How ‘MagaBabe’ and a Fake Investor Targeted Critics of Viktor Orban

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Kati Marton, a Hungarian-born American writer, thought she was talking with a friend of Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s former commander in Europe. The man, who had sent her a résumé describing himself as a “results-oriented wealth and investment manager” living in Switzerland, said he was exploring green energy opportunities in Eastern Europe.

Ms. Marton didn’t mind when he steered the conversation to Hungary, something she knew about, having written three books about the country, including “Enemies of the People,” an account of her parents’ 1955 jailing in and subsequent flight from Budapest.

Today, more than half a year after what she thought would be a private Zoom call, Ms. Marton thinks she has figured out what was really going on: an elaborate dirty-tricks operation aimed at entrapping and smearing critics of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

On Jan. 31, snippets from a surreptitiously recorded video of Ms. Marton’s conversation with the purported investor surfaced on the X social media platform, on an account called MagaBabe.

The account, which also posted secret recordings of General Clark and others hoodwinked by the operation, says it is run by “A good Christian Girl from the South lookin for a Good Christian Man.” The post by MagaBabe, which mainly reposts material cheering former president Donald J. Trump, was quickly trumpeted by Mr. Orban’s media machine in Hungary.

Just hours after the video excerpts appeared, Mandiner, a news site owned by a media foundation controlled by loyalists of Mr. Orban, cited them as evidence that Ms. Marton and other people it labeled “black belt” agents of the Hungarian-born financier George Soros were conspiring to topple the Hungarian government.

“MagaBabe dropped an atomic bomb,” Mandiner said of the recordings, a jumble of disjointed clips.

In some of the clips, the purported investor — whose voiced has been electronically distorted to avoid identification — can be heard pushing Ms. Marton and Gen. Clark to say that Mr. Soros is funding opponents of Mr. Orban. “Yeah. Don’t even say that,” Ms. Marton says in one clip. In another, when Gen. Clark talks about Mr. Soros’ work in Ukraine instead of Hungary, the video cuts out and resumes with the investor prodding him to talk about Americans giving money to support the Hungarian opposition. “None like George,” the general says.

Origo, another outlet owned by the same foundation, claimed the videos had “blown the lid off the falsehoods of the opposition” and exposed its ties to foreign money.

“It is totally Kremlin-esque. We are back in the ’50s,” said Ms. Marton, who chairs the advisory board of the New York-based Action for Democracy, which supports activists in Hungary and elsewhere. “They have cast me in the same role as my parents, as an enemy of the people.”

The MagaBabe account that posted the videos “is not authentic at all,” said Brian Liston, an analyst with Recorded Future, a cybersecurity company. One post that claimed to be a picture of the user behind it, he said, was actually a photo of a Swedish model.

The first point of contact for the person who duped Ms. Marton was General Clark. They exchanged emails starting last April and then met up for dinners in Prague and Amsterdam to talk about Eastern Europe. MagaBabe posted a partial recording of what General Clark said.

“He was very, very subtle,” the general recalled. “He seemed genuine.”

A phone number in Switzerland and an email address that the purported investor used are no longer operative.

Snippets of the conversations with Ms. Marton and General Clark released on the X platform revealed nothing beyond what has long been public knowledge — that Mr. Soros has, starting in the late 1980s, funded groups promoting democracy across formerly communist Eastern and Central Europe.

Hungary has also supported conservative causes abroad, like sponsoring an annual gathering in Budapest of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee, an American political group linked to Mr. Trump’s MAGA movement. Mr. Orban is flying to the United States this week to visit Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Yet in the telling of the Center for Fundamental Rights, a government-funded Hungarian group that sponsors Hungary’s CPAC events, MagaBabe’s videos proved that “the American left’s express goal is to overthrow the Hungarian national government and Viktor Orban.” The center’s director declined to be interviewed.

Also jumping quickly on the recordings was a new Hungarian state agency called the Office for the Defense of Sovereignty. The office was established under recently passed legislation aimed at punishing interactions deemed subversive between foreigners and Hungarians. The European Union’s executive arm says the legislation violates democratic values and fundamental rights like freedom of association.

Tamas Lanczi, the head of the office, told Mandiner that the videos pointed to possible crimes that needed to be investigated. Mr. Lanczi declined to be interviewed.

“We are not in Russia yet. We are not falling out of windows,” said Lukacs Csaba, managing director of Magyar Hang, a conservative weekly that is critical of Mr. Orban, referring to the mysterious accidents that have befallen critics of President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia. “But we are moving step by step closer to that.”

