Being distant from the rest of the world has not stopped New Zealand from being a strand in the web of worldwide espionage.

Two Israeli men appeared in the Auckland District Court last week on passport charges.

It has been reported that the pair and two other men still sought by police are suspected of having links to the Israeli secret service Mossad.

New Zealand is a world away from the Middle East - and most of the world's other hotspots for that matter - but that has not prevented periodic spy scandals.

The best known incident on New Zealand territory was the 1985 sinking by French agents of Greenpeace vessel the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland.

French agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur pleaded guilty to manslaughter in November 1985 and were sentenced to 10 years' jail.

They were transferred to a French military facility on Hao Atoll in July 1986 to complete their sentences, but were back in France in two years.

Most major espionage incidents in New Zealand date from the Cold War and feature a small but steady stream of KGB-connected New Zealanders or expelled Russian diplomats.

In 1980, then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon expelled Soviet Ambassador Vesevelod Sofinsky for allegedly handing over $10,000 to a Socialist Unity Party member.

Seven years later another Russian diplomat, Sergei Budnik, was told to leave the country by Prime Minister David Lange - also for alleged connections with the SUP.

One alleged Russian agent did not learn his lessons well.

In 1991 Anvar Razzakovich Kadyrov was deported from New Zealand after he was caught trying to use the name of Wellington boy Philip James Couper who died, aged six, in 1966, to get a New Zealand passport and create a clean identity.

The 1974 espionage case surrounding Dr William Sutch still continues to cause great debate.

Dr Sutch was arrested for spying after police observed him meeting a Russian diplomat, but in 1975 he was acquitted of charges alleging he had betrayed official secrets.

- NZPA

Herald investigation: Passport