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The New Hungarian Secret Police

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Brad Pitt knows all about the TEK, Hungary’s new counter-terrorism police.

When Pitt was in Budapest last October shooting World War Z, an upcoming zombie-thriller, TEK agents seized 100 machine guns, automatic pistols and sniper rifles that had been flown to Hungary for use as props in the movie. The weapons were disabled and came with no ammunition. But the Hungarian counter-terrorism police determined that they constituted a serious threat.

The dead-pan seizure of movie props made TEK the laughing stock of the world. As David Itzkoff joked in the pages of the New York Times, “If Hungary ever finds itself the target of an undead invasion, its police force should now be well supplied to defend the nation.”

Few have taken TEK seriously. But that is a big mistake. In fact, TEK seems to be turning into Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s own secret police. In less than two years, TEK has amassed truly Orwellian powers, including virtually unlimited powers of secret surveillance and secret data collection.

The speaker of the Parliament, László Kövér, now has his own armed guard too, since the Parliament yesterday passed a law that creates a separate armed police force accountable to the Parliament. It too has extraordinary powers not normally associated with a Parliamentary guard. The creation of this “Parlia-military” gives Hungary the dubious distinction of having the only Parliament in Europe with its own armed guard that has the power to search and “act in” private homes.

About the Parlia-military, more later. First, to TEK.

TEK was created in September 2010 by a governmental decree, shortly after the Fidesz government took office. TEK exists outside the normal command structure of both the police and the security agencies. The Prime Minister directly names (and can fire) its head and only the interior minister stands between him and the direct command of the force. It is well known that the head of this force is a very close confidante of the Prime Minister.

TEK was set up as an anti-terror police unit within the interior ministry and given a budget of 10 billion forints (about $44 million) in a time of austerity. Since then, it has grown to nearly 900 employees in a country of 10.5 million people that is only as big as Indiana.

Why was TEK necessary? When it was created, the government said that it needed TEK because Hungary would hold the rotating presidency of the European Union starting in January 2011. During the six months it held this office, Hungary could be expected to host many important meetings for which top anti-terrorism security would be necessary. But even though Hungary’s stint in the EU chair is over, TEK has continued to grow.

Eyebrows were raised when János Hajdu, Orbán’s personal bodyguard, was appointed directly by the prime minister to be the first head of this new agency. Since TEK’s job also included guarding the prime minister, some believed that Orbán had set up the office to get his trusted bodyguard onto the public payroll. Patronage turns out to be the least of the worries about TEK, however.

TEK is now the sort of secret police that any authoritarian ruler would love to have. Its powers have been added slowly but surely through a series of amendments to the police laws, pushed through the Parliament at times when it was passing hundreds of new laws and when most people, myself included, did not notice. The new powers of TEK have received virtually no public discussion in Hungary. But now, its powers are huge.

What can the TEK do?

TEK can engage in secret surveillance without having to give reasons or having to get permission from anyone outside the cabinet. In an amendment to the police law passed in December 2010, TEK was made an official police agency and was given this jurisdiction to spy on anyone. TEK now has the legal power to secretly enter and search homes, engage in secret wiretapping, make audio and video recordings of people without their knowledge, secretly search mail and packages, and surreptitiously confiscate electronic data (for example, the content of computers and email). The searches never have to be disclosed to the person who is the target of the search – or to anyone else for that matter. In fact, as national security information, it may not be disclosed to anyone. There are no legal limits on how long this data can be kept.

Ordinary police in Hungary are allowed to enter homes or wiretap phones only after getting a warrant from a judge. But TEK agents don’t have to go to a judge for permission to spy on someone – they only need the approval of the justice minister to carry out such activities. As a result, requests for secret surveillance are never reviewed by an independent branch of government. The justice minister approves the requests made by a secret police unit operated by the interior minister. Since both are in the same cabinet of the same government, they are both on the same political team.

