Communist-Era Domestic Intelligence Files

Summary

ÁTBL

The State Security Services Historical Archives.

About 90 percent of the files remaining from Hungary’s communist-era domestic-intelligence services are preserved at the State Security Services Historical Archives (Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok Történeti Levéltára) in Budapest (source in Hungarian). Access to detailed records including the names of intelligence agents is restricted to those about whom these intelligence services gathered information and to certified academic researchers. The public has access to all records, though with the names of those involved redacted. 

Hungary’s current domestic-intelligence agency, the Constitution Protection Office (Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal), has retained about ten percent of the data stemming from its communist-era predecessors because it has been classified as confidential for national-security reasons. This data includes 18 magnetic tapes and their transcriptions revealing the identity of an estimated 50,000 communist-era domestic-intelligence agents.

The FideszChristian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) governing alliance has since 2012 voted down several opposition-supported legislative bills in the National Assembly calling for access to the communist-era domestic-intelligence records kept at the State Security Services Historical Archives to be opened all citizens of Hungary and for all such records retained at the Constitution Protection Office to be transferred to the archives if public access to them is found upon review not to pose a threat to the country’s national security.

Law III of 2003

Communist-era domestic-intelligence files at the State Security Services Archives in Budapest.

Communist-era domestic-intelligence files at the State Security Services Archives.

Political powers in Hungary failed to take concrete steps to make files from the country’s communist-era domestic-intelligence services accessible to the public for more than twelve years following the System Change. However, the emergence of evidence in 2002 that newly appointed Hungarian Socialist Party Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy had served as an agent for the Interior Ministry’s counterintelligence services in the 1970s and 1980s finally impelled the National Assembly to take action: in 2003 the assembly approved legislation establishing the State Security Services Archives and stipulating that files originating from the Interior Ministry’s III/III domestic-intelligence department and its predecessors—including the State Protection Department (Államvédelmi Osztály, or ÁVO) and the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság, or ÁVH)—between 1944 and 1990 be made accessible at the archives in their original form to those about whom these agencies collected information and to certified researchers unless publication of the information contained in the files was deemed harmful to Hungary’s national security (text of law in Hungarian).

However, the legislation, called Law III of 2003, denied access to information regarding the health condition, addictive behavior, sex life, religion, race and nationality to researchers for a period of 30 years following the death of the person about whom such information was gathered. The State Security Services Archives had the right to waive the restriction on information regarding religion, race and nationality if researchers could prove that these factors played a role in the decision of communist-era domestic-intelligence services to gather information regarding given individual.

Law III of 2003, known commonly as the “Agent Law” (ügynök törvény), provided all citizens of Hungary access to information contained in the files with names redacted for a period of 30 years and with the personal information outlined above redacted for a period of 60 years following the death of the person about whom the information was collected.

The Agent Law furthermore granted all citizens of Hungary access to information contained in the files regarding the identity of those who operated as agents for communist-era domestic-intelligence services if these former agents either qualified themselves as “public figures” (közszereplő) or if the Budapest Municipal Court qualified them as such.

In practice, Law III of 2003 authorized citizens of Hungary, regardless of whether they were the subject of communist-era domestic-intelligence activity or not, to publish the names of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents only if they qualified as “public figures” under the conditions stated above. The law granted the right of researchers to publish the identity of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents if such information was pertinent to the academic presentation of their research.

Legislative Bills to Make Identity of Communist-Era Domestic-Intelligence Agents Public

Politics Can Be Different leader András Schiffer.

Politics Can Be Different leader András Schiffer.

