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Getting the Goods on the Securitate

Banal, brutal, and bizarre: Two new books reveal the secrets of Romania's communist secret police. by Mihai Hodrea and Dumitru Balaci 17 December 2003
Banalitatea raului. O istorie a Securitatii in documente [The Banality of Evil: A History of the Securitate in Documents], edited by Marius Oprea. Iasi, Polirom, 2002. Paper, 582 pages.

reviewed by Mihai Hodrea

In 1998, the few scholars permitted to delve into the archives of Romania's communist Securitate secret service found their access cut off without explanation. The files have remained closed ever since.

Before the vault slammed shut, though, one researcher had accumulated sufficient material for two hefty volumes of edited documents.

The first volume of The Banality of Evil is an impressive labor. Marius Oprea has one-upped the official bodies charged with releasing the findings of Securitate researchers by single-handedly disclosing valuable information about the inner workings of the secretive organization.

The story of the postwar Romanian security apparatus goes back to April 1945 when Petru Groza, the Moscow-appointed prime minister, signed an order establishing the Serviciul Special de Informatii (Special Information Service), whose first director was a Bessarabia-born officer in the Soviet secret police, Sergei Nikonov. (Like a number of other top security officers in those years, he later Romanianized his Slavic name, becoming Sergiu Nicolau.) Its mission was to “collect information about the major interests of the state.”

A MANY-HEADED BEAST

The documents unearthed by Oprea show that, contrary to what has widely been thought, the Special Information Service co-opted many officers of the pre-1945 secret police, the Siguranta. These included its general director, Eugen Cristescu, who was recruited shortly after the war by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

Romania’s security service underwent a series of name changes and internal restructurings. The Special Information Service became the General Department for People's Security, then the General Department for State Security. In 1956 the service split into two main departments, Security and Internal Affairs, the latter being given responsibility for the police and the prison system. The Security Department continued metamorphosing until, in 1978, it was renamed the Department of State Security and adopted a structure that stayed intact until the end of the communist state.

Through it all, the "Securitate" remained the unofficial, universal label for Romania's most feared institution.

Oprea's book contains 55 selected Securitate documents in chronological order from 1947 to 1989. The texts succeed above all in drawing a veil from the obscure 1950s, revealing internal power struggles, clashes between local nationalism and Soviet internationalism, unspoken crimes and duplicitous characters.

In the days following its publication in the summer of 2002, Oprea's book found a public eager to buy it and, not unexpectedly, a hostile reaction in some government circles. The author and supporters of his research, among them former President Emil Constantinescu, were accused of leading a witch-hunt. The head of the parliamentary committee responsible for overseeing the present-day security service, the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), warned that any member of the official Securitate research council could face jail for publishing the names of former Securitate officers. (The decision does not affect Oprea, who cooperates with the council but is not a member.)

The office of President Ion Iliescu--a former senior Party official--chimed in too, drawing the attention of the General Prosecutor to Oprea's journalistic activity: in several national papers he had alleged that former security officers, today respectable politicians, were linked to arms trading and potentially to Al Qaeda. One, Ristea Priboi, now a member of the SRI parliamentary oversight committee, brought a suit against Oprea in a case that is still undecided.

“NEW POSSIBILITIES IN OUR WORK”

The documents collected here give several instructive case histories illustrating the turning wheel of fortune, the rise and fall of Party faithful according with the ebb and flow of ideological currents. This is far from being the aim of the volume, however. The documents are divided into two sections, the larger dealing with Securitate methods and rules--from tactics used against the anti-communist rebellions in the Carpathian mountains during the 1950s to payment of early Securitate cadres to means of torture applied during "political re-education" sessions.

The second section comprises 15 documents on various aspects of the Securitate’s internal organization. These concern the recruitment of informers, measures to restrict access to foreign radio stations by Securitate agents, and steps against "enemy activities" disguised as religious work.

