Tag Archives: Sándor Pintér

Hungarian secret agent on the Russian threat

A real bombshell exploded yesterday when Index published both in English and in Hungarian a lengthy interview with Ferenc Katrein, who worked in the civilian counter-intelligence agency for 13 years. His highest position at the agency was “executive head of operations.” He dealt with such sensitive issues as the country’s defense against the Russian secret service. In 2013 he left the agency because he “no longer could identify with the leadership,” which was following the decidedly pro-Russian policies of the Orbán government.

Katrein considers the Russian threat in Europe very serious, “the highest level” in recent years. The Russians are putting a great deal of work into “aggravating the migration crisis and especially in using it for propaganda and gaining influence.” A few months ago Ferenc Gyurcsány estimated the number of Russian agents in Hungary to be somewhere between 600 and 800, which, according to Katrein, might not be an exaggeration. If one includes “the complete web of connections employed by Russian intelligence to serve Russian interests, including dark intelligence, this number looks … realistic.”

In general, Katrein complains about the passivity of the agency. He realized at the time of the 2006 disturbances that “we are a sleeping agency,” that the agency was overlooking threats from extremist elements. It took some time to become more or less proactive.

We know that Fidesz, while in opposition, had close relations with former agents who had been booted out of the service but who still had friends in the agency who were passing information about government members and others to Fidesz. It is quite possible that some of these agents were sympathetic to extremist groups that could serve the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Ferenc Katrein / Index / Photo: István Huszti

After the 2010 change of government, when the agency became subordinated to the ministry of interior headed by Sándor Pintér, a former police chief, “the philosophy of the police” triumphed over “the philosophy of the secret service. …Something has to happen, a crime, a murder for the mechanism to start.” A good example of this mindset was the agency’s unwillingness to interfere in the activities of the Hungarian National Front (Magyar Nemzet Arcvonal/MNA) and GRU, the Russian military secret service. You may recall that István Győrkös’s group was playing war games with officers attached to the Russian Embassy in Budapest. By the time officers of the agency were sent out to confront the head of MNA, it was too late. One of them was killed by Győrkös.

In Katrein’s opinion, cooperation between an extremist group and the Russian military secret service is something that must be reported to the government by the head of the agency. Moreover, such a piece of vital information must be sent to partner agencies in NATO because “everybody’s fighting its own far-right organizations in Europe.” Katrein expressed his hope that the information was sent to Hungary’s partners. I wouldn’t be at all certain about that.

In the interview Katrein said that Russia placed a large number of agents in the former Soviet satellites in the late 1980s because it was becoming clear that the socialist order’s days were numbered. But this generation of “deep cover agents is close to retirement, which means that the Russians are looking for opportunities to refresh the personnel.” Apparently the Hungarian residency bond program is such an opportunity. Thousands of Russians can be placed in Hungary this way.

Moreover, if one looks at the media or among the so-called advisers and national security experts, it is apparent that the Russians have already deeply penetrated that vital sector for propaganda purposes. The personnel of the Hungarian state television and radio wittingly or unwittingly work as Russian agents. The same is true of government mouthpieces like Magyar Idők, Pesti Srácok, and 888.hu. National security experts talk about the failure of the West, the uselessness of the European Union, and the sins of the United States. They portray the refugees marching toward Europe as a controlled invasion. Lately, these “experts” have begun attacking NATO while remaining silent about Russia. In fact, some of them even deny Russian interference in the U.S. election on the side of Donald Trump. These “experts” surely couldn’t spread their falsified information without the authorization and support of the Hungarian government. Katrein’s opinion of these people “who consider themselves experts while they panic and talk about war and invasion are not experts but something else.” He didn’t spell it out, but I will. They are likely Russian agents.

When the conversation turned to the relations of NATO’s partner agencies with their Hungarian counterparts, Katrein described the situation this way: “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.”

Although Magyar Idők, at least in one of the editorials published after the interview, tried to portray the conversation with the former counter-intelligence officer as a condemnation of the national security services before 2010, Katrein’s main critique was reserved for the situation created as a result of the Orbán government’s so-called “Eastern Opening” and the pro-Russian course that followed. Prior to the merging of the military intelligence services into the Military National Security Service, Hungarian military intelligence was completely pro-NATO. Now, it is very heavily pro-Russian. This was the reason for Katrein’s resignation.

It seems that the Orbán government was unprepared for Katrein’s revelations. Although Viktor Orbán felt he had to say something, his comments were inadequate given the harsh criticism of his pro-Russian policies. The only thing he managed to mutter was that although Hungary is not the largest country on earth, it is situated in an important part of it. Both to the East and to the West there are countries for which Hungary is important. Hungary cannot be isolated. It can only be defended. And, Orbán continued, the country has been well defended ever since 2010.

