Tag Archives: espionage

Spies allegedly working for the United States arrested in Hungary

However bizarre and unlikely this story, I think I should report on the two men who are currently in preventive custody in Hungary. The charge is espionage for the United States, the IMF, and the Swiss-Hungarian Grant.

The right-wing internet news site Válasz came out with the bombshell: “Exclusive: Was an American spy found in the Orbán government?” According to their information, one of the men, Norbert Maxin, was a business partner of Sándor Demján, one of the richest men in Hungary who has not been on the best terms with the Orbán government of late. Maxin was at one point strategic director of Polygon Informatikai Fejlesztő és Tanácsadó Kft. with headquarters in Szeged. Polygon did a thriving business at one time, but in 2013 it got into financial trouble because two of its major clients–OTP, the largest Hungarian bank, and MOL, the Hungarian oil company–stopped doing business with the firm. Moreover, a criminal investigation was launched against Nobert Maxin, who simply disappeared. The Szeged delmagyar.hu reported at the time that the FBI was investigating the case. Some people thought that Maxin was dead, but it turned out that he was only hiding in an apartment in Budapest, allegedly because he was afraid of being murdered.

Source: Mandiner.hu

Source: Mandiner.hu

We know very little about Norbert Maxin. For example, I was unable even to ascertain whether he is a Hungarian or an American. He uses the Hungarian form of his name, and his surname is occasionally spelled as Makszin.

We know a great deal more about his alleged accomplice, Béla Szabolcs Bukta, who was expansive on LinkedIn. After receiving a diploma in history and geography at the University of Debrecen in 1997, he worked as area development manager in the prime minister’s office during the first Orbán administration. After Orbán lost the election in 2002, Butka moved to the United States where he worked for a couple of firms in Buffalo and attended D’Youville College, receiving an M.S. degree in international business, specializing in trade relations, in 2005. He then relocated to Washington, where he became a project consultant for the World Bank Group-IFC. In 2006 he moved back to Hungary and worked for Arcade Research & Development Ltd. It was during his time at Arcade that he came to know Norbert Maxin, who was by then managing director of the firm. As soon as Viktor Orbán won the election in 2010 Bukta was back in government service. He got a job as deputy head of the IT development department of the National Development Ministry. In 2014 he moved to the National Tradehouse Corporation, which was supposed to develop brisk trade relations with mostly Far and Middle East countries but turned out to be a flop.

Átlátszó, an NGO that specializes in investigative journalism, also covered the story and unearthed more details of this bizarre case. According to the lawyer of Nobert Maxin, Gusztáv Kertész, although the criminal proceedings against the two men were launched last December, the story goes back to 2008 when the alleged crime was committed. Kertész is puzzled by the fact that this “spy” case is being handled by a department of the Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda (NNI / Office of National Criminal Investigation) that deals with criminal activities connected to art treasures. Although it is true that Norbert Maxin is an art and book collector, the investigation has nothing to do with his hobby.

According to Kertész, one count of the espionage charge is that Maxin, through another person, passed on documents concerning Hungary’s defense plans to a NATO officer in the service of the U.S. Embassy. The lawyer points out that NATO should already have legally been in possession of these documents since Hungary is a member of the organization. Another charge is that Maxin in 2010, in a conversation with a member of the visiting IMF delegation, warned him about structuring the organization’s loan in such a way that no government could appropriate money given to the country as a whole. Another charge is that Maxin established a secret organization called “Birodalom” (Empire) which was to be used in some mysterious way in the spying operation. According to the lawyer, it was just a group of people who liked each other’s company and met often. The charges are allegedly based on witness accounts and evidence seized during a house search, but Kertész couldn’t find anything concrete that would prove his client’s guilt. The court decided on preventive custody because apparently Maxin while handcuffed tried to escape. That was at the beginning of December.

