Ben Macintyre protests too much when he says A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal is “not another biography of Kim Philby.” For his latest book is a biography of Kim Philby—but it is considerably more besides. Along the way, Macintyre develops parallel, if understandably less-detailed, biographies of two of Philby’s closest (and most betrayed) friends: Nicholas Elliott, a ranking officer with MI6 who served as station chief in various European and Middle Eastern capitals, and James Jesus Angleton, who was CIA’s chief of counterintelligence for over 20 years. A Spy Among Friends also shines light on the clandestine struggles between the communist East and the capitalist West over three decades, when Philby rose through the ranks of MI6, and often worked closely with the CIA. These roles were cover jobs for his actual service to the Soviet Union, of course, and Macintyre provides a good look into all three intelligence communities. More generally, but perhaps most importantly, Macintyre paints a compelling portrait of the tribe, culture, and class of the mid-20th century British Establishment: how it oiled the wheels and opened the doors for its own and, in the process, turned a completely blind eye to its most complex, thorough, and penetrating betrayal.
Macintyre knits all this together in the life of Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby. The basic facts and chronology will no doubt be familiar to many readers, but what is original is Macintyre’s emphasis on Philby’s manipulation of friendship (especially, but hardly exclusively, friendship with Elliott and Angleton) to further his—and the Soviet Union’s—interests. This ability to exploit friendship is perhaps the most prevalent of several themes that ran through Kim Philby’s career as a spy, and through Ben Macintyre’s book.
Much of Philby’s phenomenal achievement was owed not to clichéd cloak-and-dagger antics, but rather to the cultivation and maintenance of crucial friendships. (That he was able to retain such confidences was itself a feat, for another sub-plot of Philby’s social and professional life—and of the book—is a series of insouciant escapades.) Macintyre explains that spies, because they can discuss their work only with fellow spies, relish the opportunity, and Philby’s best success often amounted to little more than draining colleagues of sensitive information over drinks, meals, informal get-togethers, and the like. His most effective (and, to Western interests, most damaging) work in this respect probably occurred during his time in the United States, from 1949 to 1951. U.S. law enforcement and intelligence personnel were flattered to be on intimate terms with one of Britain’s top spies, and officers of the FBI and CIA regularly paid him professional and social calls. Philby lunched several times a week with Angleton, then head of CIA’s Special Operations, and learned the details—timing, coordinates, objectives, assets, and more—of every major covert operation the Agency was planning. In his official capacity, as chief British intelligence liaison in the United States, Philby had consistent access to highly sensitive information, and all top-secret communiqués from Washington to London passed his desk before being passed on to Moscow.
For 30 years, Philby was, as Macintyre puts it, “just one Soviet defector away from exposure.” We cannot ignore the role of circumstance, to say nothing of pure luck, in much of this; but neither can we ignore Philby’s resourceful management of those circumstances.
Philby’s talent for making friends went only so far, of course: in the first place, he needed to be employed in the right circles to become acquainted with potential contacts who might matter as friends. This skill is emphasized in My Silent War, Philby’s “authorized” memoir—authorized (and edited) by the KGB, that is—and Macintyre more or less substantiates its claims. Kim Philby rose constantly in the ranks of British intelligence operations, taking full advantage of friendships and connections, as well as rivalries and intrigues, some of which he himself orchestrated.
Kim Philby was undoubtedly resourceful and effected such intelligence coups while raising hardly a shadow of doubt. The double-defection of Burgess and Maclean in 1951 was a catastrophic set-back to Kim Philby and his service to the USSR—quite literally the only one before the net finally closed and he made his own “fade” into the blue (or red)—but he rode out even that storm, attracting no suspicion from anyone who mattered.