Orbán left the job of discrediting Katrein to the hacks of his media empire, but the result was confusion. Since the appearance of the interview Magyar Idők has published four articles on the subject, the first of which, as I said, tried to portray the interview as a condemnation of the agency during the socialist-liberal governments before 2010. This feat was accomplished by leaving out all references to the current government’s pro-Russian policies, which agents slavishly follow. In this first article Katrein was portrayed as a hero. But then Magyar Idők realized that the damning interview can’t be handled this way, so it moved into attack mode. It claimed that Katrein didn’t leave the agency on his own volition but was fired. Moreover, “secret service experts” now claim that “well-known foreign groups want to influence the foreign policy of the government, its consistent policy toward migration, and its cooperation with the president of the United States.” Yes, those foreigners are trying to ruin the Hungarian government.

International relations, due mostly to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, are in flux. We have no idea about the nature of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia in the coming months and years. As things stand now, it would be exceedingly risky for Trump to conduct the kind of pro-Russian policy he most likely originally envisaged. In any case, the Hungarian government is trying to get close to the top echelon of the Trump administration. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó already got as far as Sebastian Gorka, the pride of the Hungarian right.

March 22, 2017

Gábor Vona is trying to cast doubt on Viktor Orbán’s past

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Interior Minister Sándor Pintér have faced some hard times in the last couple of months. There is, for instance, the Jürgen Roth story about Dietmar Clodo’s testimony that Semion Mogilevich may have bribed both Pintér and Orbán in the 1990s. This story might have induced Pintér to prepare the ground for the possibility of foreign attacks on both him and the prime minister. He added, of course, that whatever foreign secret service agencies have on them are forgeries.

And now Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, is challenging Viktor Orbán about his alleged past as an informer.

The topic came to the fore two years ago when Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, talked about the prime minister’s alleged involvement in the state security apparatus in 1981-1982 when he spent a year between high school and university in the Hungarian Army.

Questions about Orbán’s past are not new. Already in 1991 János Kenedi, one of the top experts on the state security apparatus in Hungary, after examining the relevant documents, declared that Orbán, if anything, had been the victim of intelligence gathering and was innocent of any wrongdoing. That testimony, however, didn’t put an end to speculation. Here and there someone finds a piece of evidence that stirs up suspicion again. One such occasion was the discovery by László Varga, director of the Archives of the City of Budapest, that Viktor Orbán’s dossier, titled “Viktória,” whose existence was a known fact, “had disappeared.”

What has been disturbing all along is that Orbán refuses to say outright that he never, ever reported on anyone in his life. At the time of Simicska’s accusation in 2015, Hír24 asked him this question. Orbán’s answer was not a categorical denial. He said that “the facts speak for themselves. All information is available on the internet. I suggest that you study them.” Magyar Narancs, commenting on this statement, asked: “Why can’t the prime minister’s office or the press secretary or he himself put together a simple sentence: ‘Viktor Orbán was not an informer and never reported on anyone.’” A good question.

Now, two years later, Orbán still refuses to utter this simple sentence. At the moment, the release of informers’ names is again a matter of debate in the Hungarian parliament, and Gábor Vona used the occasion to inquire from Viktor Orbán about his possible involvement. “Mr. Prime Minister, I know that during your military service you were in contact with the secret service. I also know, Mr. Prime Minister, that there was a member of your family who during the 1956 revolution was working for ÁVH as an agent.” Orbán’s answer was almost identical to his earlier response to the same question. “All documents are available on the internet, study them.” That was not enough for Vona, who then asked: “Do you have the courage to declare that ‘I have never been an agent and I didn’t report on anyone either in writing or verbally?’ Do you dare to declare it?” Again, Orbán refused to affirm it in the first person singular. Instead, he said that “naturally I was on the other side, just as all of us here. We were on the other side; we were the ones who were persecuted; it was in our apartments that they planted listening devices; we didn’t cooperate with any kind of service.”

Gábor Vona questioning Viktor Orbán

Not only did Orbán refuse to answer these simple questions but he wasn’t really truthful about the ideological commitment of the leaders of Fidesz in the 1980s. In 1985 László Kövér imagined himself and his friends in Fidesz as the future leaders of the existing regime, that is, the socialist people’s republic under Kádár or perhaps, given Kádár’s age, some younger, more dynamic leader. The “college” where these boys and girls from the countryside received extra educational opportunities was created to be “a school for political leadership.”

As for all those Fidesz members sitting in the parliament, who according to Orbán “were on the other side,” that is also an exaggeration. Several important Fidesz politicians were actually members of MSZMP, the party established by János Kádár and others during the days of the October 56 revolution. Just to mention a few: János Martonyi, György Matolcsy, István Stumpf, Sándor Pintér, András Tállai, Béla Turi-Kovács, and Péter Harrach.