TEK’s powers were enlarged again in another set of amendments to the police law passed on 30 December 2011, the day that many other laws were passed in a huge end-of-year flurry. With those amendments, TEK now has had the legal authority to collect personal data about anyone by making requests to financial companies (like banks and brokerage firms), insurance companies, communications companies (like cell phone and internet service providers) – as well as state agencies. Data held by state agencies include not only criminal and tax records but also educational and medical records – and much more. Once asked, no private company or state agency may refuse to provide data to TEK.

Before December 2011, TEK had the power to ask for data like this, but they could only do so in conjunction with a criminal investigation and with the permission of the public prosecutor. After December 2011, their data requests no longer had to be tied to criminal investigations or be approved by the prosecutor. In fact, they have virtually no limits on what data they can collect and require no permission from anyone.

If an organization (like an internet service provider, a bank or state agency) is asked to turn over personally identifiable information, the organization may not tell anyone about the request. People whose data have been turned over to TEK are deliberately kept in the dark.

These powers are shocking, not just because of their scope, but also because most Hungarians knowledgeable about constitutional law would probably have thought they were illegal. After the changes of 1989, the new Hungarian Constitutional Court was quick to dismantle the old system in which the state could compile in one place huge amounts of personal information about individuals. In its “PIN number” decision of 1991, the Constitutional Court ruled that the state had to get rid of the single “personal identifier number” (PIN) so that personally identifiable data could no longer be linked across state agencies. The Court found that “everyone has the right to decide about the disclosure and use of his/her personal data” and that approval by the person concerned is generally required before personal data can be collected. It was the essence of totalitarianism, the Court found, for personal information about someone to be collected and amassed into a personal profile without the person’s knowledge.

With that Constitutional Court decision still on the books and not formally overruled, the Fidesz government is reproducing the very system that the Court had banned by creating a single agency that can gather all private information about individuals in one place again. What, one might ask, is left of constitutional law in Hungary?

One might also ask: Are there any limits to TEK’s power?

The law specifies that TEK operates both as a police and as a national security agency. When it is acting as a police unit, it has the jurisdiction to spy on any person or group who poses a threat of terrorism, along with anyone else associated with such persons. Hungary, like many countries after 9/11, has a broad definition of terrorism that includes, among other things, planning to commit a “crime against the public order” with the purpose of “coercing a state body . . . into action, non-action or toleration.” Crimes against the public order include a long list of violent crimes, but also the vaguer “causing public danger.” In addition, TEK also may arrest “dangerous individuals,” a term not defined in the criminal law. It is difficult from the text of the law itself to see any clear limits on TEK’s powers.

And TEK is very active. On April 7, TEK agents were called in to capture a young man in the small village of Kulcs who killed four members of his family with a machete. And then, in the early morning hours of Friday, April 13, TEK agents conducted a major drug bust in Budapest, arresting 23 people. According to news reports, fully 120 TEK agents were involved in the drug operation, raising questions about whether the drug bust was thought to be part of the anti-terrorism mission of the agency or a rather broad extension of the concept of the “dangerous individual.” Either way, the drug ring looked like garden-variety crime. If that is within TEK’s jurisdiction, it is hard to imagine what is not.

A You-Tube video of the April 13 drug bust, made available by TEK itself, shows what a middle-of-the-night raid by TEK officers looks like, complete with the use of heavy-duty tools to cut open an exterior door.

Given that this is the video that TEK wanted you to see, one can only imagine the activities of TEK that are not recorded for posterity. (It would be interesting to know, for example, why the audio cuts out at certain points in the clip, as well as what happens between the time that TEK breaks open the door and the time the various suspects are seen lying handcuffed on the floor.)

While its videos are crystal clear, TEK’s legal status is blurry, as some parts of its activities are authorized under the police law and others parts are authorized under the national security law. Different rules and standards apply to police agencies and to national security agencies. Moreover, TEK seems to have some powers that exceed those of both police and national security agencies, particularly in its ability to avoid judicial warrants. No other agency in the Hungarian government has both police and national security powers, and it is unclear precisely how the agency is accountable – for which functions, under what standards and to whom. What follows is my best guess from reading the law.