This brings us to another of the book’s themes: Kim Philby’s incredible luck in escaping detection as a Soviet agent. It seems no one was much troubled by his boyhood associations with communism or his marriage to an outspoken Hungarian-born communist activist. Nor did anyone question his about-face in abruptly abandoning communism to join the fascist-leaning Anglo-German Fellowship and support Franco and the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. (In another bit of luck, he survived a bomb blast in Spain that killed three men.) When MI5 learned from a Russian defector of a British spy who matched Kim Philby’s profile exactly, they somehow failed to connect the dots. Back in Britain, Philby complied when his Soviet masters required him to obtain classified files that were above his pay-grade and completely outside his portfolio. Alarms were raised, but Philby’s bonhomie (and his liberal plying of pink gin), as well as a clerk’s sudden recovery from a bout of the flu, brought the investigation to a peremptory close. Yet another defection brought another uncomfortably close shave, this time with the potential to roll up every covert Soviet operation in Turkey and in Britain, including the Cambridge spy ring and, of course, Kim Philby. But when it turned out the British officer assigned to make contact was afraid to fly, the job passed to Philby himself. The resulting delay gave him sufficient opportunity to alert the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB), and the would-be defector was murdered before any damage was done—to Philby or to any other Soviet spy. For 30 years, Philby was, as Macintyre puts it, “just one Soviet defector away from exposure.” We cannot ignore the role of circumstance, to say nothing of pure luck, in much of this; but neither can we ignore Philby’s resourceful management of those circumstances.
Exploiting the Establishment
That all of this went unchallenged, and virtually unnoticed, seems incomprehensible. The explanation lies in another of the book’s themes: the role played by the Establishment in promoting (and protecting) Kim Philby—because he was “one of their own.” Macintyre sprinkles his book with literally dozens, perhaps more than a hundred, little phrases and images evoking the potency of class and connection in mid-20th century Britain. In short, Philby’s people were the right people; he was educated in the right schools, spoke with the right accent, knotted the right tie, and was wrapped in the right scarf, mixed the right drinks, cracked the right jokes, gossiped in the right circles, and belonged to the right clubs.
These credentials—really, more a list of past-times, hobbies, and diversions—got Philby his first intelligence job as a recent Cambridge graduate and shielded him from awkward scrutiny into youthful indiscretions. Macintyre quotes and paraphrases various figures, from inside the Establishment and outside it, who likened its ranks to a big family or a club—exclusive, but protective. Philby himself noted “the genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the Establishment could do such things.” It was anathema to find shortcomings in a fellow “old boy,” because that would imply the possibility of questioning oneself.
MI6 insisted on treating Philby like a gentleman, even after they knew he was guilty. Their interrogations—interviews would be the more apt word—were lightweight, and they urged him to accept an immunity deal that would keep him from prison. The same courtesy was never extended to spies such as George Blake or John William Vassal, who were, respectively, foreign (and Jewish) and homosexual—and therefore hardly gentlemen.
Of course, potent though its influence undoubtedly was, there was more to Britain than the Establishment—and there was more to western security and intelligence than Britain. And not everyone trusted Philby. Suspicions were stronger in the United States than in the UK and, in the United States, among the FBI than the CIA. Similar dynamics worked in Britain, where MI5 (the domestic intelligence service) was much more open to investigating Philby than was MI6 (the foreign—and Philby’s own—intelligence service).
Indeed, the “secular monastery” of the “strange religion” that was MI6 closed its cloisters more securely around Philby, seemingly unable to believe that “there was a wrong ’un among them.” MI6 insisted on treating Philby like a gentleman, even after they knew he was guilty. Their interrogations—interviews would be the more apt word—were lightweight, and they urged him to accept an immunity deal that would keep him from prison. The same courtesy was never extended to spies such as George Blake or John William Vassal, who were, respectively, foreign (and Jewish) and homosexual—and therefore hardly gentlemen. MI6 even went along in pretending to believe Philby’s treachery must have ended in or before 1949—i.e., before his time in Washington—thus sparing him inquiries (and probable demands of extradition) from the United States. Once Philby began the drawn-out process of confessing to treason and spying for the Soviet Union, MI6 never thought to place any security or surveillance on a gentleman, thus permitting him to slip away onboard a Soviet freighter bound for Odessa on January, 23, 1963. “He had betrayed his country, his class, and his club; he had lied to MI5 and MI6, the CIA and the FBI, his family, friends, and colleagues; he had deceived everyone, egregiously, brilliantly, for more than thirty years.” But to many of his Establishment colleagues, this final breach of trust—the breaking of an understood promise not to flee after having accepting immunity—was Kim Philby’s one unforgiveable, and ungentlemanly, offense.