Otherwise, from what I could learn about Maxin, I got the distinct impression that he was on good terms with Fidesz politicians for many years. In 2005 he turned to Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt for an investigation into the privatization of Budapest Airport Rt. We can’t go into the complicated details of the case here, but at that time the government handed over the running of the Ferihegy Airport to a private company. Viktor Orbán, who at that point was pretty certain that he would win the election in 2006, delivered a speech in which he announced that “we must buy back what [the present government] illegally privatized.” And if the privatization turned out to be legal, then his government would simply “ask the owners: be kind enough to give it back.” I suspect that Maxin’s curiosity about the exact status of Budapest Airport Rt. was connected to Orbán’s preoccupation with the ownership of the company.

In addition to this early link with Fidesz, Átlátszó has documents in its possession that prove a connection between Maxin and several important leaders of Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization, through a foundation called “Fiatalok a Demokráciáért” (Youth for Democracy). Among the members of the foundation were Bence Rétvári, today undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, and the young Péter Szijjártó, today foreign minister.

444.hu turned to the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, wanting to know more about the case. The answer came in the form of a short note signed by Elizabeth Webster, spokeswoman of the embassy: “As is known the US government doesn’t comment on cases still under legal scrutiny. We don’t comment on conjectures concerning intelligence work.” I wonder what Viktor Orbán has in mind because surely the NNI, the police, and the prosecutors couldn’t possibly start criminal proceedings against two individuals, charging them with espionage for the United States, without the approval of Viktor Orbán himself.

If Maxin’s lawyer is correct and the alleged crime was committed in 2008, why did the Orbán government wait until December 2015 to begin criminal proceedings against these two men? If they knew that Butka, Maxin’s alleged accomplice, was involved in espionage work, why did he occupy a high-level position in the prime minister’s office? These are just a few of the many questions that nobody can answer at the moment, but I suspect that this case is in some way payback for the United States’ annoying habit of inquiring about corruption cases that the Hungarian government either ignores or whitewashes.

March 1, 2016

A Russian spy allegedly found in Jobbik’s European parliamentary delegation

It was about a month ago that I wrote a post on “Jobbik and the Russian connection: The role of Béla Kovács.” I suggest taking a look at that piece by way of background to today’s post. I ended it with the following sentence: “I assume that, given his background, the Hungarian national security office is keeping an eye on Kovács.” Well, as it turned out, only a few days before I wrote this sentence the office turned to Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt to instigate proceedings against Kovács on charges of espionage for Russia. But being an ardent supporter of Russia in the European parliament where he represented Jobbik does not necessarily mean that he was a spy. In fact, the more I read about the case the less I think that Kovács is guilty of the crime he is charged with.

As usual, Fidesz’s timing is impeccable. As we all know, the European parliamentary election will be held on May 25, and Jobbik is positioned to do extremely well at the polls. But Magyar Nemzet‘s revelation of the espionage charge may siphon off some Jobbik support.

It seems that the Fidesz top brass has known for months that the national security office was looking into Béla Kovács’s activities in Brussels. Several government actions support this hypothesis. For instance, last fall there was a belated addition to the new Criminal Code that extended the scope of espionage to include EU institutions. Prior to that, the charge of espionage could be leveled only against those who committed such a crime either against Hungary or NATO. As of January 1, if Kovács spied on the European Union he could be sentenced to a jail term of between two and eight years. One can’t help thinking that this change in the Criminal Code was not a coincidence.

More recently, on May 11, Peter Polt asked the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, to revoke Kovács’s parliamentary immunity. Péter Polt should have known that the current parliamentary session had already ended and that there will be no meeting of the European Parliament between now and May 25, the day of the election. Therefore, Kovács’s case couldn’t be investigated by the European Union’s legal affairs committee and voted on by the members of the parliament before the election.

Moreover, Fidesz was well apprised of what was going on in the prosecutor’s office. On May 11, the same day Polt wrote to Schulz, Antal Rogán referred to a Jobbik MEP “who spends more time in Russia than in Budapest or in Brussels.” As usual, Fidesz and the prosecutor’s office worked hand in hand.