With respect to its powers authorized under the police law, it appears that TEK must act like the police and get judicial warrants to search houses, to wiretap and to capture electronic data when these activities are part of a criminal investigation. When TEK was arresting the machete-wielder and making the drug bust, it was probably acting under its police powers.

But TEK only need judicial warrants when it is engaged in criminal investigations. It doesn’t need judicial warrants when it is using its secret surveillance powers in security investigations. When it is acting as a national security agency, TEK only needs the permission of the justice minister to engage in secret and intrusive surveillance. Of course, given that the permissions and constraints are different depending on whether TEK is acting as a police agency or a national security agency, it would matter who decides whether a particular activity is conducted for police or national security purposes and what the criteria are for determining that it is one or the other. The law does not provide the answer to either question.

Suppose someone believes that she has been spied upon illegally by TEK. What can she do to object? First, if TEK is engaged in secret surveillance or data collection, it is unlikely that people will know that they are a target, given the extraordinary secrecy of the whole operation. But even if one finds out that one is being watched, the remedies are not encouraging.

A person aggrieved by TEK’s actions may complain to the interior minister, and the interior minister must answer the complaint within 30 days. But given that the interior minister is the minister who controls TEK in the first place, this is not an independent review. If the complainant does not like the answer of the interior minister, s/he may appeal to the Parliament’s national security committee, which must muster a one-third vote to hear the petition. At the moment, the 12-member national security committee consists of two-thirds governing party members and one-third members of all other parties combined. If the governing party does not want to investigate a complaint, garnering a one-third vote would mean uniting the whole opposition – or, to put it in more blunt terms, getting the Socialists to work with the neo-Nazis. That is unlikely to happen. Even if the national security committee agrees to hear a petition, however, it would take a two-thirds vote of the committee to require the interior minister to reveal the surveillance methods used against the complainant so that the committee can determine whether they were legal. There is no judicial review at any stage of this process.

TEK operates in secret with extraordinary powers and no one reliably independent of the current governing party can review what it is doing when it uses its most potentially abusive powers. This shocking accumulation of power may explain the Hungarian government’s abolition of a separate data protection ombudsman who would have the power to investigate such shocking accumulation of data. Instead, the data protection officer – a post required by European Union law – has been made a political appointee of the government itself. This is why the EU haslaunched an infringement action against Hungary for failing to guarantee the independence of the office. Now we can see why the EU may be onto something.

As if the powers of TEK are not enough, though, Parliament yesterday authorized another security service with the power to use police measures against citizens and residents of Hungary. The cardinal law on the Parliament itself contains a provision that gives the Parliament its own military, a Parlia-military.

The Parlia-military is an armed police unit outside the chain of command of the regular military or police structures. Its commander in chief is the speaker of the house, László Kövér, who served as minister without portfolio for the Civilian Intelligence Services during the first Orbán government from 1998-2002. The Parlia-military has the power to guard the Parliament and the speaker of the house, as might be expected. But if the Parlia-military is only supposed to guard the Parliament and the speaker, why does it need the powers that the cardinal law gives it?

The law gives the Parlia-military power “to enter and to act in private homes.” That’s literally what the law says. It is unlikely that the Parliament will want to conduct a plenary session in someone’s living room, so one must then wonder just what the Parliament will do if its armed military enters someone’s home to “act.” In addition to this power, the Parlia-military may also make public audio and video recordings of people. It can also search cars, luggage and clothing. It can use handcuffs and chemical substances (which I assume means tear gas and nothing more, but the wording make it sound like the Parlia-military may use chemical weapons!). The draft law seems to imply that the Parlia-military would have to operate under the constraints of the police law, which would mean that it would need judicial warrants to conduct these intrusive measures. But that is not completely clear. What is clear is that Hungary now suffers from a proliferation of police that are under direct political control.

Until this point, I have thought that the Fidesz government was just attempting to lock down power for itself for the foreseeable future, which was bad enough. But now, with the discovery of these new security services, it seems increasingly likely that the Hungarian government is heading toward the creation of a police state. Actually, it may already be there. But shhhh! It’s secret.