OPINION: Bill Sutch contributed much to New Zealand's economic and social development through his long career as an economist, diplomat and senior public servant. Yet it is his dalliance with the Soviet Union's secret service, the KGB, in 1974 for which he is better remembered these days. He was caught in a Wellington park meeting an official from the Soviet embassy and charged under the Official Secrets Act with the curious offence of "obtaining information that would be helpful to an enemy". He was acquitted after a sensational trial in February 1975 and died some months later.
Now, KGB files suggest that Sutch had been a Soviet agent from as early as 1950, when he was head of New Zealand's delegation to the United Nations.
Sutch's family continue to maintain his innocence and even a former Security Intelligence Service agent involved in his arrest, Kit Bennetts, has said that Sutch would not have done anything to consciously harm New Zealand. The affair is back in the news now because papers copied and smuggled out of Moscow by KGB archivist and defector Vasili Mitrokhin in 1992 have just been made public by Cambridge University. But the news about Sutch is not actually news. As long ago as 2008, a SIS file was made public which said that information of Russian origin documented a long-standing association between the KGB and a New Zealand civil servant who uniquely fitted Sutch's profile. That information now seems to have been sourced from the Mitrokhin files.
What Sutch was actually doing in Wellington's Holloway Rd one rainy night in 1974 may never be known. He had long retired by then and his implausible explanation was that he was meeting the Soviet agent to discuss Zionism. The Mitrokhin files also suggest that a Labour MP fitting a certain profile was also in touch with the KGB agent, Yuri Drozhzin, who liaised with Sutch. Even then, however, it is hard to know exactly what that might mean - was the MP an agent or a mere Soviet "fellow traveller"?
The Mitrokhin files document the Soviet practice of obtaining from New Zealand documents, including passports, which would have been useful to KGB agents around the world. This also has a familiar Cold War ring to it - passports issued at the New Zealand embassy in Paris gave false identities (in the names of Peter and Helen Kroger) to the American "atomic spy ring" traitors Morris and Leontina Cohen, who were using them when arrested in London in 1961. Those passports were issued when another Kiwi diplomat unconvincingly accused of espionage, Paddy Costello, was working in Paris. In 1991, Soviet diplomat Anvar Kadyrov was expelled after illegally trying to obtain a passport in Wellington. (In the 1980s, ambassador Vesevelod Sofinsky and official Sergei Budnik were thrown out for allegedly giving covert help to the Socialist Unity Party.)
That Cold War espionage extended to New Zealand is well known. That allegations will surface years after the event should not be surprising. When they do, however, people should remember that spying is a game of smoke and mirrors, and the truth is hard to know.
- The Press