The younger members of Fidesz would obviously like to bury the sins of their elders. Only recently, in connection with the demand for the list of informers, János Lázár declared that they were only victims and therefore their identities should be shielded. The real culprits, he claimed, are the former members of MSZMP who “denied the freedom and self-determination of the Hungarian people.” They are the ones who are traitors and who should never have any role in political life. One would like to remind Lázár that in 1989 there were 800,000 party members in Hungary. Moreover, if Fidesz professes to have such a pristine past, it should get rid of those politicians on their side of the aisle who were not exactly on the “other side.”

Viktor Orbán answering Gábor Vona

After the Vona-Orbán encounter, speculation abounded that Vona might have received damaging information about Orbán from Lajos Simicska, especially since Simicska’s son Ádám just recently optimistically announced that Jobbik will win the 2018 election with a two-thirds majority. (At the moment Ádám Simicska’s prediction has a zero percent chance of materializing.) Vona in an interview on ATV denied that he has any new information, but he added that if he learns anything he will not hesitate to make it public.

According to people close to Simicska, he makes no secret of his plan to release “seriously compromising documents” on Orbán close to the election. He talks quite freely about the circumstances surrounding his break with Orbán and keeps repeating that “it is his obligation to do everything in his power to facilitate the overthrow of the prime minister.” According to Fidesz politicians, Orbán as well as the leading members of the party consider Simicska a serious antagonist who “has money to spend and nothing to lose.”

March 21, 2017

Does (government?) fiction portend trouble for Pintér?

Don’t expect anything even remotely resembling a coherent post today. I’m covering what is likely a fabricated allegation on the off chance that it, or a spin-off of it, morphs into something significant.

Pesti Srácok was the first internet news site to break the story, which spread like wildfire online. In it we learned that “a dreaded character of night life was sent to discredit Sándor Pintér.” A former national security officer gone rogue, Róbert Jakubinyi, wanted to use György Tanyi, who was arrested in 2012 for having allegedly attempted murder in 1996, to carry out a character assassination of the minister of interior. Tanyi is currently under house arrest.

The story was incredibly muddled. Jakubinyi allegedly paid a visit to Tanyi’s lawyer, trying to get her to cooperate with him in his attempt to have compromising documents about Minister of Interior Sándor Pintér smuggled out of the country. He wanted her to convince Tanyi to violate his house arrest and leave the country, taking along the compromising documents, which, by the way, the police claims were fake. But not even threats and a 20 million forint bribe changed her mind.

György Tanyi was a suspect in a 1996 case involving a driver at a trotting course. I wrote at some length about the case in October 2013. He and his two brothers were never even accused of the crime because a police investigation determined that although the bullets were fired from a gun similar in caliber and make to a gun owned by the brothers, they were not fired from the Tanyi brothers’ weapon. The suspicion has lingered ever since that Sándor Pintér, chief of the national police force at the time, was in some way involved. There was talk that Pintér was the one who replaced the Tanyi brothers’ gun to save their skins. It didn’t help Pintér’s case that he first denied having been on the scene, which later proved to be wrong. Whatever the real facts, it is strange that Tanyi was arrested only 16 years later.

Pesti Srácok also reported that the intelligence community suspects that foreign agents or foreign services are behind Jakubinyi’s undertaking. He is also accused of gathering information on important Fidesz politicians, especially on Viktor Orbán. For example, he wanted to learn whether Orbán reported to the internal security forces while studying in Great Britain at the end of 1989. Pesti Srácok seemed to know that Jakubinyi was passing on information about Fidesz to MSZP politicians during the 2010 election campaign.

Pesti Srácok and subsequently other government media outlets, like Magyar Idők and 888.hu, related this cockeyed story as fact. Válasz, on the other hand, a conservative but by and large pro-government publication, couldn’t quite swallow what on the face of it seemed to be sheer nonsense. The Válasz reporter who covered the story found it incredible. Some obvious questions presented themselves off the bat. Why was it necessary to use a fugitive from justice to smuggle out fake documents? Why was it necessary to physically cross borders with these documents when, in our digital world, the task could be accomplished with a few clicks on a laptop? Válasz found the story “strongly reminiscent of the 1950s.” What is behind this whole thing? the journalist asked. Is it possible that the government expects some revealing article from abroad on Pintér’s corruption and wants to prepare the ground for it?

With each passing day the government media further embellished the story. Magyar Idők reported on March 18 that there was a likelihood that “the character assassination of government members may continue and the prime minister himself might also be a target.” The National Defense Service (Nemzeti Védelmi Szolgálat) gathered enough evidence for the Buda Central District Court (Budai Központi Kerületi Bíróság/BKKB) to order Jakubinyi’s pre-trial detention.