National Assembly representative András Schiffer of the opposition liberal-green party Politics Can Be Different (LMP) submitted four bills to the assembly in just under 14 months between December 1, 2011 and January 23, 2013 aimed at making public the identities of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents contained in both the files preserved at the State Security Services Archives and the Constitution Protection Office. The bills, which varied from one another to only a minor degree, called for the following major changes to regulations governing access to communist-era domestic-intelligence files and their subsequent publication as compared to Law III of 2003 (see text of laws in Hungarian A, B, C and D): 

-the bills opened access to the names of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents contained in the files to all Hungarian citizens, eliminating the stipulation that the agents must qualify as “public figures” as a condition for such access;

-the bills specifically stated that all Hungarian citizens had the right to publish the names of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents;

-the bills broadened the definition of who qualified as an agent in the communist-era domestic intelligence services and who qualified as having maintained an “operative connection” to the services;

-the bills specifically stated that only information whose publication would “demonstrably” harm Hungary’s national security could be classified as confidential and therefore inaccessible to the public;

-the bills called for a review of communist-era domestic-intelligence files retained at the Constitution Defense Office and other locations and for information whose publication was not deemed harmful to Hungary’s national security following review to be transferred to the State Security Archives within 30 days;

-while retaining all other restrictions on access to personal information regarding those upon whom the intelligence services compiled information during the communist era, the bills opened access to all such information except that regarding sex life to researchers if they could prove that the information constituted a vital element of their research;

-the bills broadened the definition of who qualified as a researcher for the purpose of access to files at the State Security Services Archives.  

National Assembly representatives from the Fidesz-KDNP governing alliance defeated all four bills, which radical-nationalist opposition party Jobbik and democratic opposition-parties unanimously supported (see sources A, B, C and D in Hungarian for voting results).

After submitting the bill for the third time, Schiffer said that the legislation was based on the principle that “The data regarding the activity of those who operated the communist state-security system should be accessible to everybody.” The LMP National Assembly representative added that “We would like to dispel the concern that the past of those who have played a role in the System Change and in given instances current politics can be manipulated through the filter of various researchers” (source in Hungarian).

Fidesz Stance toward Defeated Legislative Bills

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explained the reason for his opposition to the proposed legislation in a letter connected to the republication of his pre-System Change intelligence-service (III/III department) files (1) on April 5, 2012, two weeks after Fidesz-KDNP voted down Schiffer’s first bill (source in Hungarian):   

Yes, I advocate that everybody have access to all data pertaining to him or her and be able to publish it.

At the same time, however, we must protect the innocent victims of the dictatorship from again becoming victims. The eavesdropping and surveillance contain not only political information on the subjects in question, but circumstances connected to their private lives, romantic relationships, illnesses and family problems that they do not want to share with others. They have this right [to keep this information private] because they are free people, which we must respect.

Fidesz National Assembly Speaker László Kövér made the following statement with regard to debate surrounding the issue of access to communist-era domestic-intelligence files and their subsequent publication during a television interview on March 16, 2012 (source in Hungarian):

I consider this whole thing to be a rubber bone, a bogus debate and substitute for action that irritates me to no end. . . . I believe that this is an internal affair among intellectuals . . . even the smallest problem that people have is big enough so that they have better things to do. 

Fidesz National Assembly caucus Chairman János Lázár said in an interview published in the pro-government newspaper Magyar Hírlap on March 17, 2012 that the party opposed Schiffer’s bill for the following reason (source in Hungarian): 

We reject that notion that LMP publish everything, including military and other documents representing national-security risks. And we consider it to be downright impudence that the descendant of one of the leading diplomats of the Kádár system and a communist collaborator submitted the LMP’s bill (2).  

The three most powerful men in Hungary: Orbán, Kövér and Lázár tête-à-tête during a session of the National Assembly.

Orbán, Kövér and Lázár tête-à-tête during a session of the National Assembly.

However, not all Fidesz-KDNP National Assembly representatives shared the attitude of their party leaders toward the opposition-supported bills, representing the sole instance in which there was significant discord over an issue within the governing caucus during the second Orbán government’s first term in power from 2010-2014 (source A and B in Hungarian). A total of 52 out of 263 Fidesz-KDNP National Assembly representatives either supported or abstained from either supporting or opposing Schiffer’s first bill during the assembly’s vote on the legislation on February 20, 2012, while a steadily declining number of Fidesz-KDNP representatives did the same with regard to the LMP representative’s subsequent three bills (see sources A, B, C and D in Hungarian for voting results).

