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.
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.