From this Magyar Idők article we learned something that may shed light on the rationale for this story. In justifying its pre-trial detention of Tanyi, BKKB stated that “the investigation began only a month ago, and it required a very broad investigative effort.” Let me remind everybody that Átlátszó published key passages from Jürgen Roth’s Schmutzige Demokratie, in which Dietmar Clodo described Semion Mogilevich’s alleged bribery of both Sándor Pintér and Viktor Orbán. I would find it very strange if the current case against Jakubinyi had nothing to do with Roth’s Clodo story. I covered the story on February 5, 2017. Antónia Rádi of Átlátszó, who initially broke the story in 2013, also wrote an article titled “Do the Mafiosos attack or defend the minister of justice?” It is a very complicated story, but Rádi seems to be convinced that, even though Jakubinyi is currently sitting in jail, he is in cahoots with Pintér. He is being used, willingly or unwillingly, to deflect attention away from Pintér’s difficulties as a result of the Clodo testimony.

Magyar Idők reported today that Sándor Pintér is expecting ever more attacks from abroad because of Hungary’s “consistent and decisive action against migrants.” The other source of attack is domestic. The police under the supervision of the minister of interior are doing such a splendid job of eliminating criminals that certain criminal elements decided to strike back.

Well, that’s it. Is this story a preemptive strike? Does the government expect Pintér to come under closer scrutiny? I have no idea. We’ll have to wait to see what develops.

March 20, 2017

Does Putin have something on Orbán? Suspicion lingers

Just as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi wants to know what the Russians have on Donald Trump, many Hungarians would like to know what Vladimir Putin has on Viktor Orbán. A couple of days ago a Russian journalist, Anastasia Kirilenko, published a lengthy article for The Insider, which is actually a Russian-language site, titled “Suitcase from Solntsevo: Does Putin have a video-kompromat of the Hungarian leader?” Kirilenko’s story takes us back to the 1990s when Budapest was a hotbed of Russian mafia bosses and other shady characters from all over the world.

The story is not entirely new, but this is the first time that Viktor Orbán is named as the possible beneficiary of a suitcase full of illicit money from the most important man in the Russian mafia, the Ukrainian Semion Mogilevich, who lived in Budapest at the time. Mogilevich has been described by the FBI as “the most dangerous mobster in the world.” He has been accused of “weapons trafficking, contract murders, extortion, drug trafficking, and prostitution on an international scale.” After it looked as if he might get in trouble with the law in Hungary, he left for Russia where he lives in a suburb of Moscow called Solntsevo. Hence the title of Kirilenko’s article.

Another famous mafia chief and a friend of “Szeva bácsi” (Uncle Seva), as he was called by his friends in Budapest, was the German Dietmar Clodo, who in the 1980s was arrested for bank robbery at least twice in Germany. Eventually, he was also arrested in Hungary and received a ten-year sentence, which he was able to serve in Germany. He was released in 2011 and since then has been heading a security firm.

I wrote a post in 2013 about Mogilevich and Clodo in Budapest in which I looked into the role of Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, in the affairs of the Russian mafia bosses. There is good reason to believe that Clodo and Mogilevich were paying Pintér protection money. Several times a year large sums of money were sent by Mogilevich via Clodo to Pintér. But that’s not all. There is a good possibility that Pintér was aware of something about Orbán’s past that he was/is using against him. In 1998, at the time of the formation of the first Orbán government, the young prime minister insisted on naming Pintér minister of interior, an appointment that even his colleagues disapproved of. A former police chief as minister of interior? But Orbán insisted. In fact, Orbán is so attached to Pintér that he appointed him minister of interior in both the second and the third Orbán governments. The fellow must be the very best minister of interior in the whole world. People suspect that Pintér has a stranglehold on Orbán as a result of some earlier action by the prime minister of a sinister or perhaps even criminal nature. And this may have to do with Mogilevich and Clodo.

Jürgen Roth, a well-known German investigative journalist specializing in organized crime, especially in Eastern Europe, interviewed Clodo in June 2016 in Regensburg. Roth incorporated the written testimony of Clodo in his 2016 book, Schmutzige Demokratie: Ausgehölt—Ausgenutzt—Ausgelöscht? According to this document, Clodo was entrusted by Mogilevich to deliver sums of money to various officials, “among whom was Sándor Pintér.” In the spring of 1994, just before the national election, “Mogilevich’s interpreter brought [Clodo] a suitcase with approximately one million deutschmarks.” Clodo was told that the suitcase must be handed to the young man in Clodo’s study and that he was supposed to open the suitcase right there because behind the books was a hidden camera which recorded the exchange. But the young man was extremely reluctant to enter the house. As Clodo recalls in his written testimony, “this man didn’t want to come into my house. I told him, ‘Listen to me, I have that damned money in a suitcase. I don’t want to go out on the street with this suitcase. I don’t care. If you refuse to come in, I will give it back to Mr. Mogilevich. I don’t care.’ I wasn’t interested in who this man was. It was only after the elections that I understood that this young man was Viktor Orbán from Fidesz.”

