KGB-Trained Hungarian Has NATO Role

Views on BG | February 4, 2008, Monday // 00:00

By Judy Dempsey
The New York Times

The new chief of the Hungarian secret services, who spent six years at the K.G.B.'s academy in Moscow during the 1980s, in January became the chairman of NATO's intelligence committee, a rotating post that is held for a year.

Some NATO diplomats, asked about the appointment, said in recent days that his background might make NATO countries less willing to share intelligence with one another.

Sandor Laborc, 49, was chosen by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany of Hungary in December to become director of the country's counterintelligence National Security Office.

The appointment followed a dispute over the issue between the governing coalition led by the Socialists - the former Communists - and the main opposition party, Fidesz. Mr. Laborc was trained at the Dzerzhinsky Academy of the K.G.B. from 1983 to 1989, members of the national security committee in the Hungarian Parliament said. He failed to win support from that committee, which oversees such appointments but whose vote is not binding.

Despite that, Mr. Gyurcsany and Gyorgy Szilvasy, the minister responsible for the intelligence services, went through with the appointment.

"A decision by the National Security Committee has no binding effect," Mr. Gyurcsany's office said in a statement issued in response to several written questions about Mr. Laborc. "Gyorgy Szilvasy had the right to make a decision in his own capacity and advise the prime minister. He justified the recommendation by introducing General Laborc as someone with unquestioned professional credentials."

In January, Mr. Laborc took over the chairmanship of NATO's special committee dealing with a range of intelligence issues, NATO officials confirmed Friday. It was Hungary's turn to fill the post. The committee, whose main task is to analyze and share intelligence, includes all of the secret service chiefs of NATO countries.

Several NATO delegations, including the United States, whose ambassador was asked to comment on Mr. Laborc's appointment, declined to do so.

James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman, said, "We do not comment on personnel appointments or intelligence issues."

Some delegations said they had not been aware of Mr. Laborc's background. It came to light when Mr. Szilvasy proposed him for the top intelligence job last autumn.

NATO diplomats who agreed to discuss the appointment insisted on anonymity because diplomacy is involved. They said that even if they had reservations about Mr. Laborc, they were in no position to block his appointment. "NATO makes decisions on the basis of consensus," said a senior diplomat from an Eastern European country. "If we had questioned this appointment, then we would have to go further up to the top, in this case the Hungarian prime minister, to ask him about Laborc's past."

In its statement, Mr. Gyurcsany's office said: "Not a single ambassador protested. Through diplomatic channels we received information that our partners are satisfied with the development of interagency cooperation."

A diplomat from a Western country said: "It would have taken one phone call by the U.S. ambassador to NATO to stop this appointment. It would have been a signal to other countries which might think they can still get away with this."

Another NATO diplomat predicted that some countries would hold back intelligence. "Here we have a person who was trained by the K.G.B.," the diplomat said. "I cannot assume that he has changed that much in his attitudes." The diplomat added, "NATO, it must be said, is a very leaky organization."

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999, and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact countries in 2004. After that expansion, military attachГ©s from the Bulgarian delegation did not receive clearance to have access to a certain level of intelligence material.

"You could bet that anything we shared with Bulgaria inside NATO went straight to Moscow," said another senior Western European diplomat. "The old Communist nomenklatura and secret services is still around in Romania and Bulgaria. But I must say the case of Hungary is very, very disappointing."

In Hungary, Mr. Laborc's appointment has deepened the mistrust and polarization between the governing Socialists and the Fidesz opposition because of the way that the prime minister bypassed Parliament's national security committee. Until 2002 when the Socialists won the parliamentary elections, any Hungarian official who had served for more than a year in Moscow could not, for security reasons, be appointed to positions higher than a department head.

"At stake is the fundamental regard for the rule of law," said Janos Martonyi, a former Hungarian foreign minister and Fidesz supporter. After a five-hour debate by the national security committee in late November, Mr. Laborc failed to win a majority of the 11 votes.

Fidesz contends that Mr. Gyurcsany, a former Communist youth leader turned millionaire who has close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, has been politicizing the secret services for domestic reasons.

Peter Balazs, an economics professor at Central European University in Budapest and a supporter of the government, dismissed Fidesz's criticisms.

"Much has changed in Hungary since Laborc's time spent in Moscow over 20 years ago," he said. "This is all about internal politics. Just because someone was in Moscow during the 1980s, I don't think that we should sack anybody after 20 years."

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