Operation of the secret service: acting, ideal places and methods

The organised secret services came into existence because of the needs related to counter-espionage. As the intelligence service employed militarily under-qualified spies occasionally until the second half of the 19th century, who did not work according to unified plans and organised frames in addition, thus pieces of information obtained from them often were not reliable. After a certain period, the lack of organised secret services became increasingly obvious.

A_hrsz_kemk_tort_218_333_old__0013_b.jpgSpying in organized form developed in Europe only in the second half of the 19th century. In France, Napoleon III organized a network consisting of uniformly trained plainclothes police officers, thus they had advantage in the German-French war. However, others also recognised the problem of deficiencies that evolved in this field. For example, the former head of the Austro-Hungarian military staff registry office Urbanski thought that the effective intelligence work was hindered mainly by the lack of cooperation between civilian and military authorities, and “the inexplicable and abnormal discretion that the central powers showed towards the suspicious (…) operations of foreign delegates.” 

A_hrsz_kemk_tort_218_333_old_c.jpgIn 1878, the Austro-Hungarian ministry of war submitted a draft to “His Majesty’s military office” about innovation suggestions concerning the re-organisation of intelligence and espionage. Its main element was the involvement of civilians. In course of time, leaders of developed societies recognised that organised espionage must go on during peacetime as well.

Communications on public places

127206.jpgDuring the communist dictatorship in Hungary, the contacts network of the secret service was simply called “network” – within secret service circles -, while an undercover person was called network person, and the network leader was the inspector. Besides the methodological guiding, the task of the inspector also covered the personal sphere of the agent, including controlling and influencing his or her thoughts and opinions, and ensuring the agent’s political, professional and “ethical education”, and also “counterbalancing the potential harmful influences of enemies on the network person”.

The commonest places of communications between an inspector and an agent were different catering facilities: restaurants, cafés, bars, where the transfer of agents’ reports mainly happened inconspicuously. A_hrsz_kemk_tort_116_217_old_b.jpgBefore the first meeting that aimed to pass over the report, they had to find out an unreal reason, a so-called “legend” for the aim of the meeting (according to the guidance of the ministry’s educational materials). It allowed them to have an explication for the meeting in case they met an acquainted third person unexpectedly.

“If accidentally, an acquaintance enters the room, the network person and the inspector should behave according to the legend fixed in advance. (…) The network person must be instructed continuously to go to the inspector just after having made a proper self-control for the sake of the conspiracy. 

Although the method of self-control or counter-observation was not detailed in the educational materials, it seems that the agents had to walk along the planned route, while watching out for suspicious signs and making sure that nobody follows or spies upon them. According to the instructions of the ministry’s educational materials, the agent and the inspector had to behave as commonly as possible during the report-delivery meetings. VF_66_223_c.jpgThey had to sit at the backmost table of restaurants, had to order something, while the inspector had to monitor the events of their environment unobtrusively. Another but rarely employed method was to create so-called “object post boxes”, which meant to choose and “install” a cache – used for transmitting reports – on a public place.

Observing operation


During the observing operation, observers’ main task was to map the daily routine of the target person – from a car or by following them – which allowed marking out further observing locations as well.

“For the observers, the dead zones cause difficulties, when the target person goes on a territory where observers cannot control (…) directly his or her activity.”

Secret house-search

A_hrsz_kemk_tort_218_333_old__0022_b.jpgBesides observing the daily routine of target persons, acquiring the ground-plan of the flat was also part of the preparation for a secret house-search – called network preparation in inner circles. This helped them to define in advance, where it was worth searching for boltholes and objects that could be used as evidence. The external ‘observers’’ task was to pursue the flat owners’ motions. They also had to notify house-searchers – via a walkie-talkie – if the owners came home. They used cameras to record evidences and serial keys to open locks. They also had to bring felt slippers so as not to leave footprints and naturally, they wore gloves in order not to leave fingerprints. In addition, they had fake cover ID cards in case of being caught in the act.

To play your part well both at the theatre and on weekdays

Moziujsag_1942_51.jpgDefinitely, one needs good theatrical abilities to do veritable spy activities. According to the educational materials, agents had to play ordinary behaviour with maximal authenticity in order to avoid suspicion. If they met an acquaintance, they also had to perform their pre-invented legend genuinely. Maybe for this reason, and maybe because of their international relationships due to their publicity, it seems that communists considered it a high risk that Hungarian actors could become spies. We already know that communists observed several performers during the dictatorship. One of them was Katalin Karády, who was thought to be a German spy in Hungary, and after her migration, she was thought to be a Russian spy in the USA. Ferenc Bessenyei, Iván Darvas and Pál Jávor were also observed among others. Béla Ernyey said he was also approached - in order to be roped in - by an agent called “Angel”, but he found the excuse that he was neurotic and therefore could not keep a secret, thus he got off luckily.


Irén Psota’s case was another spy-suspicious affair. She was thought to be a spy for a long time, because when the theatre closed in the November of 1956, she guessed it was a good idea to go to Vienna and Paris for a while, by exploiting the migration trend. After arriving, she appeared at the embassy immediately and said she did not want to emigrate. She became suspicious at once, though they got nothing on her, they excluded her from the party for safety’s sake. She was thought that the French intelligence service sent her home with some task, so they got 21 people altogether to monitor her. Marika Rökk was another spy-suspicious actress, who later proved to have been a spy. As she was the Germans’ – and allegedly Hitler’s – favourite, and had a close relationship with the Nazis, they suspected that she spied for the Germans. The suspicion got stronger because she played a part in Goebbels’ propaganda films as well. However, the declassified files revealed that actually she was an agent of the Soviet secret service, the KGB.

Károly Erdélyi

Translated by Zita Aknai


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(Note: The photos of this article are just illustrations, most of them do not represent any secret service agents.)