How Hungary’s intelligence agency tried to intimidate a journalist into becoming an informant

A Hungarian journalist, known only as “G,” was heading to work in December 2015. As he approached the offices of his media firm, two men suddenly came up to him and flashed identifications indicating that they were agents of the Constitution Protection Office (Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal – AH). The internal intelligence agency, which bears an uncomfortable resemblance in name (and apparently in practice as well) to the dreaded communist era AVH, was established in 2010, shortly after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán returned to power. It replaced the Office of National Security, which operated from 1990 until 2010. The two men informed “G” that they had to speak with him privately about a matter that concerned his personal safety. The journalist asked the men to explain to him what was going on, but the agents insisted that this must be done privately and at a different location.

The journalist obliged, but when they arrived at their destination, the agents attempted to pressure the journalist into signing a declaration, in which he agrees to keep everything disclosed confidential. “G” had no choice but to sign the document. The agents then shared with “G” information pertaining to the journalist’s personal life–they seemed to have obtained a surprising amount of accurate information on “G,” but explained that it was not the AH that accumulated this, rather “someone else,” who did so “maliciously.” None of the information on “G’s” private life and about his personal choices or activities suggested anything that could even remotely be considered illegal. But some of the personal information could be used to embarrass the journalist.

The agents of AH began questioning “G” about who might be inclined to cause problems for the journalist, who has he potentially crossed over the years? The question was bizarre and theatrical, considering that “G” is an investigative journalist covering sensitive topics and the AH was certainly aware of this fact. The agents suggested that they would be happy to help find out what was going on, but in exchange “G” had to agree to regular, secret meetings with AH officers and he was asked to sign a document to this effect.

“G” refused to sign the papers, but agreed to another meeting in the future. At this second meeting, “G” indicated that he wanted to file a police report, because “someone” was illegally collecting personal information on his private life. The agents discouraged “G” from turning to the police, noting that they can be of no help and that police involvement would jeopardize their investigation.

The AH officers contacted “G” a third time, but the journalist stopped responding to their requests for additional meetings. “G” experienced several months of anxiety and stress over these disturbing encounters.

Constitution Protection Office headquarters in Budapest.

Constitution Protection Office headquarters in Budapest.

This incident was first reported on Wednesday morning by the liberal news site. The site attempted to get clarification from the AH. The agency, however, did not deny or confirm the narrative, simply noting that the activities of the office are classified.

The news site correctly notes that the method used against “G” is the classic manner in which Hungary’s communist AVH, and is successors–specific departments of the Interior Ministry–operated in the second half of the twentieth century. Vulnerable people were blackmailed into serving as informants or–at minimum–as “community connections,” through thinly veiled threats that a failure to cooperate could result in an embarrassment for the subject. AH’s predecessors would collect “sensitive information” on an individual’s sexuality, marital life, extra-marital affairs or health problems, and would suggest that these could be leaked.

The website was careful not to disclose anything in the article that could be construed by the AH as endangering the agency’s operations or Hungary’s national security interests. And “G” decided not to write about his experience due to the personal nature of the information collected and disclosed to him.

Hungary’s intelligence establishment remains quite powerful, even after 1989/90, and has been used in the past for party political purposes. Until recently, a very significant percentage of intelligence officers had a long history of service in pre-1989 Hungary. This was especially true in the case of the intelligence wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, known as the Információs Hivatal. Officers kept their positions and sometimes their tactics, after Hungary transitioned to multi-party democracy. The intelligence establishment, at various times since 1989, had the ability to exert influence over elected officials in all parties and remains a powerful lobby.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said the following about the activities of pre-1990 Hungarian state security, during a speech in 2014:

“People lived with the knowledge that anything could be done to them. And even if they did nothing to him, he knew perfectly well: if those in power ever felt that there is no longer any use for him, that he does not need to exist, that he does not need to be allowed to remain free, that he does not need to be employed, then they could essentially remove him from any part of life, as if he never existed.”

Today’s story reminded me a little of something that happened to me in spring 2015. I had a phone call at work from someone I knew, who over the years has developed a working relationship both with Hungarian diplomats and government politicians. He wanted to convey a message to me: an unnamed individual was recommending that I use my personal Canadian cell phone cautiously and that I also be circumspect with my emails. The clear suggestion was that my cellular phone, in particular, was being somehow tracked or monitored. I asked if this involved Canadian or Hungarian authorities. I was told that this had to do with Hungary. I then asked if the person who was sending me this message through him was someone who actually had some personal or professional familiarity with what he was talking about, or if this was nothing more than a hunch or suspicion on his part. I was told that he was speaking based on fact and knowledge. I then asked why he was requesting a third party to disclose this to me? Apparently, it was simply a “friendly” gesture or tip from someone who was not malicious towards me.

My contact who raised this with me–and who at the time seemed concerned about whether I was speaking to him on my cell phone or on my office landline telephone, the latter being clearly preferable in his mind–suggested that we could chat more about this if we met in person. We never had that opportunity since this initial discussion.

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