So, a screening of similar depth did not take place there? Why?

I don't know the answer to this.

After the murder in Bőny it was revealed that Csontos, an accomplice in the Roma murders, was also in contact with the MNA, which held joints drills with the GRU.

I do not know that, but since Csontos was a special assistant of the Military Security Office, they obviously played with him then as well. They themselves said he was their own contact, obviously they did not only use him in one far-right circle, but in many. But all this is just a guess. 

Do you think those who belong to your generation within Hungarian secret services agree with what you said in this interview?

There are generational tensions within law enforcement agencies, which not even younger high-level leaders can remedy. My generation and those younger than us cannot really identify with the so-called 'Eastern opening' of the recent period, while the older individuals whose informal influence is to this day decisive are able to do so much more. 

This article was originally published in Hungarian. Translated by Patrik Szicherle.