Clodo told the same story to Antónia Rádi in 2013, who was then working for HVG. She published the story in HVG at the time but, after consulting with the magazine’s lawyers, decided to withhold the politician’s name. When the story, without mentioning Orbán’s name, came out, few people showed any interest in her story. It was only György Bolgár who decided to interview Rádai on his show on Klub Rádió. He correctly noted that if this story is true, whoever the politician is can’t feel safe. After all, that video might still be in the possession of Uncle Seva in Moscow.

So, let’s return to Mogilevich who, after the FBI, the Italian police, and the Swiss national security office were after him, fled to Moscow in 2003. Although the Russian authorities were fully aware of his criminal past, he was allowed to settle in Moscow in great comfort, apparently because of “his close relationship to Putin from the Leningrad days,” meaning the years prior to 1996 when Putin was working for the City of Saint Petersburg.

Anastasia Kirilenko points out that Orbán was fiercely anti-Russian until 2009, when he did an about-face and became a great friend of Vladimir Putin and Russia. What happened? Her answer is: “There is a good possibility that the reason for Orbán’s sudden pro-Russian attitude has something to with Semion Mogilevich’s arrest in Moscow for tax evasion and his subsequent clearance on all charges.”

Clodo, who was interviewed by The Insider, described Orbán today as Putin’s puppet. He is certain that, for his freedom, Mogilevich handed Putin the video-kompromat that showed Orbán receiving the suitcase full of money. Whatever the case, Orbán by now seems to fulfill all “orders” coming from Moscow. For example, Orbán went so far in 2015 as to agree to the refurbishing of a memorial which included a marble obelisk referring to the Soviet soldiers who died during the “Hungarian counterrevolution.”

Memorial to the victims of the 1956 “counterrevolution”

Of course, Clodo’s story about the Orbán incident may be the figment of his imagination, but there is a good likelihood that he is telling the truth about the kickbacks Pintér received from Mogilevich through Clodo. And we have to ask why Sándor Pintér has had a sinecure as minister of interior in all of the Orbán governments, spanning almost twenty years. One can’t help wondering about that, just as one must ponder the reasons for the unnatural sudden change of Orbán’s attitude toward Russia.

February 5, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s new neighbor: Ghaith Pharaon, fugitive from justice

During the summer Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, was searching for new business opportunities. By that time, OLAF, the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office, was looking into his “super company,” which had received almost all of the contracts for the EU-financed modernization of city lighting in Hungary. The first son-in-law had to find greener pastures, preferably far away from public procurements. The choice, it seems, was real estate. Investigative journalists discovered that Tiborcz was doing lucrative deals with the assistance of a wealthy Turkish businessman. One of their first real estate ventures was the purchase of the building of the defunct Postabank, which soon enough they sold, through an intermediary, to Ghaith Pharaon, a Saudi businessman of dubious repute.

The available English-language information on Ghaith Pharaon is extensive, mostly because of his association with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) back in the 1990s. Secretly acting on behalf of BCCI, Pharaon acquired control of two American banks in violation of federal banking laws. When the fraud was discovered, BCCI was forced to sell the banks, which soon after were shut down by regulators when it was determined they were insolvent. Pharaon was charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit racketeering. He has been wanted by the FBI since 1991 for his role in the BCCI fraud and remains a fugitive. In addition, Pharaon was accused in a 2002 French parliamentary report of having financial dealings with hawala, an Islamic financial network which is also used by terrorist organizations. Earlier I wrote in more detail about Pharaon’s business activities in Hungary.

Trouble seems to follow István Tiborcz. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he has a penchant for dealing with questionable characters.

It seems that in the last four or five months Pharaon has been busy. He is currently the owner of nine extremely valuable pieces of property in Hungary. His latest purchase is a mansion right across from the house owned by Viktor Orbán and his family. I suspect that the mansion was a state property that earlier was used as a kindergarten. Orbán himself liked the building so much that during his first administration he planned to refurbish it and use it as the official residence of the speaker of the house. The place has been abandoned for almost 20 years and, judging from the photos, it needs extensive repairs. During the summer the property’s listing price was 410 million forints or $1.45 million.

The mansion Pharaon bought

The mansion Ghaith Pharaon bought

Once it became public knowledge that Pharaon is now Orbán’s neighbor, interest in his past spiked even though it has been a well-known fact in Hungary, at least since June 2016, that Pharaon is on the FBI’s wanted list. But the opposition parties finally started asking questions about Pharaon’s close business ties not only with the prime minister’s son-in-law but also with the Hungarian government and MOL, the Hungarian oil company.