Two introductory chapters, one by the editor, the other by Dennis Deletant, a London-based scholar of modern Romanian history, provide useful historical background and technical data. Deletant also contributed an appendix outlining the evolution of the state security organs from 1948 to 1989 and giving a list--its sources are not cited--of high-ranking security officers active in 1989.

The heavily annotated documents abound in details of little-known activities that influenced social, economic, and political life.

In 1951, for instance, Securitate chief Gheorghe Pintilie instructed his underlings on the right way to reward informers. They should not receive a fixed salary, he says, rather "… a sum of money given periodically, taking sometimes the form of presents consisting of food or clothes. The respective sum is determined by the value of the materials presented to us by informers. … For any compensation, the informer will be required to submit a bill for the sum to be paid. The worker who makes the compensation must specify on its verso when, by whom, and for what purpose the money was paid (not disclosing, however, the objectives for which the informative action was taken)."

Pintilie's predecessor Teohari Georgescu told militia and security commanders in 1950 that in order to step up the repressive measures against their foes it would be necessary to bypass the courts:

"Of course, the written orders will stress legal procedures, but from now on what was supposed to be done by the court, will not be. It will be easier to send [prisoners] to our work units, rather than to court, since [a legal process] is more difficult, we need to prepare documents, to find evidence. … Comrades, in this way we will find new possibilities in our work and our fight against the enemy."

CEAUSESCU AND BEYOND


The documents indicate that the Securitate's change in stance, from devotion to the Soviets towards a nationalist line, began even before Stalin’s death, with the accession to power in the early 1950s of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.

Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1964, leaving a long-desired and much-disputed vacancy. When Nicolae Ceausescu eventually stepped in to fill it, he continued Gheorghiu-Dej's nationalist line. The practices of the early Securitate were condemned and abjured in a series of trials, reports, and theatrical manifestations. Old NKVD agents who played a prominent role in establishing communism in Romania were removed and placed under permanent surveillance--among them Pintilie, his deputy Alexandru Nicolschi, and Alexandru Draghici, who succeeded Pintilie as Securitate chief in 1952.

The case of Draghici remains titillating not just because Ceausescu replaced him on the Central Committee with Ion Iliescu, Romania's current head of state. The Securitate documentation on him brings to light Draghici's charge, made under interrogation in 1967-1968, that Ceausescu was involved in violent reprisals against rebellious peasants in an unspecified episode in the 1950s--an aspect previously unknown to researchers. Accused of genocide by the Romanian authorities in 1992, Draghici was allowed to flee to Hungary, where he died the following year, taking much of the Securitate's dirty laundry with him to the grave.

The documents show that the Securitate's inner workings remained sequestered in relative secrecy during its first two decades. The surviving documents from this period comprise both typed orders and shorthand transcriptions of secret meetings. From the early 1970s, the agency's methods and tactics developed in more elaborate forms and were framed in more legalistic terms. Although self-criticism and disapproval of over-zealous personal initiative are found in both periods, the later documents disclose more details, as, for instance, when agency chief Iulian Vlad notes the serious deviations of several superior officers who listened to Radio Free Europe broadcasts in 1968, or instructions made in 1987 about improvements to the service's information network.

The editor regards The Banality of Evil as an introduction to the subject, stressing mainly the methodical aspect of repression in Romania. The promised sequel will be even more valuable if he is able to shed light on the Securitate's final decades, which remain shrouded in darkness due to the inaccessibility of the archives. The first volume can only suggest the extent of the agency's manipulation in areas of life far removed from security and intelligence, particularly its grip on foreign trade and currency flows during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Oprea's annotated collection of "banalities" is a notable contribution to the effort to unveil many troubling episodes in Romania's communist past, well deserving of its commendation by the Romanian Writers Union in 2002 as the best historical work of the year.

Next page: An ex-Securitate agent's Keystone Kops memoir of life in the Ceausescu household.

