Thursday, April 9, 2015

Romanian Revolution December 1989 (III): Pitfalls of Testimony as Evidence

There are a number of problems with the current use of “evidence” regarding the presence or absence of Soviet (and Soviet bloc) “tourists” in Romania during the 1989 revolution. They appear repeatedly, for example, in perhaps the only (partly) English-language blog dedicated solely to Romania’s revolution, run by Richard Andrew Hall. (See Richard Hall Blog)

Hall begins a series of posts on what he regards as lessons learned about the 1989 Revolution with one entitled: “The Securitate Deny Foreign Instigation of the Timisoara Uprising” (Securitate being Romanian short-hand for the Department of State Security or DSS). Hall claims to prove that the presence of Soviet tourists is a “myth” and an “absurdity” based on former DSS officer witness depositions and a media report. (#1 Securitate Deny Foreign Instigation)

Hall insists that this evidence proves his argument in many of his subsequent posts, (see, for example, #8 Romania Closes its Borders to Almost All Foreigners … Except Russian Tourists Returning from Shopping Trips to Yugoslavia.) Before examining this evidence it is worth noting that Hall steadfastly ignores the context of Soviet-Romanian relations, nor does he seem aware of the USSR’s repeated use of “tourist” cover for intelligence, paramilitary and military operations in the Soviet bloc (including Romania) prior to 1989. He also appears to assume that Moscow had no motives for forcing a change in Romanian policy under the right circumstances. (See Romanian Revolution December 1989 (II) Divining Soviet Intent)

Hall persistently confuses the ethical problem of responsibility with that of agency, seeking “who is to blame” rather focusing on “how something happened.”  Setting off from the premise that the DSS was culpable for all or most of the violence perpetrated in 1989 necessarily blinds the analyst to any evidence of outside involvement. Indeed, when arguing this hypothesis Hall repeatedly shifts from a discussion of “tourist” presence to the specific roles “tourists” played (or rather did not play) in Timisoara, thus misusing testimony to the effect that foreigners were not observed playing such roles as proof that they were not observed – and therefore not present – at all.

Unfortunately, none of the DSS testimony cited by Hall was generated during the event for internal purposes. All of it was generated after the fact and for a specific audience: the Romanian courts. Each of the DSS officers giving testimony was under investigation. No matter their individual strength of character, each had a vested personal interest in not antagonizing their interrogators.

The reader should know that historians and courts both regard eyewitness testimony as the least reliable form of evidence because memory is so easily manipulated. The reliability of testimony rapidly declines within days of an event. Weeks and months after the fact the accuracy and value of testimony becomes highly questionable. With time, memory falls increasingly under the influence of emerging public interpretation while subsequently formed impressions increasingly replace forgotten details. 

Hall claims that the four testimonies he originally cited were written “immediately after the December 1989 events.” That is not true. The testimony most proximate to those events, that of Niculae Mavru, was written more than three weeks later, and a second citation from Mavru eighteen months later. The second-most proximate, Emil Macri, testified one and a half months later. The third, Filip Teodorescu, submitted his testimony one month and three weeks after the events. And the least proximate, Liviu Dinulescu, gave his testimony a full year and half later.

Testimony Under Duress

The fact that Hall does not dwell on how those testimonies came into being is also problematic. The circumstances in which testimony is given can have a significant influence on its content.  Testimony is highly susceptible to distortion over time even when third-party influence is benign. Testimony is even more susceptible to distortion when given under duress.  

General Vlad on Trial
Several DSS officers have complained of being told during the 1990 trials that they would be acquitted if they denied any Soviet bloc presence during the revolution. Interestingly, none of the DSS sources cited by Hall as denying the existence of “tourists” was convicted (3 were acquitted and one died before trial). All of their cited testimonies had been made in the quality of witness in the trials of others. On the other hand, several of the DSS officers convicted, including DSS chief Iulian Vlad, insisted on the Soviet bloc presence at their trials and in later hearings before various Senate commissions of inquiry. A rigorous comparison of the depositions given by the convicted and the acquitted DSS officers might set this particular devil to rest, one way or the other. (See e.g. S. Sandulescu, Decembrie ’89: Lovitura De Stat A Confiscat Revolutia Romana (1996): 158-208)

Hall evades discussion of these problematic circumstances with the rather astonishing claim that coercive influence on DSS officer testimony is not “terribly plausible.” A serious effort to gauge plausibility would start with an examination of the circumstances in 1990-1991 when these depositions were given. Mainstream opinion at that time held the DSS to be the “most brutal” repressive institution in the Soviet bloc. There was even a concerted effort to brand it – along with the entire communist regime – as a completely illegitimate criminal institution (an anomaly among the former Warsaw Pact members).

