BEN MACINTYRE A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the great betrayal. Reviewed by Peter Corris
The English class system helped Cold War spy Kim Philby, who used his friendships with other agents to thwart their operations.
Back when I was working at the National Times, I had the good fortune to meet two men – David Leitch and Phillip Knightley – who’d written about Kim Philby. With fellow Sunday Times journalist Bruce Page, they had produced Philby: The Spy who betrayed a generation (1968), the first detailed study of Philby’s career. Knightley went on to write a full-scale biography, The Master Spy: The story of Kim Philby (1989). I met Knightley again and told him how much I’d admired the book.
‘Would you like to shake the hand of a man who shook the hand of Kim Philby?’ he said.
I said I would and did.
Philby is an intriguing character. I have a clear memory of the storm that broke in the media when he defected, and I’ve read a number of books in which he’s figured, such as Richard Boyle’s The Climate of Treason: Five who spied for Russia (1979), The Spy I Loved by Eleanor Philby (1968), Peter Wright’s controversial Spycatcher: The candid autobiography of a senior intelligence officer (1987) and of course Philby’s own memoir, written, apparently, at the direction of the KGB, My Silent War: The autobiography of a spy (1968). And Philby was one of the models for the composite character of Bill Hayden in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974).
Now, after something of an hiatus, comes a book about Philby with a new tack. Ben Macintyre has examined Philby’s extraordinary career through a close analysis of his long relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow MI6 high-flyer, and James Jesus Angleton, who rose to high rank in the CIA. The seminal sentence in the book reads:
There was rivalry between the American and British [secret] services in many parts of the world. But Elliot and Angleton had few secrets from each other and fewer still from Kim Philby.
By tracing the careers of the three men, which ran parallel in many ways, with them in close social and geographical contact, Macintyre demonstrates how Philby was able to be instrumental in bringing much of their secret work undone.
Recruited fresh from Cambridge by the Soviets at the age of 21, Philby served his masters for 50 years. He revealed the names of anti-communists in Germany in the closing stages of World War II, enabling the Russians to eliminate many of them as they closed their grip on East Germany. Elliott was intimately involved in the training and deployment of anti-communist insurgents in some of the Soviet republics. All such incursions were disasters, the details being passed on to the Russian puppets by Philby. This material, if not entirely new, is certainly presented in greater detail
Philby’s role in alerting Donald Maclean, one of the Cambridge ring of spies highly placed in the Foreign Office, is well known and well dramatised by Macintyre. Less well known is the strong possibility that Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb’s mission to spy on Russian ships in Portsmouth harbour, an Elliott-devised operation, may have been shopped to the Russians by Philby.
As Macintyre says:
Trading internal information is a particular weakness of the intelligence world. Spies cannot explain their work to outsiders, so they seize every opportunity to discuss it with their own kind.
In Washington in the 1950s, Philby and Angleton had long, boozy lunches, consolidating a strong friendship that had begun when Philby was Angleton’s mentor in London during the war: ‘Their lunches became a sort of ritual, beginning with bourbon on the rocks and proceeding through lobster and wine and ending in brandy and cigars.’
A colleague, later reviewing what evidence of the association Angleton hadn’t destroyed, believed that Philby had ‘picked him clean’.
With Elliott the association was even closer, minutely documented by Macintyre, who establishes that:
They seldom discussed their fears, or hopes, for theirs was a most English friendship, founded on cricket, alcohol and jokes, based on a shared set of assumptions about the world and their privileged place in it.
Macintyre, a well-credited historian and journalist, is no wide-eyed admirer of spies and spying, and his view of Philby’s effectiveness is not rose-coloured. His description of the behaviour of the MI5 ‘watchers’ who spectacularly failed to prevent the escape of Burgess and Maclean, is comically scathing:
They were expected to dress in Trilby hats and raincoats and communicate with each other by hand signals. They stood on street corners, watching, and trying to appear inconspicuous. They looked, in short, exactly like surveillance agents.
Much, perhaps most, of the ‘product’ cherished by intelligence agents is no more than gossip or information that could be picked up from a close reading of the better newspapers. But Philby’s contacts and position, whether in London, Washington or Beirut, gave him access to hard-core espionage data that resulted in many ‘blown’ identities, botched operations and deaths.
In the end it was the English class system, which Philby so despised, that enabled him – brought up in it and enjoying its advantages – to succeed as he did. The book, with no index, which is a pity, has voluminous footnotes and an excellent set of photographs, and is a fascinating study of the lives and careers of three men damaged in different ways by their involvement in what has been called ‘the second oldest profession’.
Ben Macintyre A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the great betrayal Bloomsbury 2014 PB 368pp $29.99
You can buy this book from Abbey’s here.