Guarding Nicolae

Senzational. Dupa 14 ani sosia lui Nicolae Ceausescu se destainuie / Sensational: After 14 Years Nicolae Ceausescu’s Double Is Ready to Confess, by Dumitru Burlan. Bilingual Romanian-English, English translator not specified. Ergorom ’79, 2003. 200 pages.

reviewed by Dumitru Balaci

This "sensational" confession was released several months ago amid a marketing hoopla that promised the inside story of Nicolae Ceausescu's double.

The publishers even released it in a bilingual English and Romanian edition, as though assuming it would find a foreign readership.

Between the covers is an interview with "Mitica" Burlan, a former Securitate intelligence officer, and it soon transpires that the dictator's "double" actually performed that job--which, in practice, meant being a dummy passenger in the dictator's limousine--for only 10 days during the 23 years Ceausescu ruled Romania.

The book ends with a section entitled "Why laugh at Ceausescu's memory?" Throughout, retired Lieutenant Colonel Dumitru Burlan, whose 30-year career in the Securitate included 15 years as head of the Ceausescus' food security detail, makes clear that the subject of his book is no laughing matter. He dedicates the volume to his mother, "for she instilled him with patriotism; to former and current intelligence officers, for their professionalism made the Romanian intelligence services among the best in the world; to the more than 1,000 victims of the December 1989 revolution, for they died unnecessarily, and not least to Nicolae Ceausescu himself, for he was betrayed by his own people and assassinated on Christmas Day."

His book amply documents that Burlan was a man serious about his job and a man who expects to be taken seriously now. His way of mixing professional jargon with the turgid Party-speak Romanians call "wooden tongue"--unfortunately lost in the English translation--gives his statements a comic twist that the author could hardly have intended.

SOAP THIEVES AND DOGCATCHERS

Burlan says his account of his professional past and of the 1989 revolution was meant as just another contribution to the body of documents historians will later sift through seeking patterns and order in Ceausescu’s rule. Like all books by former intelligence officers, his was vetted by the present-day counterintelligence service, the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI). According to the SRI press office, none of these authors so far has breached their pledge not to reveal secret material after leaving active service.

For lay readers, Burlan's book, in addition to plenty of bizarre vignettes of life chez Ceausescu, provides some insights into the wheeling and dealing of the famed and feared Securitate.

Ample examples document that the intelligence service was neither as potent, nor as professional, as it liked to believe.

The Securitate assigned 15 officers to work round-the-clock shifts to gather intelligence to ensure the personal safety of Ceausescu and his family alone.

Using phone taps and other techniques, Burlan was able to uncover a number of security lapses in the Ceausescu household--maids who stole imported detergent, cooks fingering the leader's food, sloppy kitchen workers who dropped broken jars into the meat or caviar served at official banquets or others who skimmed off the fresh milk meant for Ceausescu's breakfast table, replacing it with a mixture of milk, water, and whitening agent.

None of these offenders faced charges. Instead they were removed to cozy jobs in top-rated Bucharest hotels or restaurants--something a would-be visitor to Romania might wish to ponder.

The retired officer also provides a new perspective on the part played by the dictator's wife Elena in the later years of his regime.

In 1987, Burlan says, Elena persuaded high-ranking Securitate officers to bug her husband's office so she could secretly monitor all his conversations. This she needed to do, she told them, in case her diabetic husband suddenly took ill.

Fly-on-the-wall Elena was now able to listen in on Nicolae's private talks with his inner circle. When the leader was alone, his wife would casually drop into his office and as if by chance start chatting on the very topic the top brass had just been debating, seemingly drawing in a few moments the same conclusions that took the experts hours to hammer out.

"That is how Ceausescu was fooled into believing she was competent to run the country," Burlan says.

Elena's desire to keep a firm grip on her family meant that she used the intelligence service for duties beyond what the officers considered to be their legitimate line of work.