By the end of December 1989, DSS personnel had not only lost their jobs, they were also subject to criminal investigation and incarceration, with the distinct possibility of long-term imprisonment. Some of the very officers cited by Hall spent time in jail previous to their testimony. Only the most obtuse would not have experienced these circumstances as coercive pressure. Contrary to Hall’s denials, it is in fact highly plausible that a number of DSS personnel tailored their testimony in order to please their jailers (or potential jailers). Such “tailoring” does not require one to commit perjury. Topics towards which interrogators show disinterest or hostility can simply be avoided. And one can employ ambiguity to allow for multiple interpretations; that preferred by interrogators as well as the truth.

The Brief Coup of Pro-Soviet Officers

Pressure on those affirming a Soviet presence was particularly evident, and it is obvious why it should have been so. In the midst of the revolution, on December 23, General Nicolae Militaru, forcibly retired eleven years earlier when he was caught red-handed spying for the Soviet Union, set himself up as the new head of the Romanian Army. He was confirmed as defense minister on December 24, 1989, only to be dismissed from that position seven weeks later for bringing about the disintegration of the Romanian Army. Militaru bragged about his Soviet contacts in his famous joint interview with co-conspirator Silviu Brucan. (Adevarul, 23/8/90)
General Nicolae Militaru
The DSS was subordinated to the military on December 26, two days after Militaru officially took over the Defense Ministry and the Army, which gave the Soviet agent control of the DSS while it underwent reorganization. Whatever residual bureaucratic leverage the DSS may have possessed disappeared with its formal dissolution on December 30, 1989. Militaru reactivated some 30, mostly Soviet-trained officers (many known or suspected of being Soviet agents) and appointed them to senior positions in the military and in the newly forming security intelligence institutions under his control. This wave included the new foreign intelligence chief (and former DSS foreign counterintelligence chief) Mihai Caraman, and the advisor to the vice-prime minister (and former DSS foreign intelligence chief) Nicolae Doicaru, as well as the new interior minister, chief of the general staff, chief of military intelligence, etc.

The military prosecutors and military court trying DSS personnel in the immediate aftermath of the revolution were also subordinate to Defense Minister Militaru. In fact, Militaru exercised direct control over who was incarcerated, tried and convicted until February 14, 1990, when he was dismissed. And no major reforms were undertaken or personnel changes instituted in the military justice system prior to the first constitutional election in 1992.

Even if the kangaroo court and summary execution of the Ceausescus on the flatly ridiculous charge of genocide had not made the entire world aware of how fast and loose the Romanian military justice system operated at that time, it would still strain credulity to deny the manifest interest of Soviet agents in obscuring their roles.

The more closely one examines Hall’s evidence the more problematic it appears. Hall quotes Filip Teodorescu from a January 12, 1990 deposition regarding his report from Timisoara on the evening of December 18 that “there is no data indicating any leaders or instigators coming from abroad.” [nu sint date ca ar exista instigatori sau conducatori anume veniti din strainatate.]“ In another posting Hall draws attention to General Vlad’s July 19, 1991 deposition stating “More precisely, those sent by me to Timisoara reported that they had no evidence indicating any foreign involvement in producing the events in Timisoara.” [Mai exact, cei trimis de mine la Timisoara mi-au raportat ca nu au elemente din care sa rezulte vreum amestec al strainatatii in producerea evenimentelor de la Timisoara.] (Vlad Testimony, 19/07/91)

Cherry-Picking the Testimony

It would appear that Hall is cherry-picking the evidence. As related by Vlad’s chef de cabinet and confirmed by General Vlad to this author, Teodorescu’s initial report on December 18, 1989 stated that “there was not enough manpower to prevent access [to Timisoara] on the Buzias Road” and the militia thus “left access into Timisoara from this direction open.” [nu au existat fortele necesare pentru interzicerea accesului prin Calea Buziasului, deoarece … a ramas descoperitat directia respective de access in Timisoara.] This lead to the following exchange:
Col. Teodorescu

Gen. Vlad:       “And did they enter?”
Teodorescu:     “Some 3-4 automobiles entered, each with 2-3 occupants.”
Gen. Vlad:       “And what did they do?”
Teodorescu:     “We don’t know.”
Gen. Vlad:       “I’ll tell you what they did. They performed their mission and moved on. Do not leave      the [local DSS] headquarters, so that you are not blamed for their provocations.”
 (A. Rogojean, Fereastra serviciilor secrete (2011): 158-9)