Kovács himself made no secret of his Russian sympathies. In fact, he made several speeches in the parliament scolding the European Union for not wanting to have closer relations with Russia and for not embracing Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union. He repeatedly urged closer cooperation with Russia, which led his colleagues in Brussels to call him “the Russian lobbyist.” Such open crusading would be strange behavior from a cloak-and-dagger spy.

Béla Kovács who according to Jobbik is so important that Vice President Joe Biden himself asked Viktor Orbán to prevent his work in the European Parliament Source jobbik18.hu

Béla Kovács, who according to Jobbik is so important that Vice President Joe Biden himself asked Viktor Orbán to prevent his work in the European Parliament
Source: jobbik18.hu

It would also be utterly foolish of a Russian spy to use Russian citizens as parliamentary aides, but this is exactly what he did when he hired two Russian youngsters to work for him. Apparently, they were  rarely seen but received a monthly salary of 1,400 euros. One of them was a nephew of his wife who is a Russian-Austrian citizen.

The Orbán government has a penchant for using the national security office for political purposes. Let us not forget the charges of espionage leveled against Lajos Galambos, former head of the national security office, and György Szilvásy, minister in charge of the secret service. We know very little about the exact charges because the proceedings were held in camera and were declared to be a state secret. But what we learned about them unofficially indicates that the charges were trumped up. A Népszabadság editorial put it this way: “We will never learn the truth about Béla Kovács. But we know all about the methods of Fidesz.” They seize every opportunity without a moment’s hesitation and use the theoretically neutral police, secret service, and prosecutor’s office. The “cases” are lined up, waiting for an order from above: we now want a picture of the hooded Zsolt Molnár or some real estate fraudster. “Oh, espionage and not for the United States but Russia? Too bad, but it will do.” Of course, Kovács still might be a spy, but “it is more and more difficult to believe the national shepherd when he cries wolf.”

Béla Kovács naturally denies the charges: “I have never been a member of any secret service, Hungarian or foreign. I never cooperated with them, nor have there been attempts to recruit me on their part.” By now, all kinds of stories are circulating, including that his Russian-born wife, Svetlana Istoshin, worked for the KGB. Something he also denies.

Fidesz naturally cast a wide net. The parliamentary committee on national security will be convened and, according to the chairman, the socialist Zsolt Molnár, they want to question Gábor Vona as well.

How much this will hurt Jobbik’s chances at the polls no one knows. Index yesterday ran an article with the title “Kágébéla might be Jobbik’s undoing.” The “Kágébéla” of course refers to his alleged ties with the KGB. Or at least this is what some of his colleagues in the party called him. In Jobbik he was mostly valued for the amount of money he managed to get for the party. Whether this money came from Russia or not, we have no idea. Without a doubt, there are many questions concerning Kovács’s past, but I am not at all sure that spying is one of his sins.

A show trial in Orbán’s Hungary

Today, inspired by an anonymous piece of writing entitled “A kémügy” (The spy affair) that appeared online on September 16, I will revisit a case I have written about extensively in the past. In July there was a show trial in the military court of Debrecen where the accused were a former minister and two high officials in the Hungarian National Security office.  We will not know details of the trial or even the charges brought against these men for a very long time because the transcript of the trial and the material gathered by the prosecution will not be made public until 2041. Moreover, a gag order was imposed on the defendants. If they reveal anything whatsoever related to the case they will be charged with divulging “state secrets,” which may mean another trial and another sentence.

The last time a cabinet minister and high-ranking officials were accused and convicted of espionage in Hungary was during the Rákosi period. In 1949 László Rajk, minister of the interior, and several high-ranking army officers were accused of spying, found guilty, and executed. The charges were, of course, trumped up. Times have changed, at least in the sense that Viktor Orbán’s political enemies can no longer be physically eliminated. But even on trumped-up charges they can end up in jail for a few years, their lives ruined.

