Thud and blunder, Tony Simpson

C H Kit Bennetts
Random House, $37.00,
ISBN 186941831X

Spy is about the claim that Bill Sutch spied for the KGB. I was well-acquainted with Sutch, and we met from time to time in the 70s to talk about writing and political history, particularly as the latter concerned the 30s and 40s in which I was interested, and during which Sutch had been a significant player. He also gave me a very perceptive interview for The Sugarbag Years (1974).

Shortly before his death in 1975, he asked me to have lunch with him, probably as a way of saying goodbye to one of his friends. During the course of a two-hour conversation in which we ranged over many topics, he gave me his view of his arrest and trial allegedly for handing over official information to the KGB. But more of that in due course.

No-one should take seriously this book purporting to “unmask” Sutch the spy. It adds nothing to existing accounts, and its intellectual level can be judged from the author’s remark on Sutch’s acquittal on all charges following his trial: “the old bastard had got away with it”. Notwithstanding, there is value in the book because Bennetts, who was one of the SIS field officers involved in the affair, unwittingly allows us insight into the mind of the sort of person who used to join the security services (and still may, for all I know), and this is extraordinarily interesting.

When I heard that Sutch had been arrested for treason, I laughed, not simply because the proposition was ludicrous, but because the New Zealand security services had their origins in farce, and had continued as they began through a career characterised by thud and blunder, all the way to Ahmed Zaoui. I sat back and awaited the coming dénouement with pleasurable anticipation. This was going to be déjà vu, and I have to say that in the event I was not disappointed, although it must have been a gruelling experience for Sutch and his family.

Let me be clear. I am not one of those who think we don’t need some sort of security service. Someone has to assess the world and its threats for the government, vet those who will be occupying sensitive senior positions, and so forth. But it’s interesting to note that the only time our service was genuinely tested by a terrorist attack – the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior – it failed us. This suggests that, up to that point at least, we had the sort of security service we didn’t need. What we had instead was a service that showed all of the hallmarks of its establishment at the height of the Cold War, by a government which was in many ways barking mad on the subject of communism. Whether it has subsequently escaped those origins remains to be seen, but we are speaking now of an era when it had not.

I have encountered from time to time, in four decades of working in and with our public service, the sorts of people the security service attracted to its employ; Bennetts, on the evidence of this book, strikes me as almost an archetype.

He is, he proudly tells us, a small-town boy from a respectable lower middle-class background. Well, aren’t we all, but we don’t all join the spy service. I went to school with blokes like Bennetts. They were always the ones who were proud of having achieved a rank in the cadet corps or of having made it to school prefect. They typically got themselves involved in a sort of weekend boy-soldier scheme we used to have in those days. And they not unusually joined the armed forces post secondary school. Bennetts did most of these things. He is now a policeman in Brisbane.

I don’t know if he was ever a boy scout but I can see him as one. People like that were always eager and enthusiastic about whatever it was the authorities told them they should be eager and enthusiastic about. Oddly, the only time I have ever knowingly met a member of a foreign security service – I had lunch with a KGB colonel in Moscow in 1973, although he wasn’t openly there in that capacity – he struck me as the same sort of eager beaver I find in Bennetts.

But, above all, what strikes me about Bennetts is that, on the evidence of this book, he accepts entirely uncritically an orthodox Cold War perspective on international affairs. Most people with a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the four decades to 1990 are aware that the idea of the Cold War is an ideological construct mainly useful for propaganda purposes. Only one of the protagonists, the “West” (another euphemism), used the term because it allowed it to present its actions, whatever may have been their actual motivations, in a universally benevolent and positive light. They were “holding back communism”, weren’t they?

That doesn’t mean that assorted nastinesses were not going on internationally throughout that period, some perpetrated by the government in Moscow and its allies and agencies. But they weren’t alone in that, and it was certainly a serious matter; a lot of people got seriously hurt along the way. As Talcott Parsons, one of the founders of modern sociology, once remarked, if people define situations as real, then they are real in their consequences. Ask the current president of Chile, if you don’t want to take my word for it.