Pharaon is not a simple foreign investor wanting to make some money in Hungary. He is in possession of a valid visa issued to him by the Hungarian government. At the time they issued the visa, Hungarian authorities were aware of the fact that Pharaon was being sought not only by the FBI but apparently also by Interpol because of his relations with terrorists, including at one time with Osama bin Laden. Péter Juhász of Együtt got hold of a letter from Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, strangely enough written in Hungarian, to the Saudi ambassador in Budapest confirming their knowledge. Pintér wanted to have the Saudi government’s opinion in the case. The answer had to be reassuring because Pharaon received a visa without any trouble. But why would it not have been reassuring since, according to information that can be found in Stratfor Intelligence Files made public by WikiLeaks, “Ghaith Pharaon is not a genuine businessman … he is nothing more than a front man who does dirty things on behalf of Saudi Arabia.”

All the talk about Pharaon being on the FBI’s most wanted list eventually prompted Hungarian journalists to approach the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, requesting information about Pharaon’s current status. Eric Watnik, counselor for public affairs, who is in charge of the press and information office at the embassy, gave the following information on Pharaon. On November 15, 1991 the District of Columbia court issued an arrest warrant signed by Alan Kay, magistrate judge. “This arrest warrant is still valid,” he added. Since then the charges against Pharaon have multiplied (conspiracy, wire fraud, racketeering conspiracy, aiding and abetting) and by now, if arrested and charged, he could face at least 30 years in jail. In addition, according to Watnik, Interpol issued a Red Notice (A355/8-1992) which, according to Interpol’s website, seeks “the location and arrest of wanted persons with a view to extradition or similar lawful action.” Although the Red Notice has since disappeared from the Interpol website, Watnik noted that Hungary has an extradition treaty with the United States and thus, had it been asked, would have been obliged to agree to the extradition of Pharaon.

Once this letter from Pintér to the Saudi ambassador became public, both Jobbik and MSZP wanted to know more about the case. Jobbik’s Márton Gyöngyösi couldn’t get an answer from Viktor Orbán himself, but Tamás Harangozó of MSZP lucked out. He wanted to know whether the prime minister had ever had a personal meeting with Pharaon. Harangozó said he wanted to have a serious answer because Orbán, instead of giving substantive responses, often cracks jokes or makes ironic remarks. Orbán admitted that he had met “Professor Pharaon” at a banquet, which surely cannot pose a national security risk. Harangozó hit back: in that case, Orbán and the government itself is the national security risk. Eventually, Orbán claimed that “the whole Pharaon affair is an American secret service game.” If the FBI is truly seeking his extradition, how is it possible that Pharaon has remained free for the last 24 years?

The case was even discussed in the parliamentary committee on national security where Szilárd Németh, the committee’s Fidesz deputy chairman, expressed his belief that Viktor Orbán’s neighbor may be only the namesake of the real Ghaith Pharaon. Of course, a simple fingerprint comparison could put an end to any doubt but, according the U.S. Embassy, the Hungarian authorities refuse to cooperate. In fact, the Hungarian government is actively shielding Pharaon from “harassment.” When Jobbik wanted to place a public announcement in which Pharaon’s name was mentioned, MTI OS (Országos Sajtószolgálat) refused to publish it because “they need to protect the privacy rights of public figures.” Why is Pharaon a public figure? The only thing that comes to my mind is the phrase “public enemy.”

October 29, 2016

Are security agents recruiting informants in media outlets?

The usually well-informed 444.hu published a story that has shaken the world of the Hungarian media. It was about an unnamed journalist (G.) who in December 2015 was approached by two men identifying themselves as agents of the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AH) or, in English, the Constitution Protection Office. According to the organization’s website, the primary duty of the office is the defense of the constitutional order against illegal attempts to overthrow it. These attacks may come from “extremist religious groups or organizations established on an anti-democratic ideological basis. For information gathering and observation AH can use secret service means and methods.”

G. was approached on the street on his way to his newspaper’s editorial office. The men said they wanted to talk to him about matters concerning his own “safety.” Although G. wanted to have the conversation right there, the two men insisted on going elsewhere. There he was confronted with intimate details of his and his family’s private life. He was told that the information was collected not by their own office but by “someone else with harmful intent.” They could help him but only if G. would be willing to cooperate. They kept insisting that he sign a long-term cooperative agreement to report to them. He didn’t find out what he was supposed to report to AH’s secret service men. He simply refused to sign. But he did agree to a second meeting because he was hoping to learn more about what the two agents were after. At this second meeting, somewhat more composed, G. told the AH agents that he intended to go to the police and file charges against the unnamed person who allegedly collected secret information on his private life. The men tried to get information out of G. about his contacts and sources, but G. refused to cooperate or to sign anything. And that was that. When 444.hu went to the ministry of interior responsible for the secret services, the spokesman for the ministry didn’t deny that such an encounter had taken place. He simply copied out the appropriate passages from the laws governing the functioning of the office. It was all legal, he insisted.

People familiar with the methods of the secret service during the Kádár regime recall that this kind of blackmail was a classic way to force unwilling people to cooperate with the ministry of interior’s infamous III/III department. Using so-called “sensitive material” from people’s private lives, according to experts, is still allowable today. But this information could be exploited only if “the security of Hungary were in immediate danger,” which was certainly not the case here.