Ideology and ambition
After his defection, Kim Philby always cast himself as “a hero of ideological consistency” (the line is not Philby’s, but Macintyre’s). He was indeed consistent, as we have seen—but not necessarily to ideology. In fact, Philby had little interest in economics or politics. Nor does he even seem to have had much commitment to communism or world revolution per se. His commitment was to Moscow. As he wrote in My Secret War, in what is probably its best-remembered line: “One does not look twice at enrolment (sic) in an elite force.”
Kim Philby had, according to Macintyre, “an inborn faith in his ability, and right, to change and rule the world”—an elite view if ever there was one. In this he differed little from the likes of MI6’s Nicholas Elliott or CIA’s James Angleton, the latter an undoubted exemplar of the American “Establishment.” But Kim Philby believed the best avenue for him to fulfill this ambition was not the traditional one of Britain and its empire, but rather in service to the Soviet Union. (Revulsion against his father’s tendency toward anti-Semitism, which led Philby’s father to sympathize with Nazi Germany, probably also accounts for Philby’s embrace of fascism’s communist foe—although Macintyre does not develop this angle explicitly.) It was Philby’s commitment (and obedience), coupled with a lack of interest in or understanding of ideology, that allowed him to stay the course. He was only once, and briefly, shaken—in 1939 when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allied the Soviet Union to the Third Reich. But those concerns evaporated when Hitler invaded Russia, and Philby was otherwise never troubled by the “iniquities of practical communism” in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, or even when his own controllers were pulled and purged. He had cheerfully spied on his father and betrayed his friends, and, when asked by Eleanor, his third wife, whether he cared more about her and his five children (by his second wife) or the Communist Party, Philby answered—promptly and frankly—“The party, of course.” And Kim Philby served the party, in one role or another, for more than 50 years. For more than half that time, he relied on betrayal and deceit—tendencies, Macintyre suggests, he had become addicted to—in both his private and professional relationships.
Soviet and American intelligence
If it is difficult to zero in on a defining characteristic of British intelligence in the decades surrounding World War II—perhaps it had an ethos rather than an identity, and perhaps that ethos was best captured in the associations of the Establishment—it is easier to sum up the two other intelligence communities that concerned Kim Philby, and Macintyre’s study.
The KGB, like its predecessor, the NKVD, was a microcosm of the broader phenomenon of the USSR: a paranoid organization that periodically subjected itself to thoroughgoing purges. At least four of Philby’s own handlers were purged in the 1930s and 1940s, and Philby was himself lucky to escaped being purged. Soviet intelligence never completely trusted “Sonny” (that was his code-name until after World War II, when it was changed to “Stanley”), even during his most productive years, when his efforts betrayed dozens of major operations and countless minor ones, sending hundreds of anti-communists to their deaths and thousands more to prison.
Regarding the United States, the spying business was next to nonexistent before, and faced a steep learning curve during and immediately after, World War II. In these early days, the Americans were willing—and very much needed—to follow the British lead. U.S. intelligence came into its own quickly, however, with superior resources, assets, and abilities. But the fact that so many of their number had been trained in Britain meant that deep streak of Anglophilia persisted in the corridors of the CIA for decades to come.
There is nothing much new or original in all this, other than Macintyre’s emphases on friendship and the Establishment (and even that is not so new or original; others, including Philby himself, noted the role played by class in British intelligence and law enforcement), and the book’s rather curious afterword. The latter consists of several pages of lightly edited stream-of-consciousness responses from Nicholas Elliott to a series of interviews with John le Carré in 1986, in which Elliott comes across as a foppish caricature. After reading them, it seems less surprising that he was hoodwinked, by Philby or anyone else, for so long. The afterword does not add much, but it certainly takes nothing away, and the book remains an enjoyable, fast-paced, and rollicking read. To say a work of thorough research “reads like a novel” can be a dubious accolade. But it is true, and true only in good ways, of A Spy Among Friends: it does read like a novel—or, perhaps more appropriately, like a thriller.