But that the notion of a Cold War as the defining reality of those four decades might not be the only way of seeing the world, or that as a construct it might have had no objective reality at all, has obviously never occurred to Bennetts. This is what leads him astray. His whole book is driven by the belief that, if Sutch was meeting with a Russian embassy official and this was not sanctioned by someone in authority on “our” side, then something criminal or reprehensible must have been going on. It then became simply a matter of establishing what that was. If it could not be established, then obviously there had been a cover-up, a slip-up, or the law was flawed for coming up with an acquittal.

In fact, Bennetts is quite indignant that Sutch, by insisting on his right to silence when confronted, and thereby forcing his arrest and trial, was guilty of an even more serious misdemeanour than that with which he was charged: failing to co-operate with the authorities. As far as Bennetts is concerned, the purpose of the exercise was not an arrest and trial but the “turning” of an important agent so that others could be revealed and a KGB initiative foiled or even turned to the advantage of the SIS and its bigger allies. Sutch ruined the whole thing by his refusal to co-operate.

That he might have been innocent of any crime, that the right to silence is a fundamental principle of law, and that Sutch’s stance might have been vindicated by the decision of the jury, has also never apparently occurred to Bennetts. I trust you are now getting some sense of the peculiar universe our security agencies in some of their wilder manifestations tend to inhabit. The problem is that innocent people like Bill Sutch can get seriously hurt in the process, and people like Bennetts appear to feel no guilt or blame for that whatsoever. On the contrary, they go on trying to justify themselves long after the world has ceased to give a damn.

So, for the sake of the historical record, what was it Sutch said to me over lunch in 1975? He had already revealed some of it publicly in a television interview with Ian Fraser in 1975; Bennetts, to give him credit, publishes that in full. But he does so for the wrong reasons. To Bennetts, this interview is simply further evidence of Sutch’s duplicity, arrogance and egotism, and so he entirely missed its point, which was that there was something strange going on off-stage that Sutch couldn’t quite fathom. I agree. What Sutch told me that he did not tell Fraser was that he felt extremely foolish about the way his curiosity had led him into a situation which gave his enemies on the Right what they probably perceived as their potentially best chance for many years to discredit the New Zealand Left.

Consider the following. The security service did not initially have Sutch in their sights. They were shadowing Russian embassy official Rasgovorov for quite another reason when Sutch wandered into the frame. They didn’t even know whom they had potted initially, but as soon as they did they must have pricked up their ears. This was an era in which international anti-communist security services, of which our SIS was a very junior partner, were on the offensive after almost a decade on the back foot.  They had recently been deeply implicated in the Pinochet coup in 1973, and they were closing in on the Whitlam government, although that wasn’t yet apparent.

Meantime, New Zealand under the Kirk government had sent the South African consulate packing, withdrawn from Vietnam, canned military conscription, and sent a naval frigate to Mururoa in protest at French Pacific nuclear testing. A spy scandal that might count against this Left-leaning government with a rather unwelcome neutralist foreign policy stance would be very welcome. What they didn’t know, of course, was that Sutch cut no ice with Kirk (who detested him), nor with his successor Rowling, and so they went for it.

Bennetts would have known nothing of this. He admits that, as a low-ranking field officer, he was not party to broader strategic decisions in this or any other case. But how his superiors must have rubbed their hands with glee at this opportunity to bring down what they perceived to be an icon of the New Zealand Left, and one, moreover, of previously unassailable rectitude.

Unfortunately for them, it all turned to custard. Sutch was acquitted, his prosecution perceived by most New Zealanders as an idiotic circus. I can understand Bennetts’ erstwhile masters not wanting him to publish, as he admits they did not. He unwittingly shows them for what they were, which is to say incompetent, at best. In doing so he renders us a service he does not intend, by bearing out what many, including myself, have said over the years: that government carried on in unjustifiable secrecy and darkness is the enemy of democratic and accountable citizenship.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and War
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