Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
In the long history of espionage – sometimes described as the world’s second oldest profession – few chapters are as bizarre and as intriguing as that of the infamous “Cambridge Five”: Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, five well-bred upper class lads who studied at Cambridge University in the 1930s, then left the university to spy for the Soviet Union. Among them, Philby might qualify as the most infamous. Even by the standards of spies, Philby’s duplicity and mendacity were breathtaking. The historical consensus is that, during his long career as a British-Soviet double agent, Philby provided more damaging information to the Soviets than any of his peers: details on British counterintelligence activities, the identities of British agents and operatives, the structure of Britain’s intelligence services, even information on his father and wife Aileen. These betrayals led directly to the deaths of countless persons.
But the betrayals that form the core of Ben Macintyre’s account of Philby and his milieu, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, involve Philby’s friendship with his protégé within the British intelligence service, Nicolas Elliot; and, to a lesser extent, with his American counterpart James Jesus Angleton. By focusing on Philby’s relationships with Elliot and Angleton, Macintyre seeks to capture what he describes as a “particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history.” His book, unlike others on Philby, is “less about politics, ideology, and accountability than personality [and] character” (p.xv). Macintyre, a writer-at-large for The Times of London, also casts much light on the insularity of upper class Britain’s ruling elite in the mid-20th century, a “family” where “mutual trust was so absolute and unquestioned that there was no need for elaborate security precautions” (p.88). Although not quite a “real-life-spy-thriller,” Macintyre’s compact and measured account is in its own way as riveting as the spy fiction of Ian Fleming, who appears briefly here as a Naval Intelligence Officer and confidante of Elliot; or of John Le Carré, the author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based in part on Philby’s story, who has written a short “Afterword” to Macintyre’s book.
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Harold Adrian Russell Philby — nicknamed “Kim” after the boy in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim — was born in India in 1912, the son of a well-known author and explorer who became a civil servant in India and later converted to Islam. Philby was educated in elite British private schools (paradoxically termed “public schools”) and at Cambridge’s prestigious Trinity College, where he also began espionage work for the Soviet Union. He launched his career with British intelligence during World War II. He served for a while as head of Britain’s primary counterintelligence unit, Section V of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the M16, coordinating Britain’s anti-Soviet clandestine activity while simultaneously providing information to the Soviets. He led his double life in London and in foreign assignments in Istanbul, Washington, and Beirut. From Beirut, he defected to Moscow in 1963.
The word most consistently used to describe Philby was “charm,” Macintyre writes, that “intoxicating, beguiling, and occasionally lethal English quality.” Philby could “inspire and convey affection with such ease that few ever noticed they were being charmed. Male and female, old and young, rich and poor, Kim enveloped them all” (p.19). Like many intelligent and idealistic young men coming of age in the 1930s, Philby became a believer in the great Soviet experiment. His beliefs were “radical but simple”: the rich had “exploited the poor for too long; the only bulwark against fascism was Soviet communism . . . capitalism was doomed and crumbling; the British establishment was poisoned by Nazi leanings” (p.37-38). There is no evidence that Philby “ever questioned the ideology he had discovered at Cambridge, changed his opinions, or seriously acknowledged the iniquities of practical communism,” Macintyre argues. Moreover, Philby “never shared or discussed his views, either with friend or foe. Instead, he retained and sustained his faith, without the need for priests or fellow believers, in perfect isolation. Philby regarded himself as an ideologue and a loyalist; in truth, he was a dogmatist, valuing only one opinion, his own” (p.215).
But Macintyre’s story revolves around Nicholas Elliot almost as much as Philby. Born five years after Philby in 1917, Elliot was the son of the Headmaster at Eton, one of Britain’s most prestigious public schools. Elliot and Philby were “two men of almost identical tastes and upbringing” (p.2), as close as “two heterosexual, upper-class midcentury Englishmen could be” (p.249). The two men:
learned the spy trade together during the Second World War. When that war was over, they rose together through the ranks of British intelligence, sharing every secret. The belonged to the same clubs, drank in the same bars, wore the same well-tailored clothes, and married women of their own tribe. But all that time, Philby had one secret he never shared: he was covertly working for Moscow, taking everything he was told by Elliot and passing it on to his Soviet spymasters (p.1).
During World War II, the American James Jesus Angleton built a strong working relationship with both Elliot and Philby, working in the counterintelligence section of the Office of Strategic Services that was the direct counterpart to M16’s Section V. Angleton was a Yale graduate who enjoyed the bonhomie of time spent with Elliot and Philby, trading information in exchanges often fueled by substantial amounts of alcohol. After World War II, Angleton became head of counterintelligence at the CIA. No two spies symbolized the close rapport between British and American intelligence services during the early Cold War than Phllby and Angleton, Macintyre contends.