By the next day journalists began to express their fears that G.’s encounter with the agents of AH might not be unique and asked themselves how many such willing or unwilling recruits are already in the editorial offices of media outlets. In the last few months quite a few suspicious stories came to light indicating that agents keep a tab on politicians and journalists. In 2014 the police confiscated a journalist’s cellphone in the hope of getting information on his sources. In May 2016 the police listened in on the telephone conversations of a journalist from Blikk. Benedek Jávor, PM member of the European Parliament, became aware that a third person was listening to his telephone conversations.

Naturally, all opposition parties protested, and the socialist chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security promised to discuss the matter next Thursday. The ministry and the head of AH will be called to report on the case. I don’t expect much from this meeting. Zsolt Molnár, the socialist chairman, usually accepts the disinformation that government agencies dump on the committee.

As I was gathering material for this post I recalled, though only in the vaguest of terms, a report about the ministry of interior’s failed attempt to make it legal to plant members of the secret service in editorial offices. Soon enough I unearthed the story. On November 4, 2015 Index discovered the offensive section in a 34-page amendment package to the law on the status of the various branches of the police. ¶38 listed the organizations that must have working relations with the national security establishment: telegraphic and postal service, energy suppliers, firms connected to the armaments industry. There is nothing surprising in this list thus far, but what made the journalists of Index stop was the mention of “content providers” (tartalomszolgáltatók). No definition of content providers was given but, according to the normal understanding of the phrase, it includes print and internet news sites as well as radio and television stations.

government-spying2

It took only a few hours for Sándor Pintér’s ministry to announce that “the Hungarian opposition was deliberately misinterpreting” the text. “It only allows what was already in force.” Members of the national security apparatus are already employed in the offices of telecommunication services. As Index pointed out, there are two problems with this denial. One is that in the law on the media “tartalomszolgáltató” is defined as “any media service provider or supplier of other media content.” The other difficulty is that if this provision “was already in force,” either it was being applied illegally or, if it was legal, why did the government want to create a new law to provide for it?

The upshot, I believe, is that Sándor Pintér indeed wanted to create a law that would allow the government to legally place agents in the offices of radio and TV stations, newspapers, and internet news providers but the opposition and the media discovered that crucial paragraph and the government had to retreat.

That was in November in 2015, and about a month later G. had his encounter with the two AH agents. I can’t help thinking that there is a connection between the failed attempt of the ministry of interior to change the law on national security and the effort of the two agents to recruit G. If that hypothesis is correct, we can be pretty certain that G. was not the only journalist approached. He had the guts to say no, although it took him almost a year to gather his courage and come forward with the story of his encounter.

It is unlikely that the upheaval will end here. G. is being encouraged to file charges. It is also possible that others will come forth with similar stories. But no matter what happens, the case will have a chilling effect on the already frightened journalists whose opportunity to ply their trade honestly and independently is shrinking in Orbán’s Hungary.

September 9, 2016

Inventing a scandal at the Körmend refugee camp

Just because we haven’t heard about refugees arriving in Hungary lately doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, if one combs through the Hungarian media’s articles on any given Monday one can often read that “over the weekend” several hundred migrants made it again. According to the best estimates, since January 1 about 12,000 men, women, and children reached Hungary. And, it seems, at least ten thousand have miraculously disappeared since. Officials at the Hungarian Immigration Office claim they have no idea where the refugees are. The best bet is that they are already in Austria or maybe even farther west.

The Hungarian authorities are not exactly heartbroken about the disappearance of these people. In fact, they seem to be facilitating their departure by moving refugees who are in camps close to the Serb-Hungarian border or in the center of the country to a newly designated site only a few hundred meters from the Austro-Hungarian border in Körmend. The Austrians aren’t stupid. A couple of days ago the Burgenland police reinforced its supervision of the border around the city. Hungarian intentions are so obvious that even the German conservative paper Die Welt published a long article about the Körmend camp. The author of the article is Boris Kálnoky, who speaks Hungarian and was on the spot when the first group of refugees arrived. As he says, the Hungarian decision to establish a camp in Körmend “suggests that Hungary discreetly wants to get rid of these people.”

Because of the government hysteria created around the refugee issue no community wants to see a refugee camp in its vicinity. Everywhere the government announced its intention to establish such a camp there was such opposition that the idea had to be abandoned. This time the plan was kept secret. It was only a few days ago that people found out that a camp capable of housing 300 migrants will be created in Körmend. After the first 12 migrants arrived, one could hardly find any pepper spray, costing 2,000 forints, anywhere in Körmend. The management of the local Tesco “asked their employees to dress conservatively. ” Blikk reported that “the women of Körmend are afraid to go out alone because of the migrants.” What really worries them is that the refugees can freely move about in the town. A few hours later 888.hu, Gábor G. Fodor’s internet rag, ran an article with the following title: “If you dress provocatively, you may be raped.”