Within two months of his initial testimony Teodorescu was describing publicly how he had “detained foreign agents during the Timisoara events.” (Romania Libera, 9/03/90) In his subsequent statements Teodorescu consistently noted how DSS attention was “drawn to the unjustifiably large number of Soviet tourists” claiming to be “in transit to Yugoslavia.” “Unfortunately,” Teodorescu notes, “we did not have enough manpower and conditions did not allow us to monitor the activities of at least some of these ‘tourists'.” [Ne-a atras atentia numarul nejustificat de mare de turisti sovietici, fie cu autobuze, fie cu autoturisme. … Declarau cu totii ca sint in transit pentru Iugoslavia. … Din pacate nu dispuneam de forte si nici conditiile nu au permis; pentru a urmari activitatea macar a unor dintre “turisti.] (F. Teodorescu, Un Risc Asumat (1992): 92)

Hall misrepresents the testimony of General Vlad in a similar manner. Elsewhere in facsimile reproduction of that testimony (but not translated by Hall), Vlad made the following clarification:  “I mention that the mission of Gen. Macri and of the others that I sent to Timisoara was to establish, in the first place, what involvement foreigner and foreign interests had in setting off the events, because the data base of which we disposed from foreign sources indicated this…” [Mentionez ca misiunea gl. Macri si a celorlalti pe care l-am trimis la Timisoara a fost aceea de a se stabili in primul rind ce amestec au strainii si strainatatea in declansarea evenimentelor, intrucit pe baza datelor pe care le detineam din surse externe, rezulta acest lucru…] (Vlad Testimony, 19/07/91)

A related problem appears when one reads the entire page of Nicolae Mavru’s testimony, of which Hall translates only those sections asserting that “(there were not any [foreigners]) who incited disorder, acts of violence or other acts”; that “Although we tried we could not report to Col. Sima the complete involvement of any foreign citizen in the evolution of the demonstrations”; and that he was unable to discover any foreign involvement. [(nu prea au fost) care incita la dezordine, acte de violenta sau altfel de acte… (13/01/90) Desi ne-am straduit nu am putut raporta col. Sima implicarea completa a vreunui cetatean strain in evolutia demonstratiilor. Cu toate eforturile facute nu a rezultat lucru pe linia mea de munca.] (25/06/91)]

Hall is using Mavru to support his compound assertion that Soviet “tourists” were neither involved nor present during the revolution in Timisoara. According to Hall, therefore, Mavru, Tedorescu, Macri and Dinulescu all claimed that: “they could find no such presence and role played by Soviet tourists.” However, none of those officers claim that Soviet tourists were not present. They insist only that, according to their investigation, foreigners were not leading or overtly instigating the events in Timisoara. In the facsimile reproduced by Hall, Mavru actually goes on to explain that Vlad’s request for intelligence on possible foreign involvement was motivated by the extraordinarily large numbers of foreigners appearing in the region:

“The order of Col. Sima referring to foreign elements was justified because an exodus of visitors from foreign states to the dwelling of Pastor Tokes had begun two months earlier. Thus, there existed suspicion of the implication of circles from other states in the launching of the events in Timisoara. I would also like to point out that in November approximately 1500 persons from one and the same neighboring state appeared in Timis county and the city of Timisoara, usually men, whom I was not able to keep under surveillance, because of lack of manpower. I reported details regarding these foreigners only verbally without drawing up any notes.” [Ordinul col. Sima referitor la elementele straine era justificate pentru ca cu 2 luni mai inainte incepuse un exot de vizitatori din statele straine la locuinta pastorului Tokes. Deci exista banuiala implicarii cercurilor din alte state in declansarea evenimentele la Timisoara. Tin sa precizez ca in noiembrie aproximativ 1500 din unul si acelasi stat vecin au aparut in judetul Timis si orasul Timisoara, de regula barbate care nu i-am putut supraveghea, din [lipsa] de oameni (forte).] (#1 Securitate Deny Foreign Instigation)

Two the original four testimonial sources cited by Hall as proof of Soviet non-implication in the Timisoara events provide much stronger evidence for the counterargument; that the Soviets were present and vexatious. Indeed, both Mavru and Teodorescu insist on the unusual influx of Soviet bloc “tourists” into Romania immediately preceeding and during the December 1989 revolution.

But testimonies from former DSS officers are not the only evidence cited by Hall. He also cites media reporting as providing ‘definitive’ proof that there were no Soviet “tourists” coming over the border in worrisome quantity.

To Be Continued

The Romanian Version is at