The dichotomy and tension between M15, Britain’s Security Service, and M16, its Secret Intelligence Service, runs throughout Macintyre’s story. Americans can appreciate the differences between the two units, as Macintyre compares M15 to the FBI and M16 to to the CIA. The two services were “fundamentally dissimilar in outlook. M15 tended to recruit former policemen and soldiers, men who sometimes spoke with regional accents and frequently did not know, or care about, the right order to use the cutlery at a formal dinner. They enforced the law and defended the realm, caught spies and prosecuted them” (p.162). M16 by contrast was a prototype upper class Establishment institution, “more public school and Oxbridge; its accent more refined, its tailoring better. Its agents and officers frequently broke the laws of other countries in pursuit of secrets and did so with a certain swagger” (p.162). But along with this swagger came a tendency in the old boy network that was the M16 not to ask questions about one of their own and to assume that all members of the elite club were what they seemed.
The extent to which alcohol drove Philby and fueled his exchanges with Elliot, Angleton and other counterparts is astounding. “Even by the heavy-drinking standards of wartime, the spies were spectacular boozers” (p.25), McIntyre notes. In his “Afterword,” Le Carré describes alcohol as “so much a part of the culture of M16” that a non-drinker “could look like a subversive or worse” (p.298). Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how these spies could have maintained their guard with so much alcohol in their systems. And, as Macintyre further notes, no one “served (or consumed) alcohol with quite the same joie de vivre and determination as Kim Philby” (p.26). Alcohol helped Philby “maintain the double life, for an alcoholic has already become divorced from his or her real self, hooked on an artificial reality” (p.215).
During World War II, Philby provided the Soviet Union with the names of several thousand members of the Nazi resistance movement in Germany, Germans worling with Britain in the hope that a genuine democracy might be established in their country after the war. Many were rounded up and presumed shot by the Soviets after the Russian conquest of what became East Germany. After the war, Philby was posted to Istanbul, where he served as head of British intelligence, under the cover of First Secretary at the British Consulate. He served in a similar position in Washington, D.C. From these positions, he furnished the Soviets with a steady stream of invaluable information. As Macintyre emphasizes, Philby not only told his Soviet handlers what Britain’s spymasters were doing; he was also able to “tell Moscow what London was thinking” (p.104). Philby undermined British counter-revolutionary operations in Georgia, Armenia and Albania, with many of the operatives dying in uneven combat. These were “ill-conceived, badly planned” operations that “might well have failed anyway; but Philby could not have killed [the operatives] more certainly if he had executed them himself.” (p.118). Their ensuing deaths did not trouble him, then or later.
There was what Macintyre describes as a “peculiar paradox” to Philby’s double dealing: “if all his anti-Soviet operations failed, he would soon be out of a job; but if they succeeded too well, he risked inflicting real damage on his adopted cause” (p.95). Philby thus maintained a “pattern of duality” in which he “consistently undermined his own work but never aroused suspicion. He made elaborate plans to combat Soviet intelligence and then immediately betrayed them to Soviet intelligence; he urged ever greater efforts to combat the communist threat and personified that threat; his own section worked smoothly, yet nothing quite succeeded” (p.103).
In May 1951, fellow double agents Burgess and Maclean suddenly disappeared, fleeing to Moscow. Maclean had come under suspicion as a Soviet mole within British intelligence and Philby sent Burgess, who lived with Philby and his wife in Washington, to alert Maclean that he was about to be arrested. Philby had not intended that Burgess himself flee. When he did — which Philby considered an act of betrayal – Philby himself came under suspicion as the “third man,” still another Soviet mole within British intelligence, and was forced to resign from M16.
Over the course of the next several years, Philby was investigated by both M15 and M16, with M15 taking the position that Philby was a Soviet spy, but without the evidence to prove its case, while M16 remained equally certain of his innocence, but without evidence to exonerate him. Similarly, in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were convinced that Philby was a Soviet agent, whereas Angleton’s CIA defended him. Philby’s case thus remained in limbo for “months and then years,” a “bubbling unsolved mystery, still entirely unknown to the public but the source of poisonous discord between the intelligence services” (p.173).
In 1955, Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan agreed with an M16 report that with no hard evidence despite four years of investigation, it would be “entirely contrary to the English tradition for a man to have to prove his innocence. . . in a case where the prosecution has nothing but suspicion to go upon” (p.186). Based upon the report and a subsequent softball M16 interview of Philby – in which, Macintyre speculates, Elliot was likely one of the two interviewers — Macmillan officially exonerated Philby.
No longer in limbo, Philby resumed work for M16, going to Beirut in 1956 under cover as Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist. Philby’s nearly seamless return to British intelligence, Macintyre observes, “displayed the old boys’ network running at its smoothest: a word in an ear, a nod, a drink with one of the chaps at the club, and the machinery kicked in” (p.208). Journalism can be the perfect cover for a spy and double agent, allowing the journalist to ask “direct, unsubtle, and impertinent questions about the most sensitive subjects without arousing suspicion” (p.211). But Philby’s work as a journalist proved to be his undoing.