It was in this atmosphere that a journalist of Hetek, a magazine established by Sándor Németh, head of a Pentecostal Christian sect called Assembly of Faith, published two articles. These articles led to great embarrassment for ATV, on whose website they appeared. And the Hungarian government was far too eager to jump in and condemn the events which, as it turned out, never happened.

Hetek is described in Wikipedia as an anti-Muslim publication, which is certainly true, but I don’t agree with the author of the Wikipedia article who describes the magazine as an example of yellow journalism. In general, articles in Hetek are reliable sources of information. It’s just that any article dealing with Islam and the Middle East should be viewed cautiously or skeptically. ATV, my favorite television station, is unfortunately owned by the Assembly of Faith, and the articles that appear on ATV’s website often come from Hetek journalists.

Two articles about the situation in Körmend, written by Zoltán Szobota, who reported from the scene, appeared early this morning. The first piece was a background story about how the camp was established in Körmend behind the backs and against the wishes of the people of the city. He said that nothing was prepared for the arrival of 300 people. The hospital will not be able to handle the migrants’ needs. The association of citizens who are willing to help the police don’t have enough money for 24-hour dispatcher service, police dogs, extra VW Passat cars, etc. Moreover, what an idea to place the camp right next to a high school. It is also unacceptable that the camp is close to the stadium where they hold practices and sporting events. For good measure Szobota added that earlier, when a large number of migrants went through Körmend on their way to Austria, “they robbed a tobacco shop which thanks to the local authorities didn’t become national news,” thus accusing the local police of covering up a crime.

Szobota’s first article was bad enough, but it was the second one that really set the Hungarian media and political sphere ablaze. This story involved the sports stadium he had been worried about already in his first article. He records the “growing aggressiveness” of the migrants as their numbers have grown. Only three days have gone by, and here is the first serious incident. A group of migrants were watching girls playing handball through a window when someone from the school came and told them to leave the premises. One got so mad that he kicked the window. Szobota heard all this from András Faragó, president of the local handball association, who allegedly added that the practice had to be interrupted and the “girls had to be moved to a safe place.” Parents, he said, are outraged that the police aren’t protecting their children. About 100 teenagers visit the stadium every day, and what will happen to their championship games if these girls can’t practice? Faragó himself is worried about his two girls, aged 10 and 13.

You can imagine what happened after the appearance of this article on ATV’s website. Here are some headlines: “Scandal, migrants attack girls playing handball.” “Dread has taken hold of Körmend.” “Because of migrants practices had to be suspended.” “Scandal, migrants harassed female handball team.” Well, one could say that journalists love sensational stories and, after all, ATV’s website gave credible-sounding details of the events. But Hungary’s prime minister also jumped the gun without verifying the story. The government undoubtedly found the story useful in its anti-immigrant campaign preceding the upcoming referendum against “compulsory quotas.” On the government website the following short announcement was made at 14:26. “Because migrants harassed girls playing handball Prime Minister Viktor Orbán instructed Interior Minister Sándor Pintér to take the necessary steps.” A few minutes later one could read on Fidesz’s Facebook page that “We will not have another Cologne here!”

However, less than an hour after Viktor Orbán gave those stern instructions to Sándor Pintér, János Tiborcz, the chief-of-police of Vas County, held a press conference. From it we learned that in Szobota’s entire story there was only one fact that was true: a window in the high school was broken. Otherwise no official of the school talked to the refugees; no one saw who broke the window; the girls didn’t have to be evacuated; the window had been cracked earlier; no one could see anything through the window because, first, the view is obstructed by two large radiators and, second, the window was covered with curtains. As Tiborcz said, “the objective of the article’s author was not a search for truth.” During the press conference one of the journalists asked the police chief about the alleged robbery of a tobacco shop during the fall exodus of refugees to Austria through Körmend. Tiborcz said that he had never heard of such a robbery. And “surely, we would have noticed such an event.”

At this point an unnamed article appeared on ATV’s website in which the management of the station defended the original story of Zoltán Szobota and basically accused the chief-of-police of lying. At almost the same time nyugat.hu got hold of András Faragó, who was Szobota’s chief source of information. After a fairly lengthy telephone conversation the journalist found out that Faragó wasn’t on the scene at all. He had left earlier. When the reporter inquired about the details of the evacuation, Faragó admitted that his own daughter had told him that the team simply went home. A parent nyugat.hu interviewed said the same thing.

In the hysteria created by the Orbán government, the gullible Hungarian public is ready to accept any story that reflects badly on the refugees. This latest piece of fiction should be a major embarrassment to both ATV and the Hungarian government. But we’ve seen before how the government stands by its misinformation and goes against anyone who dares challenge it. I wonder what will happen to that very decent and honest chief-of-police of Vas County.

May 5, 2016