Burlan recalls that the entire presidential security team once spent four months trying to trace a dog the Ceausescus' daughter Zoia received as a present and subsequently lost. A frustrated colleagues once suffered a nervous collapse, shouting for all to hear that he had not become an intelligence officer to search for lost dogs.

Elena also kept close tabs on young Nicu, the most pampered of their children and the one picked to succeed his father.

The leader-to-be was kept under 24-hour surveillance, and his mother knew of his every bed partner and casual female encounter. She also hand-picked a wife for him, something he was well aware of. After the private wedding ceremony at Nicu's home, Burlan recalls, the groom directed a remark at his bride that all those present clearly heard: "My mother chose you, now it's up to her to f--k you!"

Nicu was no mere playboy, Burlan alleges. He schemed to take over power and reform the communist state Gorbachev-style, even appointing a shadow cabinet to replace his father's government once approval had been secured from Moscow. Nicolae would be given the empty honor of honorary president of the Romanian Communist Party, and Elena--nothing.

At least in this case, the Securitate's intelligence was on the ball, and every move of Nicu's was immediately reported to his parents. Elena learned of her son's plans from Interior Minister Tudor Postelnicu, Burlan says. The would-be reform cabal was broken up and its members given good jobs in various parts of the country. Nicu himself was sent to Sibiu county as local Party leader.

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Burlan is the first to make these allegations. Their credibility will not be easy to check, as the relevant Securitate documents ended up not in the files of the SRI but in different military archives.

During the civil unrest of December 1989 Nicu Ceausescu was apprehended, tried, and convicted in a televized trial. He was released from prison in 1992 and died of liver cancer four years later.

Well before the events of December 1989, winds of change were blowing inside the Securitate itself, Burlan tells his interviewer. In March, the government had triumphantly reported that it had paid off Romania's entire foreign debt, and yet no relief came for a population which had eagerly awaited the news as a harbinger of rising living standards. Against the backdrop of general discontent with the regime, the military, of which the intelligence services were a part, was becoming restive. Promotions had been frozen for several years and bonuses cut off.

Burlan's view is that top Securitate officers planned to topple Ceausescu on 1 January 1990, using an orchestrated uprising as the pretext. They were aided, or at least made their plot known to, foreign intelligence agents. It was miscommunication with intelligence services abroad, or their distrust of the Romanians, that prompted the plotters to trigger an uprising early. Unluckily for them, things began to spin out of control, partly because the intended coup leaders were not at their intended places as planned.

WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY

Probably no single account will ever put together all the pieces of the puzzle that was December 1989 in Romania. Those events could be likened to a plane crash; subsequent investigations invariably find a chain of physical flaws, maintenance lapses, and human error, any one or several of which may have been present for some time, but it took their spontaneous concurrence to bring the plane down.

Burlan restates a view often expressed by the intelligence agents of the day. During the coup leaders' scramble to reach their pre-arranged posts, they triggered a mayhem and a media manipulation that had the exact opposite effect to that desired: the intelligence services became uncontrollable and their officers were turned into scapegoats and painted as terrorists loyal to Ceausescu to the death.

Wherever the truth may lie--one insider, General Dan Voinea, a military prosecutor who has successfully tried a number of communist-era culprits, told this reviewer the uprising was “an organized massacre, a diversion maintained by people interested in preserving the state of mayhem" (that is, the military and security organs)--it appears that miscommunication and lack of coordination among the various military departments led to situations in which soldiers opened fire on other soldiers, thinking them enemy targets.

The bloodiest such incident occurred at Otopeni airport in Bucharest, where troops machine-gunned dozens of soldiers that they themselves had called in to rescue them.

As Burlan maintains, there were, among the thousand and more victims of those weeks of bloodshed, people who died unnecessarily.
Mihai Hodrea is a lecturer in sociology and politics at the European Integration Institute and the Latvian Academy of Culture in Riga.

Dumitru Balaci is a TOL correspondent in Bucharest.
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