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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Trivial story with no sex and no intrigue

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Three good, non-sinister reasons why young foreign tourists would want to hasten their departure.

The 1963 scandal over John Profumo rocked the British Establishment to its core. Photo / File
The 1963 scandal over John Profumo rocked the British Establishment to its core. Photo / File

Call me old-fashioned, but I have a couple of simple requirements of a spy scandal: first, it should involve spies; second, it should be scandalous.

Like the Profumo scandal which in 1963 rocked the British Establishment to its foundations. It had a spy and a femme fatale, intrigue in high places and a scandalous amount of illicit sex.

John Profumo was Minister of War. (They called a spade a spade in those days; there was none of this mealy-mouthed Minister of Defence.) He made two mistakes: he slept with a call girl who was also sleeping with a naval attache at the Soviet Embassy, then lied about it in Parliament.

Profumo's penance was in stark contrast to the terse apology and golden parachute which these days often accompany public disgrace. He devoted the rest of his life to anonymous, unpaid charity work in the east end of London, starting as a toilet cleaner.

Ten years later we had the pallid imitation known as the Lambton affair. Antony Lambton, a junior minister at what was by then the Ministry of Defence, resigned after a photo of him smoking a joint while sharing a bed with two prostitutes appeared in the late, unlamented News of the World.

Because of the echoes of the Profumo scandal, Lambton was investigated by the security apparatus. However, while he seemed to have availed himself of the services of every call girl within a 10-minute cab ride of Westminster, none of them was a spy spies or sleeping with spies.

Lambton attributed his compulsive behaviour to the boredom and futility of a junior minister's existence, for which he compensated by engaging feverishly in sex and gardening.

Rather than clean toilets in a deprived area, he opted to retire to a 400-year-old Tuscan villa built for Pope Alexander VII.

The following year, the career of West Germany's Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader Willy Brandt crashed and burned when it emerged that one of his most trusted aides was an East German spy.

Legendary Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf later declared that causing Brandt's downfall was a huge mistake, but the East German elite were deeply suspicious of his Ostpolitik policy of reaching out to the Communist bloc. Given what became of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you'd have to say they had good reason.

The so-called spy scandal which erupted here this week is somewhat different.

What we know for certain is that a group of young Israeli backpackers had the great misfortune to be in central Christchurch when the second earthquake struck.

The conviction that there must be more to it seems to rest on four factors - the 2004 spy scandalette when two Israelis widely believed to be Mossad agents were convicted of passport fraud in Auckland, the Israeli Prime Minister's persistent attempts to get hold of John Key, the three surviving backpackers' hasty departure from New Zealand and, lastly, the probability that some people have watched too many Jason Bourne movies.

TVNZ's political editor couldn't for the life of him understand why the Israelis would flee if they had nothing to hide. Let me offer some suggestions: their great adventure holiday had been ruined beyond repair, they were traumatised by their friend's death and their own narrow escapes, they wanted to be restored to the bosom of their family and friends as soon as possible.

What should they have done? Cruised on down to Queenstown for a bungy jump and a wine tour?

The strenuous effort to make something sinister out of very little recalls the Sutch affair. In 1975, Bill Sutch, a distinguished economist, historian and public servant, was charged with obtaining information that could be helpful to the enemy.

By then Sutch had been out of the public service for a decade and the information in question was never produced. The grounds for charging a prominent New Zealander with spying appears to have been the handful of meetings he had with a Soviet diplomat, and the Cold War mindset that anyone left of centre was on the Kremlin's payroll.

Sutch was acquitted. Reviewing the investigation, the chief ombudsman concluded that the SIS had breached the law and was guilty of subverting the values it was supposed to protect.

As the career of James Jesus Angleton demonstrates, once you start seeing spies everywhere, it's difficult to stop.

Angleton was the CIA's head of counter-intelligence for much of the Cold War. By the time he was ushered out of CIA headquarters, the exhaustive list of those he'd accused of being Soviet spies included: Canadian Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, American President Gerald Ford and that well-known bleeding heart liberal, Henry Kissinger.

- NZ Herald

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