What British authorities took as iron clad proof of Philby’s double agency came from Flora Solomon, a prominent Jewish-Russian émigré to Britain who had known Philby since the 1930s (Solomon’s son Peter founded Amnesty International in 1961). Solomon’s main passion by the 1960s was the State of Israel, which she “defended and supported in word, deed, and funds at every opportunity” (p.244). Solomon became increasingly irritated by what she perceived as anti-Israel and hence pro-Soviet bias to Philby’s Middle East reporting. Almost casually, she reported to another pillar of the Anglo-Jewish community, Lord Victor Rothschild, then Chairman of Marks & Spencer’s who had worked in M15 during the war, that Philby had clumsily tried to recruit her to spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Rothschild, in turn, reported Solomon’s information to M15. Solomon’s revelation was the ammunition that M15 had lacked and the evidence of guilt that Philby’s M16 supporters had always demanded.
Although still not convinced that it had enough evidence to successfully prosecute Philby, M16 sent Elliot to Beirut in January 1963 to extract a confession. M16’s ostensible strategy was to offer Philby immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession. In a series of tense meetings between the long-time friends, which Macintyre ably recounts based upon secret recordings, Philby became increasingly open about his years of activity as a Soviet agent, even providing the names of Blunt and Carncross as the fourth and fifth Cambridge spies. Signed confession in hand, Elliot left Beirut.
Shortly thereafter, Philby failed to appear at an Embassy dinner party, fleeing to Moscow on a Soviet freighter. Elliot, Macintyre writes, “could not have made it easier for Philby to flee, whether intentionally or otherwise. In defiance of every rule of intelligence, he left Beirut without making any provision for monitoring a man who had just confessed to being a double agent: Philby was not followed or watched; his flat was not placed under surveillance; his phone was not tapped; and M16’s allies in the Lebanese security service were not alerted. . . Elliot simply walked away from Beirut and left the door to Moscow wide open” (p.267).
Elliot later claimed that the possibility that Philby might defect to Moscow had never occurred to him or to anyone else, a claim which “defies belief” (p.266). But Macintyre suggests that M16 may have deliberately allowed Philby to escape to Moscow. “Nobody wanted him in London” (p.266). Although Elliot had made clear to Philby that if he failed to cooperate fully, the “immunity deal was off and the confession he had signed would be used against him,” the prospect of prosecuting Philby in Britain was “anathema to the intelligence services. . . politically damaging and profoundly embarrassing” (p.266-67). M16 may have therefore concluded that allowing Philby to join Burgess and Maclean in Moscow was the “tidiest solution all a round” (p.267).
From the moment he finally understood and accepted Philby’s betrayal, “Elliott’s world changed utterly: inside he was crushed, humiliated, enraged, and saddened.” For the rest of his life, Elliot never ceased to “wonder how a man to whom he had felt so close, and who was so similar in every way, had been, underneath, a fraud” (p.250). Elliot also began to ask himself:
how many people he, James Angleton, and others had unwittingly condemned to death. Some of the victims had names . . . Many casualties remained nameless . . . Elliott would never be able to calculate the precise death tally, for who can remember every conversation, every confidence exchanged with a friend stretching back three decades? . . . Elliott had given away almost every secret he had to Philby; but Philby had never given away his own ( p.249).
Although discredited within British intelligence after Philby’s defection, Elliot remained in the service until 1968. In the 1980s, he became an unofficial advisor on intelligence matters to Prime Minister Thatcher. He died in 1994.
As to Angleton, after Philby’s defection, a “profound and poisonous paranoia” seemed to seize him. In Angleton’s warped logic, “If Philby had fooled him, then there must be many other KGB spies in positions of influence in the West. . . Convinced that the CIA was riddled with Soviet spies, Angleton set about rooting them out, detecting layer after layer of deception surrounding him. He suspected that a host of world leaders were all under KGB control” (p.285-86). Angleton was forced out of the CIA in 1974, when the “extent of his illegal mole hunting was revealed” (p.287). He died in 1987.
Philby lived his remaining years, a quarter of a century, in the Soviet Union. The Soviets provided Philby with accommodations and allowed him to live a relatively undisturbed life. But they hardly welcomed him. He was of little use to them by then. In Moscow, Macintyre writes, Philby at times “sounded like a retired civil servant put out to pasture (which, in a way, he was), harrumphing at the vulgarity of modern life, protesting against change . . . He demanded not only admiration for this ideological consistency, for having ‘stayed the course,’ but sympathy for what it had cost him” (p.284). In his last years, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, which he compared to a knighthood.
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With no apparent remorse and few if any second thoughts about the path he chose to travel during his life’s journey, Philby died in the Soviet Union in 1988. He was buried in Moscow’s Kuntsevo cemetery, a long distance from Cambridge.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
June 24, 2016