Fidesz Amendments to Law III of 2003 

Fidesz-KDNP National Assembly representatives approved two major amendments to the Agent Law on December 17, 2013: the first significant amendment eliminated the provision, just has Schiffer’s proposed bills had, that only the names of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents who qualified as “public figures” could be published; the second significant amendment specifically stipulated that the subjects of communist-era domestic-intelligence activity could publish the names of the agents responsible for the given activity directed against them (see source A and B in Hungarian).

Representatives from radical-nationalist opposition party Jobbik and those from democratic opposition parties voted against the Fidesz-KDNP amendments on the grounds that they failed to establish the universal access to information regarding communist-era domestic-intelligence agents necessary to reveal their identities to a sufficient degree (source A and B in Hungarian).

The National Remembrance Committee 

Fidesz-KDNP National Assembly Representatives also voted on December 17, 2013 to establish the National Remembrance Committee (Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága) on January 1, 2014. The defined objective of the five-member committee is to deal with issues related to “the preservation of the state remembrance of the communist dictatorship and the exposure of the operations of the dictatorship.” The committee is authorized to “cooperate with the designated organizational units of the public prosecutor’s office to reveal the circle of those responsible for crimes not subject to the statute of limitations committed during the communist dictatorship.” The findings of the committee are not subject to legal challenge. The National Assembly selects the president and two members of the committee, while the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Minister of Justice each appoint one additional member, all for a period of nine years. Members of the committee have to have been younger than 18 years old at the time of the System Change in 1990 (see source in Hungarian).

Politics Can Be Different National Assembly caucus Co-chairman András Schiffer characterized the National Remembrance Committee as “a one-milimeter advance” in the effort to reveal the names of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents, claiming that with the establishment of the committee Fidesz “is monopolizing national remembrance in its own hands” (source in Hungarian).

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, where Schiffer worked until leaving the organization in 2008 in order to establish the Politics Can Be Different party, warned in connection with the National Remembrance Committee “From now on nobody can be secure, a state body can stigmatize anyone as someone who possessed power during the communist period and he or she has no means of legal redress against it” (source in Hungarian).

Communist-Era Domestic-Intelligence Agent Records at the Constitutional Protection Office

On December 16, 2010, the Orbán government issued a decree abolishing the three-member committee that previous prime minister Gordon Bajnai had established in order to supervise the transfer to the State Security Services Archives of the names of an estimated 50,000 communist-era domestic-intelligence agents contained in the transcriptions of 18 magnetic tapes kept in a safe at the Constitutional Protection Office and classified as confidential until the year 2060 (see sources A, B and C in Hungarian).

The resolution instructed the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice to prepare legislation by the end of 2011 that would regulate the status of the 18 magnetic tapes and 3,800-page transcription of them (source in Hungarian).

The Orbán government withdrew the above stipulation of the resolution without explanation on November 30, 2011, prompting Schiffer to submit his first bill aimed at publication of the identity of communist-era domestic-intelligence agents to the National Assembly the following day (source in Hungarian).

Officials from Ministry of Public Administration and Justice explained that the government had withdrawn the resolution asking the ministry to draft a law regulating the status of the magnetic tapes and transcriptions kept at the Constitutional Protection Office because the ministry needed more time to prepare the legislation (source in Hungarian). 

Neither the government nor the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice has taken any subsequent action on this matter. 

————-

(1) Prime Minister Orbán’s communist-era domestic-intelligence files show that the Interior Ministry’s III/III department conducted surveillance on both Orbán and his wife, Anikó Lévai, in the 1980s and unsuccessfully recruited the future Fidesz leader while he was performing his compulsory military service. However, former pro-Fidesz business oligarch Lajos Simicska, who split dramatically with Orbán in February 2015, has suggested the prime minister may have served as an informant during this time (see Siss-boom-BANG!). 

(2) András Schiffer’s grandfather, Pál Schiffer, filled high-ranking diplomatic posts in Oslo, Bern and Vienna during the Kádár era after having been the target of intra-party persecution during the Stalinist period. 

Last updated: June 10, 2016.

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