Sutch and Security

This was originally intended as an appendix to Chapter 10 of The Nationbuilders. It was decided that the story distracted from the main themes of the chapter (and the book) and was omitted. It is placed here on the record. This is the version prepared in September 2000.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

The evidence that Sutch was security compromised before the meetings which led up to the incident in Holloway Road in 1974 is almost non-existent. It is true he admired the Soviet Union, and the US government treated him as a security risk in the 1950s, although given its McCarthiest frame of mind that may say no more than he had thwarted the US over UNICEF, and in New York he was friends of East-Central Europeans (some of whom subsequently fled to the West), although apparently he had little to do with the Russians.

We have a reasonable idea of what was on his security file (all public servants had one). The memoirs of his minister, John Marshall, devote more space to Sutch than to his long time colleague Keith Holyoake. They record
“A security check not long before his retirement in 1964 did reveal visits to the home of a member of the Communist Party, but no more than that. Some people, from time to time, alleged that Sutch was a communist, but there was no positive proof to support the charge … the final act of folly which, at last gave hard evidence of his communist sympathies and in more ways than one, exposed his double life.25. Marshall, p.145-146.”(1)

In summary there was no hard evidence that Sutch was a spy, other than an interpretation of the events of 1974.

The trial confirms Marshall’s 1964 report. The prosecution must have known they had a thin circumstantial case. Yet they did not attempt to bolster it with evidence of spy activities before 1974. Why not? At the depositions, no evidence was supplied of his compromised security status, but the prosecutor said enquiries were being made overseas. Nothing was provided during the trial. All the prosecution had was the hope that if Sutch had testified, a fishing expedition might have elicited some incriminating evidence. But Sutch chose not to enter the witness stand, on the basis he had no case to answer.

The assessment of Sutch security status therefore depends upon what happened in 1974. Dimitri Razgovorov, a KGB agent, who had recently come out to New Zealand, was almost certainly not considered very high powered (Why waste someone of ability on New Zealand? The local spy industry wants you to think that New Zealand was a major centre for espionage operations but they would, wouldn’t they?) This assessment is reinforced by the Soviet legation’s Charge d’Affaire, Alexei Makarov, who has expressed a low opinion of the agent’s ability.

According to Makarov, Razgovorov was keen to demonstrate his competence, so we may assume that he approached Sutch, possibly others, to elicit information. One thing which gives Sutch’s account credibility is his report of the simplicity of the questions asked of him such as ‘what was the attitude of the New Zealand Chinese to the Chinese government?’ It seems unlikely that he made them up.(2) They are consistent with Makarov’s description of Razgovorov, while the siege mentality of the embassy (reinforced by the various restrictions the New Zealand government placed on it) would not have helped. Razgovorov’s espionage skills do not seem overwhelming. Indeed the meeting venues were outside, open and easily observed, and the Russians went there is an easily identifiable embassy car, suggesting they were hardly secret. The Hopper Street meeting took place in the most lighted entrance in the street, and in full view of two NZSIS outposts. (This has encouraged some to suggest that Razgovorov was a CIA plant framing Sutch, but he did return to Moscow. Another theory is that the KGB wanted to damage Sutch’s reputation.)

Why did Sutch respond to Razgovorov? He said he was curious. No doubt he was flattered. He may have lost some of his judgement and intellectual quickness towards the end of his life, perhaps from the atheroma of the brain which the autopsy identified. In any case it was a stupid thing to do, and does not suggest someone who had a long history of thinking about passing on secret information.

If Sutch prepared information for Razgovorov it could not have been more than what was in the public domain which an informed person might know. One of the greatest problems in this whole story is what information could Sutch have had. He had been out of government for over eight years, and his only government appointment was Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council, which is unlikely to have been an interest of the KGB. (The right of the spy industry has suggested he may have been an intermediary for some other spy or mole (unnamed) who had collected secret information (unspecified but possibly commercial) to be passed on. If one believes Sutch was a spy, there is no trouble constructing a story plausibility and Occam’s razor will not be a part of the tool kit.)

Some of the events involving the arrest had a keystone cops aura. (For instance while Sutch presented himself as a fastidious man, but do not forget his tramping background. So instead of availing himself of the nearby public lavatory, he used the bushes. Had he been more delicate, he would have entered a building in which a number of policemen were secreted, presumably pretending to be the Holloway Road Gay Club. Instead, some poor cop had to search through the nitrogenated bushes in case Sutch had put something else there.) One cannot help feeling that had the matter been handled better, it would never have gone to trial. Some of Sutch’s responses did not help.

For the record, a jury of New Zealanders found Sutch not guilty of the charge. Extraordinarily he was not demoralized by the events, and bore himself afterwards with considerable dignity. Yet the arrest and trial seems likely to have hastened him to a death at 68 later that year.

This prosaic reconstruction of the events – while lacking the romance of the spy novels, reports or films – reflects the reality of most security transactions. Alas, there is nothing here that will persuade the spy industry that things were this simple. They will continue to create psuedo-facts to pursue their own beliefs. After all, it is the only New Zealand spy case they have.

1.. J.Marshall (1989) Memoirs, Auckland, Vol II, p.145-146.
2. Shirley Smith reports the other questions were ‘What did the New Zealand Jews think of Israel?’ and ‘How do I get in touch with the New Zealand Israeli Society?’