The defendants in this case were György Szilvásy, minister in charge of national security in the Gyurcsány administration, Lajos Galambos, head of the National Security Office, and Sándor Laborc, Galambos’s successor. The court procedures were conducted in the Debrecen military court instead of in a Budapest civilian court.

As I said, I have written a lot about this case, and I suggest that those who are interested in this trial should read some of the older entries. My first post on the subject appeared on July 2, 2011, with the title “More and more arrests, most likely on phony charges,” which was followed by two more in the same month, one of which I entitled “The case against György Szilvásy and the national security chiefs might be of historic importance.” I borrowed that title from Gábor Török, a political scientist, who argued at the time that if the charges turn out to be unfounded “the present government majority can’t escape political responsibility.” In a democracy, said Török, “no political power can use means that are considered to be illegitimate.” Török suspected that someone did use such means and warned that “it will be a black day for Hungarian democracy when we find out who he was.”

Reading this old blog post of Gábor Török from 2011, we can now understand Viktor Orbán’s fury, described by the author of “A kémügy,” when he found out that despite the assurances of Chief Prosecutor Peter Polt the prosecutors’ case against Szilvásy was so weak that a military judge named Béla Varga refused to initiate proceedings against Szilvásy. Poor Varga didn’t remain a military judge for long. In fact, he is currently under criminal investigation. But after Varga’s ruling Orbán realized that “his political career is at stake” and that this “mistake” must be corrected somehow. And the situation for Orbán didn’t look good. The prosecutors appealed and the appellate court agreed with the lower court.

It was at that junction, claims our author, that there was a meeting of Fidesz leaders, high officials of the Ministry of Interior, and top prosecutors. Fidesz leaders made it clear that the “problem” must be solved. A guilty verdict must be delivered, at least in the first instance. The burden eventually fell on the minister of the interior, Sándor Pintér, who just a bit earlier had received supervisory rights over a new national security organization called Nemzeti Védelmi Szolgálat (National Security Service). He managed to get bits and pieces of information from Laborc’s successor, László Balajti, about some of the cases Galambos and Laborc handled.

Since I already wrote rather extensively about the case, I will not dwell on the details. It is enough to say that Galambos hired an outside firm owned by a person whose father studied in the Soviet Union and whose mother was Russian to conduct lie detector tests on some of the people whom he suspected of being spies for Fidesz within his own office. That became the wedge used to build a case against these three men. The prosecutors concentrated on Galambos with the idea of breaking him. Initially, however, they were not successful and again the investigative judge released him from custody. Again, the prosecutors appealed the ruling and in the second instance the investigative judge sent Galambos back to  jail. But although Galambos was often quite incoherent, he did not accuse his minister of espionage.

It was at that point that Sándor Pintér’s new National Defense Service took over the investigation because the politician was worried that nothing would come of this not so well constructed phony case. But by law the National Defense Service is not allowed to engage in investigative operations. So, illegally the officials of the Service visited Galambos in jail and asked for his cooperation. Galambos could easily be coerced because he had another court case hanging over his head. They promised that if he cooperates they will drop the charges in the other case. By that time Galambos was in such bad psychological shape that overnight the prison guards checked on him every fifteen minutes. But still no tangible evidence came to light that would implicate György Szilvásy. Eventually, they asked Galambos whether they could “summarize” his testimony.

According to the document, Szilvásy, with the knowledge of Ferenc Gyurcsány, served Russian interests. He tried to pass MOL. the Hungarian oil company, into Russian hands and Szilvásy allegedly had something to do with the collapse of Malév, the Hungarian airline company. The lie detector tests were necessary to prevent leaks because the Russians wanted to be sure that no one learns the details of the planned Southern Stream gas pipeline. The anonymous author reminds us that these accusations are practically the same that Fidesz leveled against the Gyurcsány government. Mind you, even here the officers of the National Defense Service were sloppy. At the time that all these dastardly deeds were allegedly committed, in 2006 and early 2007, there were no talks about Hungary’s involvement in the Southern Stream project.

