At the height of the Hungarian Revolt in 1956, just eleven years after the horrors of World War II, he immigrated to the United States along with thousands of others fleeing the Soviet Union's tightening grip on Eastern Europe.
He was welcomed in America with open arms, as many refugees from Eastern Europe were at the time. In many ways, he fulfilled the American dream. He attended school, he worked hard, and, while the Vietnam War was raging, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to do his part for his adopted country.
At no time did he shirk his responsibilities. In fact, while in Vietnam, he put his life on the line for others. He served with notable distinction and was decorated for bravery and heroism, eventually reaching the rank of Captain.
At the end of his tour of duty in Vietnam and due to his respectable performance, abilities and command of the German language, he found no problem being posted in Europe as a career Army soldier.
He was stationed in Germany with the 8th Infantry Division (8th ID) and formed part of the bulwark that defended Western Europe and the NATO alliance from the Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact Forces and the infamous "Iron Curtain" of oppression that subjugated Eastern Europe.
In fact, the Army's 8th ID was critical to the defense of Western Europe as its principal duty was the defense of the militarily important Fulda Gap, a large strategically flat area amenable to mechanized forces where it was anticipated that the Soviet Union would attack with thousands of tanks. This was a very real threat for West Germany, which had experienced the Berlin Crisis and Soviet partition.
What no one suspected was that beginning in 1971, while fulfilling his duties for the 8th ID, he was also providing the Hungarian Intelligence Service and its master, the Soviet KGB, with the U.S. Army's most sensitive secrets and war plans. Highly classified information that by definition would do "grievous harm" to the defense of Western Europe. He was able to do this because he was directly responsible for maintaining these documents. His treachery was so damaging to the West that, annually, the KGB and the Hungarians would award medals to their officers for recruiting and handling this resourceful spy. In return, he was paid tens of thousands of dollars every year.
Facing retirement, he showed his true character and lack of morals once more by further betraying his country. He took it upon himself to recruit other individuals that could supply him with classified documents so he could continue this illicit and damaging enterprise.
This went on for almost two decades, but he would be undone by his own hubris. With information from sources, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command began to focus on where these documents were coming from and who had access. Conducting the largest counter-espionage investigation in Army history and through heroic efforts, they were eventually able to identify this unscrupulous individual named Zoltan Szabo.
In 1989, after an extensive investigation, there was finally enough information to make an arrest, but it would not turn out as expected. Szabo was living in Austria and could not be extradited to the United States. Presented with overwhelming evidence, he agreed to cooperate with U.S. investigators in exchange for his help in identifying what would turn out to be the "largest espionage ring" since the "atomic spies" of the 1940s.
It was my job to interview him, and, when he finally agreed to meet with me in a neutral country, he seemed to be nice enough on the surface. But when I dug deeper, his true personality came into view. Short and slight of build, you would not have looked at him twice on the street. Yet, here was an individual who was a chameleon -- on the surface he was affable, but underneath everything was calculated. He seemed to show no remorse and only felt regret for getting caught. There was no apology for putting millions of lives in jeopardy, for betraying his country, for involving others, for giving the Soviet Union the very information which according to one NATO general would have "assured the destruction of the West." The only things he cared about was himself and money -- lots of money.
Over several days, in unguarded moments, over food and drinks sprinkled with glib and narcissistic tones, he revealed how he viewed the world as a selfish, self centered, opportunistic Machiavellian -- in a word, a predator.
As we parted, his handshake was cold and weak. It reminded me of the person I was truly leaving behind, with his fake, well-practiced smile. I would not be able to bring him back to the U.S. for prosecution, but at least he had given us information to help in other prosecutions. However, his assistance was measured and self-serving.
As I flew out of Frankfurt the next day, I looked down on a beautiful manicured countryside and imagined what it would have looked like if the Soviets had attacked with Szabo's help. It was a reminder that we rarely really know the people around us, and that what we see can often mask dangerous personalities. It was a lesson I never forgot and am reminded of on the 20th anniversary of my interview with a traitor.