Should we just make up some Russian spies so we can kick them out because the rest of the world is doing it? Or, would that be a less-than-ideal politicisation of intelligence information? I report, you decide.

The Government is taking a lot of heat for not expelling any Russians. That seems like an odd thing to for people to get worked up about, but there you are.

You can judge how the issue has unfolded by the fact that in a space of 24 hours, Simon Bridges has gone from grave statesman "we must stand as one on this issue" mode:

I agree that we need to have a critical eye on issues such as this, but the Prime Minister's position as I understand it is there are no, effectively, spies and so I take her at her word.

to full outraged "why is the Government letting down the country?" mode:

We are being laughed at in the international media. And the reason for that is that other countries, our best friends around the world, are taking a really principled stance on this and we haven't.

Apparently the PM's word is good enough for him, but only until overseas media pokes the borax at us. Because as I said in my initial twitter reaction to this whole affair:

Can't help thinking this "silly Govt can't find Russian spies" response is driven by a deep, existential fear that the rest of the world simply doesn't think us important enough to bother spying on.

Clearly, this was meant to be a bit tounge-in-cheek. But I do think it captures some fundamental truth; there's a great deal of "we have to be seen to matter here" thinking going on, which I think misses the basic point about the recent actions taken against Russia.

For here's the problem I have with those jumping up and down and saying we ought to have made some expulsions so as to be in line with our allies. Following Russia's use of a nerve agent to try and kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, the UK called for an international response. Acting on that call, some 26 countries have expelled over 100 Russians from their embassies in those nations.

Clearly, that mass action is not coincidental. These countries will have talked to each other in order to calibrate their responses - they want to be seen to be taking the same level of action against Russia in order to present a united front. It's not a case of saying "everyone do what they think best here", but rather "here's the agreed formula for action".

And so the action that obviously was agreed behind the scenes was to kick out the "undeclared intelligence agents" that each country has identified as working out of its various Russian diplomatic posts. Exactly what is meant by an "undeclared intelligence agent" is then very important, as it is the key to why NZ acted (or, didn't act) as it did.

An undeclared intelligence agent is not an ordinary diplomat who gathers gossip, monitors news media and attends cocktail functions in order to report to their government at home what is happening in NZ. All diplomats do this - our embassy staff overseas just as much as Russian embassy staff here. So "collecting information for your government" does not make someone an undeclared intelligence agent.

Instead, an undeclared intelligence agent is a member of a country's secret service who pretends to be a diplomat in order to actually undertake covert operations in the country to which they are posted. They are really spies who are pretending to be diplomats so as to get the benefits of diplomatic immunity should they get caught spying. 

Because these two things are not the same, they are not viewed the same in diplomatic interactions. A country kicking out a diplomat because they actually are an undeclared intelligence agent is a lesser deal than is kicking out a diplomat proper, because the "diplomat's" country knows that they've basically been rumbled misusing their diplomatic privileges. 

So, that's the level of response that the UK's various friends collectively decided was warranted - not kicking out "real" diplomats (which is a major step) but kicking out spies-in-diplomats-clothing (which is a lesser step). Which then is a problem for New Zealand.

Because it appears that we don't have any Russian undeclared intelligence agents on hand to kick out. This claim has, I know, been met with ridicule by many. I mean, it's Russia! We all know they spy all the time on everyone!! And New Zealand is so very, very important that they must spy on us, too!!! Please? We need the validation ... .

Except - maybe there just aren't any down here at the bottom of the world. And even if there is some undeclared intelligence agent kicking about in the Russian embassy, our SIS doesn't know who it is. Nor do our overseas intelligence partners, apparently, because we asked them and they couldn't finger anyone either.  

So, then, what does the NZ Government do? Some folk who I have cause to respect - Al Gillespie at Waikato, for instance - have suggested that we should just expel someone anyway:

To punish a country for their actions by expelling diplomats and making them persona non-grata is a political and not a technical decision. If our Prime Minister wants to expel a Russian diplomat and be included in the western coalition, she can find a way, just as all of the other countries have.

 OK - that's an option. But my problem with this is that other countries haven't expelled diplomats qua diplomats. They've expelled suspected spies - undeclared intelligence agents - which our Government has been told we don't have here. So either NZ would have to break ranks with our allies and undertake a significantly greater response to Russia's actions by expelling some "proper" diplomats, or the Government would have to lie to us and tell us it has found some suspected spies when in fact it hasn't.

Neither of these seem good options to me. For all Russia is bad and its actions abhorrent, our obligation is to act with our allies in response to it, not to charge ahead and one-up those allies by taking significantly stronger action. That's the whole point of the coordinated response!

And as for simply making up a claim that we know someone at the Russian embassy is an "undeclared intelligence agent" in order to justify expelling her or him in line with our allies ... well, we've seen where using false intelligence information to justify preferred policy outcomes gets us, haven't we? It may not be a dodgy dossier and yellowcake uranium in the security council, but it's on that slope.

Also, I'd rather my government didn't lie to me, if that's OK with you.


Comments (15)

by Kat on March 28, 2018

Remember the Rainbow Warrior. None of NZ's so called "allies" stood by us in our rightful quest for justice from the blatant terrorist actions of the French back in 1985. This country was in turn threatened with trade sanctions, from our "allies".