This so-called testimony, the linchpin of the whole case, wasn’t included with the other pieces of evidence because in that case the defense would have been able to read it before the trial. In which case they would have been able to deny the charges in writing. Moreover, evidence obtained illegally cannot be used in the investigative phase. On the other hand, the judges would most likely accept it as evidence because they were more interested in its content than the way in which it was obtained. So, the decision was made that during Galambos’s trial, Galambos himself would ask for the “summary.” Naturally, neither Szilvásy nor Laborc was present and therefore they had no way of knowing what Galambos’s testimony was all about. Therefore they couldn’t possibly mount a defense against it.

Galambos had to be found guilty because otherwise Szilvásy couldn’t have been charged with abetment and Laborc with complicity. Galambos and Szilvásy each received jail sentences of two years and ten months, Sándor Laborc a suspended sentence of one year.

This is what we can glean from this anonymous document. How much of it is true we cannot know now and perhaps never will. But espionage is certainly a very serious offense. According to ¶261§(1) of the Hungarian Criminal Code, someone who gathers intelligence for a foreign power will receive a sentence of from two to eight years. ¶261§(2) states that if the information passed to a foreign power happens to be top-secret then the sentence will be harsher, between five and fifteen years. Considering that Galambos received only two years and ten months, the alleged evidence was most likely very flimsy.

If political motivation played a role and the prosecutors, the military judges, the ministry of interiors actually conspired to send György Szilvásy to jail just because of his role in unveiling Fidesz politicians’ illegal spying on the National Security Office, then Orbán’s Hungary is no longer a country that respects the rule of law. A friend of mine made an observation that I think is absolutely brilliant.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis / wikimedia.org

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis / wikimedia.org

In classic show trials the victims were forced to cooperate and in a spectacular public trial they admitted their guilt. Once the authorities got what they wanted, the judges could announce the verdict and the victims naturally were found guilty. But what happens when the accused refuse to admit guilt as these three men did? How do the authorities manage to send them to jail? The Orbán government came up with the perfect solution. They made everything about this trial secret, including the exact nature of the charges. The persons involved are bound by a gag order. The victims cannot even deny their guilt in public. Thus we will never know what they were charged with and why they were found guilty. This is, my friend says, worse than the classic show trials. I tend to agree with him.

Former Gyurcsány officials convicted of espionage

According to one of the definitions, a “show trial” is “a public trial of a political offender conducted chiefly for propagandistic purposes.” In Hungarian there is a similar word for a show trial, “kirakatper” (kirakat = shop window), but more often than not it is called “koncepciós per,” which in my opinion better describes the nature of such trials. The accusers strive during the investigation to achieve a certain end; they have a concept that guides their procedure and they force the facts to support the charge.

The show trial I’m going to talk about today isn’t a show trial in the literal sense of the word for the simple reason that the court proceedings were conducted in secret. We will not know any details for a very long time because the material gathered against the accused and the transcript of the trial will not be made public until 2041.  Moreover, a gag order was imposed on the accused. If they reveal anything whatsoever related to the case they will be charged with divulging “state secrets,” which may mean another trial and another sentence. It is a true Catch-22 situation.

In the summer of 2011 four people were accused of spying. These so-called spies were all in one way or the other involved with counterintelligence. So, the charge read, men who were supposed to defend the country against spies were actually spying themselves and passing on information to a foreign power. Four people were accused: Lajos Galambos, head of the National Security Office between 2004 and 2007; Sándor Laborc, his successor between 2007 and 2009; György Szilvásy, minister without portfolio in charge of national security; and someone who is known only as László P.

A right-wing Internet news site, Alfahír, was ecstatic at the possibility that “the shammeses of Gyurcsány might be going to jail after all.” In case you don’t know, a shammes is a sexton in the synagogue, but in Hungarian the word also signifies a lowly subordinate; it has a derogatory tinge. Magyar Hírlap, even before the verdict became known, imposed their own verdict: “Spies in the Debrecen Courthouse,” heralded the paper this morning.

