Former NATO Spy Wants in From the Cold

A Hungarian wants a pardon before US lets Hungary join NATO. Issue: Is he a traitor?

Somewhere in the American Rocky Mountains, one man is paying very close attention to Senate debates days.

Coming up on the agenda is the question of ratifying applications for NATO membership from Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Currently, it's almost a forgone conclusion that NATO enlargement will go ahead.

"These countries fulfill the... criteria for membership," says Gabor Horvath, Hungarian spokesman for foreign affairs. They justify membership "from the point of political morality."

Away in the Rockies, former Lt. Col. Istvan Belovai, onetime officer in the Hungarian Strategic Military Intelligence Service and deputy military attach, disagrees; at least on the moral issue. Colonel Belovai started off working for for Hungarian intelligence, but in 1984 in London, he contacted the CIA and began life as a double agent. A year later, he was caught by Hungarian counterintelligence in Budapest and sentenced to life in prison by a military court.

Belovai believes he was a victim of CIA double agent Aldrich Ames. He was held as an "anti-state" (political) prisoner but eventually won release on parole in September 1990, six months after the first free elections in Hungary. "It was sunny. It was a wonderful feeling," he says.

But that feeling soon faded. Belovai and a handful of other former NATO agents are still deemed traitors and common criminals by Hungarian authorities - despite their political status in jail. Meanwhile, former Hungarian Communists who actively opposed NATO, including Prime Minister Gyula Horn and Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs, now enjoy the favor of the West.

Belovai was no ordinary double agent, at least by his reckoning. "From the early summer of 1975, 'cosmic top secret' NATO material began to flow to my desk from West Germany," he says. This included NATO battle plans and nuclear weapons deployment in Europe. The information was immediately passed on to Soviet military intelligence.

"The Soviets had the vital information needed, and were preparing for a successful attack against the West. The result would have been capitulation or a nuclear response. I wanted to prevent this," Belovai told the Monitor.

He was first in line to translate and evaluate material from what turned out to be the Conrad spy ring, one of the most damaging espionage operations ever against NATO. Former US Army Sgt. Clyde Conrad was arrested in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison for espionage by a West German court. He died in jail on Jan. 12 of this year.

Belovai read about the Conrad case from his own cell in 1988. "The news made my heart throb. My work had not been in vain," he says. Corroboration of his claims is difficult. In Budapest, the US embassy is silent on CIA activity. But the fact that Belovai was given a life sentence is indicative of the seriousness of his work, says Ferenc Koszeg, a former Hungarian dissident and now a member of Parliament.

Mr. Koszeg, who was prominent in the campaign to free Belovai, adds, "He didn't know about Conrad, but I cannot exclude his information was essential [to uncovering Conrad], though there may have been other sources."

The democratically elected Hungarian government has twice rejected the opportunity to fully pardon those convicted of espionage, despite efforts by Koszeg and others. "This is interesting from a so-called right-wing government," he says. "Justice Minister Istvan Balsai said spying and political dissent should not be mixed up."

Why doesn't the Hungarian public care more about the issue? "They are not informed," says Katalin Roman, an office clerk. Although articles were written about the spies in 1990, they dealt primarily with those still in jail. It seemed a tired subject once the last were released.

A television company recently approached Mihaly Bencsik, saying it wanted to produce a program on his plight. Mr. Bencsik, a teacher and translator, was sentenced to six years for spying for NATO in 1981, and appeals for a pardon have been in vain. But he was furious with the program's result. "It confusingly featured me along with a man convicted of drunken driving. No mention was made of the real issue, release from my record and the stain on my character."

Gabor Demszky, a former leading dissident and now mayor of Budapest, expressed shock on hearing that former agents still carried criminal records. "It is morally wrong. I would like to give them legal help," he said.

Belovai says, on his release, he learned that the Hungarian interior ministry had argued for a death sentence at his trial. Concerned for his safety, he quickly left for the US. Now he has asked friends to lobby US senators to pressure the Hungarian government to pardon former spies.

"I was never a traitor. I was Hungary's first NATO soldier," he says. "I want Hungary to become a NATO member, but not without full pardons for myself and the others like me."

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