Our PM is not stupid, silly or stumbling. Neither is the deputy PM. They can be trusted. 

The orchestrated baying out in media land from certain commentators, some with yankee accents to National Party poodles including its Key cloned leader is just more obvious and predictable political posturing from the usual suspects.    

by on March 29, 2018

First you must establish that Russia did it. Little details like that Ruins a lot of egos.


While we have known Chinese spy's with in the National Party we are now expected to hold the government to a higher standard. Are you deficient?


by Kat on March 29, 2018

Maybe those "Dancing Cossacks" lurking around National Party HQ and TVNZ could be rounded up and expelled. That should do it.

by on March 29, 2018

Scotland Yard is saying the highest concentrations of the nerve argent was found in at Skripals front door. I mean what kind of weak ass military grade nerve argent is this. Garlic? you only need a tinny amount applied on your skin and your dead. It definitely would allow you to have dinner and then an hour and a half minutes later go for a leisurely half hour stroll.


Fucken in what a load of shit y'all have been talking all this time.  

[Ed: while skepticism about the UK's claims over the Skripal poisoning is acceptable, your language and tone is in breach of our rules on courteous engagement. Either moderate your approach or you will lose your commentating privileges.] 

by Nick Gibbs on March 29, 2018
Nick Gibbs

I think your argument would stand on firmer foundations had our Foreign Minister not called into dispute Russian involvement in the shooting down of MH17. 

The subtext of PM Ardern's refusal to expel any Russian spies "because she couldn't find any" now reads much more like "I can't expel any Russian spies because Winston won't let me".


by on March 29, 2018

I was told by some who comment here that this place was a place for quality discourse. Some even hold positions in academia. So y'all should god dam well know better that to get suckered by fabricated stories coming from the wonderful Boris Johnson. You should have known better than to get whipped up into hesteria by Cold War relics. You should just take your medicine and Buck up your ideas and think for yourselves like good little academics so you don't have to use plot armour to protect your little safe place around your fantastic academic opinions.

[Ed: OK Sam - you can take a break for a bit and maybe come back when you've calmed down.]

by Andrew Geddis on March 29, 2018
Andrew Geddis


I'm pretty confident that Ardern wouldn't be silly enough to lie about the advice she's received from the SIS and MFAT, because when she got caught doing so (which she would eventually), she'd be toast. Immediately. 

Peters pro-Russia fixation is a bit weird and (frankly) stupid. But Ardern stomped him on the FTA and I simply can't believe she'd put her entire PM-ship on the line over something as anodyne as expelling a spy (when every other country like us is doing it).

by Kat on March 29, 2018

Andrew perhaps a piece on the dark political art of  "handy diversions" would be helpful. National are not "holding the govt to account" they are just ramping up their poodles in the media, especially "Blue Radio" (RNZ-National) and stifling focus on real issues such as the gross underfunding of DHB's, hospitals rotting and leaking sewage, former National govt Attorney General breaching Privacy Act to the tune of $90,000 and the NZDF lying to New Zealanders about Operation name a few.

This episode with the Russian spies is a massive diversion on an international scale. Arden and Peters should be commended for being honest. I can smell the taint of "weapons of mass destruction" on Mays breath from here.

by Chuck Bird on March 30, 2018
Chuck Bird

Comrade Cindy is out of her depth.  She is concerned about offending the Russians.  Yet on 1 August 2017 she refered to President Trump as a "professional arsehole" in Newsroom.  This was before she was selected as PM but while she was Leader of Labour.

That will hardly help us with trade with the US.  I wonder is she included an appology to the President when she wrote to him about tarrifs on steel and alliminium.

by Lee Churchman on March 31, 2018
Lee Churchman

I can’t understand why intelligence and FP professionals still assume people should automatically believe them. That class burned whatever credibility they had over Iraq. Most of us are prepared to accept that Russia is a likely suspect. We just want proof. Is that so hard?

by Nick Gibbs on April 01, 2018
Nick Gibbs


You're kidding right. An oppoent of an authortarian govt is killed/attacked with a nerve agent and you're not sure who did it. Pretty certain the remaining critics of Kim and Putin have got the message. 

by Chuck Bird on April 01, 2018
Chuck Bird

"Most of us are prepared to accept that Russia is a likely suspect."

What group of people do you claim to be speaking for?

by william blake on April 01, 2018
william blake

If John Key had not expelled 'Russian spies' it would have been seen as a calm and astute move but when Jacinda Adern ignores the hype she has 'dropped the ball'. Right wing curmudgeons or mysoginists? Probably both.

by Tim Watkin on April 03, 2018
Tim Watkin

Chuck, for the record Ardern's comment was when she was deputy leader of Labour. And while she was clearly referencing Trump, it was an answer to a broad question about the rise of anti-politicians such as Trump... and it was at a 'Chatham House' meeting, not in an interview with Newsroom, as you imply.

You can still make your argument of course, just don't want any inaccuracy to stand.

by Chuck Bird on April 04, 2018
Chuck Bird

Tim,The newsroom indicates that her comment was as leader.  If she was deputy it would have been days before she was leader.

Cindy does not realise NZ needs the US more than the US needs NZ.  I also noted that Tamati Coffey went to a protest in the US against US gun law and announsed it on social media along with a Green MP.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.