Indeed, the case was sent to the Military Court in Debrecen although under normal circumstances it should have been tried in Budapest. Surely, Tünde Handó must have had good reason to send the case to Debrecen. And indeed, she should be satisfied with the results. Lajos Galambos and György Szilvásy each received jail sentences of two years and ten months, Sándor Laborc a suspended sentence of one year, and to everybody’s surprise László P. was found not guilty.

László P. was the head of a computer security firm that was hired to make the National Security Office’s computer system safe. There were too many leaks and Laborc suspected that the leaked information was ending up in the hands of the Fidesz leadership. It was Szilvásy who recommended László P. He didn’t know him personally but  heard that he was good at what he did.

espionageThose Fidesz apparatchiks who were entrusted with finding some kind of an excuse for getting even with Galambos-Laborc-Szilvásy, who were trying to put an end to Fidesz spying, must have been delighted when they discovered that László P.’s mother was a Russian whom his father married when he was a university student in the Soviet Union. Moreover, one of László P.’s  associates was “also Russian speaking,” as Magyar Nemzet discovered. Thus the plot, the concept, was hatched upon which a case could be built. Spying for Russia via László P’s firm. Yet László P. was found not guilty. I leave it to my readers’ imagination to hypothesize what might be behind this very surprising outcome.

So, let’s see what the charges were. Galambos was charged with and convicted of espionage, Szilvásy with abetment, and Laborc with complicity. Since everything surrounding the trial is secret, it is impossible to figure out what these people were really accused of.

Spying is certainly a very serious offense. According to ¶261§(1) of the Hungarian Criminal Code, someone who gathers intelligence for a foreign power will receive a sentence of from two to eight years. ¶261§(2) states that if the information passed to a foreign power happens to be top secret then the sentence will be harsher, between five and fifteen years. In this case Galambos couldn’t have revealed top secret information to anyone. As far as Szilvásy is concerned, the charge most likely was that he ordered Galambos to commit a crime. As for Laborc, we have not a clue what the charge of complicity actually means or in what way he was supposed to be complicit in this alleged affair.

The case has a long history. In the last two years hundreds of articles have been written and all sorts of conspiracy theories hatched. Many of them turned out to be sheer speculation. Unfortunately we are still speculating due to the secrecy that surrounds the case. I suspect that the decision was made early in the game to make the trial secret because the charges were bogus. I remember that sometime in late 2011 or early 2012 the parliamentary committee on national security matters convened to hear what the prosecutors had to say about this spy case. At that point Ágnes Vadai, still a member of MSZP, was a member of the committee. Of course, she couldn’t say much about it, but she indicated that the whole affair was unbelievable. Laughable, I think she called it.

One thing is sure. The National Security Office discovered that Fidesz had hired a company, UD Zrt., headed by former national security officers, to spy on the National Security Office. The telephone conversations that the National Security Office recorded proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Fidesz was setting up a kind of shadow national security office of its own. For a little while it looked as if the people involved on Fidesz’s side, László Kövér and Ervin Demeter, were in serious trouble. But if you have the prosecutor’s office in your pocket, a lot of problems can be solved.

Moreover, Viktor Orbán doesn’t forget. Once in power he decided to jail those people who tried to expose Fidesz’s illegal dirty tricks. I’m sure that originally they were hoping to implicate Ferenc Gyurcsány, but that proved to be impossible. His old friend György Szilvásy could, however, be dragged in because he recommended  László P.’s firm to the National Security Office. One could ask: why didn’t the Office itself take care of the problem? Because the top brass in the agency didn’t trust their subordinates. Some of them, they believed, were in the pay of Fidesz.

Perhaps a few years ago one could say that such speculations about Fidesz couldn’t possibly be true, but by now we’ve seen enough of the party’s mafia-like ways to understand that their earlier spying on the National Security Office was true to form. And what do you do with your political enemies? Just ask Putin.