Agoston Mraz, director of the Nezopont Institute, a group that conducts opinion polls for Mr. Orban’s government, scoffed at such complaints.

“Hungarians are not living in a dictatorship,” Mr. Mraz said.

He noted that the government still faced media scrutiny, which in February forced the resignation of Hungary’s president, an ally of Mr. Orban, after revelations that she had pardoned a man convicted of covering up pedophilia in a state children’s home.

The Hungarian government’s International Communications Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Marton said the operation against her and others involved with Action for Democracy, like General Clark, who also sits on its advisory board, bore the hallmarks of Black Cube, an Israeli private intelligence company that the networking platform LinkedIn says has used its services to entrap Hungarian activists.

LinkedIn has said it has taken down a number of accounts linked to the company and misused to target activists in Hungary.

Microsoft, LinkedIn’s owner, said Black Cube had “leveraged honeypot profiles, fake jobs and fake companies to engage in reconnaissance or human intelligence” operations against “targets with access to organizations of interest and/or concern” to its clients.

A researcher for LinkedIn, Mona Damian, said in November that these targets included people selected “as part of a campaign to discredit N.G.O.s in Hungary.”

Black Cube did not respond to a request for comment.

Eric Koch, an American communications consultant, said he had been contacted on LinkedIn last summer by a man claiming to be looking for advice for Polish law firms.

Given an all-expenses-paid trip to the Netherlands in August to discuss possible collaborations, Mr. Koch met the man in an Amsterdam hotel conference room and was then taken to dinner and plied with wine.

Mr. Koch said the man “badgered” him for information about funding for Action for Democracy. Mr. Koch worked for the group for a few weeks in New York in 2022 but said he knew nothing about its finances.

After returning home, he put the encounter behind him — until MagaBabe posted heavily edited segments from a video secretly recorded in Amsterdam in which, after repeated prodding, he speculated that Mr. Soros was funding the organization.

“Action for Democracy Admitted That George Soros Is Its Main Supporter,” claimed a headline a few days later in Magyar Nemzet, a pro-government Hungarian outlet.

A spokesman for Mr. Soros’s organization said, “Action for Democracy is not and has never been a grantee of the Open Society Foundations, nor do the Open Society Foundations fund political parties in Hungary.”

The main purpose of the operation targeting Mr. Koch seems to have been to add substance to a conspiracy theory outlined in a declassified November 2022 report on foreign interference by Hungary’s National Information Center, an arm of its intelligence apparatus.

The report detailed a supposed web of subversive intrigue involving Mr. Soros, Action for Democracy, the National Endowment for Democracy — described as the “soft power arm of the C.I.A. abroad” — and a host of other, mostly American, actors, including General Clark and Ms. Marton.

David Pressman, the American ambassador to Hungary, said, “We have paid attention to Hungary’s use of a component of its intelligence services to target American citizens,” adding that he “could not opine on the provenance” of the recent videos. The MagaBabe recordings, he said, represented “the first time we have seen this kind of activity take place on U.S. soil” in relation to Hungary’s “perceived opponents.”

In the summer of 2021, Jeney Orsolya, the former head of Amnesty International’s Budapest office, was contacted via LinkedIn by a woman who claimed to be recruiting for a leadership position in Budapest with a new organization.

But there was no job and no new group, Ms. Orsolya realized months later when, shortly before Hungary’s election in April 2022, Magyar Nemzet posted an edited video of her “job interviews” and misrepresented what she had said under the headline “Former Director of Amnesty: The Human Rights Organization Acts as Part of the Opposition.”

“This is not just about me being fooled but about a meticulously planned operation to trap me and other people for government propaganda against nongovernmental organizations and civil society,” Ms. Orsolya said.

It was just a foretaste of what would come with MagaBabe.

The main target of that operation seems to have been David Koranyi, a dual Hungarian and American citizen who is the executive director in New York of Action for Democracy.

He said a man contacted him last year claiming to be an investor called George Koufis, the same name used by the person who had entrapped General Clark and Ms. Marton.

“I had a bad feeling about this guy,” Mr. Koranyi recalled in a telephone interview. But he agreed to a Zoom call and offered an innocuous account of Action for Democracy’s U.S. status as a legally registered charity that is not required to release the names of donors.

Their call took place on Aug. 28, but short video excerpts, edited to look as if he were suggesting that he was hiding funding from Mr. Soros, appeared on MagaBabe’s X account only in late January — just as Hungary’s new Office for the Defense of Sovereignty was starting its work.

“The timing is not a coincidence. They wanted to wait until it was up and running because they wanted something to investigate,” Mr. Koranyi said.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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