Treason in the Blood

Tim Powers’ Declare certainly was not my first exposure to Kim Philby’s story, but I did seek out several of the Philby biographies Powers mentions in his notes.

This one, however, was the only one I made notes on.

Raw Feed (2003): Treason in the Blood: M. St. John Philby, Kim Philby, and the Spy Case of the Century, Anthony Cave Brown, 1994.Treason in the Blood

This is the first book length treatment I’ve read of Kim Philby’s story. Prior to this my exposure to him came in books about other espionage figures who crossed paths with Philby: John Costello and Oleg Tsarev’s Deadly Illusions (about Alexander Orlov, one of Philby’s NKVD controllers) and Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton, The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (Angleton being a figure of key importance in the Philby story).

The inspiration for reading this book was its mention in Tim Powers’ note in the Afterword of his excellent Declare. After reading this book, I can understand the attraction of Philby’s story. This dual biography is more than just a gimmick to distinguish itself from the rest of the horde of Philby biographies. St. John Philby (who has already had biographies done on him) turns out to have been a figure of major importance in Middle Eastern politics, particularly the formation of the House of Saud and how American oil companies got the oil rights in Saudi Arabia. He was a learned man. Brown introduced me to a lot of early 20th century Middle Eastern colonial history I was not aware of: communist conspiracies in India, the British rule in Iraq, and the backpedaling of Britain and France in keeping its political promises to its Arabian allies of World War I.

Both father and son committed treason. St. John’s treason was in spirit and probably in law by rifling private intelligence files when he was involved in colonial security in Iraq and revealing their contents to long time friend Ibn Saud. Both were disciplined for their acts. St. John made a political decision to be a Wahhabi so he could stay in Saudi Arabia. He knew Ibn Saud before he created, by conquest, modern Saudi Arabia. Both firmly opposed the British Establishment and what they thought of as its imperialism. Both were socialists. St. John seemed to have been sort of a Fabian one though, while living in Saudi Arabia, he seems to have knowingly dealt with a Soviet agent. Kim (dubbed Kimbo when he was young — his real name was Harold Adrian Russell Philby), of course, embraced Soviet Communism.

Brown leaves the question open as to whether St. John used Kim to pass information to the Soviets or whether he knew Kim was a spy. I suspect he did. St. John’s pro-Americanism of the ‘30s (mainly because he perceived America as being opposed to British imperialism) gave way to pro-Soviet attitudes before his death in 1960. Both father and son, despite their treason and inner hatred of their country, were thoroughly British, the products of elite schools, charming with quick minds. St. John’s openly expressed his opposition to Britain– he was even briefly jailed by the British in 1940. Both were taken back into the fold of the British establishment after they had vexed and betrayed it. St. John’s connections were important in getting Kim entrance to the British Secret Intelligence Service and, very likely, St. John’s position as one of the most knowledgeable people alive on Middle Eastern affairs, got Kim reinstated as an employee of the Secret Service when he lived in Beirut from 1956-1963 and often lived with St. John. St. John was kicked out of Arabia when Ibn Saud died, his Arabian sons denied their connection to him, and his remains were even kicked out of his grave in Beirut as the result of civil war.

It is interesting to see the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi fanaticism even in the early 20th century. (Ibn Saud seems to not have been a true believer but, to rule, followed the sect’s teachings.) St. John often complained about Saudi ignorance and corruption and how they were only interested in making money or, for cash, playing Soviet against American as they played the Axis against the Allies for money during World War II.

Besides the importance of St. John in his life and career and the parallels between father and son, this book is a treasure trove of information on Kim Philby and no simple cut-and-paste job based on early books. Brown reviews previous biographies, official documents, and took advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union to interview Russian intelligence figures. And, of course, Brown, unlike most previous writers, could address the full scope of Philby’s life after he died in 1988. Of course, given his long covert run as a Soviet agent from 1934 to 1963 and his schooling, it’s not a surprise to hear the many people who thought he was affable, humble, non-political, learned, and charming.

Brown’s book brings several things home through details. Kim Philby really was a master spy, an expert at the craft of counterintelligence, deception, and political warfare. A schoolmaster noted to St. John early his talent for deception. His colleagues in the British Secret Service only found out about it years later. Some refused to believe it even after he was forced to resign from the Service in 1951 following the flight of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. Others noted he had the related and uncanny ability to sense deception in others. He had a knack for summing up the character in others and, throughout his covert Soviet Service, wrote up summaries of people he met that might be of interest as agents, sources, or enemies of Soviet intelligence. He had a superb knack for throwing up doubt and suspicion on his colleagues with a seemingly casual sentence. Brown details his work during World War II against the Germans and how his talent took him from a beginning Secret Service employee in 1940 to R5’s head in 1945. (R5’s was MI6 counterintelligence section.)

Brown shows how he left behind many traces of his treason — lying about his marriage to a known communist agent, statements to Malcolm Muggeridge about how Ultra information should be shared with the Soviets despite official British policy, his communist affiliations at Cambridge, his suspicious post-Cambridge conversion to fascism (he had early connections with German Intelligence in Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany), his match with a vague description (“British journalist” serving with Franco) given by NKVD defector Krivitsky (who died under mysterious circumstances in a Washington D.C. hotel), the Volkov affair where Philby badly handled a Soviet defector who was detected and taken back to Russia, his suspicious travels to Franco’s Spain though he had no money. But all these suspicious facts were scattered in time and place, some only in memory and not official records. (Indeed, some of the background records listing his Cambridge past may have been destroyed in the bombing of World War II.)

And, of course, there was the pass given such a distinguished man who had went to the right schools, who was charming and affable. (St. John was respected but not rich when Kim was being educated.) The list of Philby’s crimes is even more impressive than I thought. In addition to passing on secrets about American strategy during the Korean War (Brown carefully notes that their is no definitive proof of this but a lot of circumstantial evidence. I think Philby lied about not passing on any significant intelligence in this matter either because he or his Soviet controllers, when he wrote his 1968 biography, didn’t want him tainted with battlefield deaths of United Nations’ forces in the Korean War) and CIA intelligence he had access to in his liaison work in Washington D.C., he might have prolonged World War II by not passing on, to his superiors, the overtures of Germans plotting coups and assassinations against Hitler, who wanted to make a separate German-Anglo-American piece which would have been against the wishes of the Soviet Union; his betraying Dutch resistance fighters because they were anti-communists; his covering up of the communist suborning of the Banana OSS ring in Spain; his betraying of Albanian resistance fighters infiltrated into Albania during Kim’s posting to Istanbul; and the Volkov affair amongst others.

The most curious part of the story, though, involves long-term speculation about when Stewart Menzies (who considered Kim as an eventual successor to his post as head of MI6) and Angleton, head of the CIA’s counterintelligence section, knew he was a traitor and what they did about it. For that matter, was he a traitor? I think he was. Kim seems to have been a sincere communist. But MI6 and Angleton (who, in another sign of his eccentricity, used to show up at CIA headquarters proclaiming another identity) may have known about his contacts with the Soviets. Menzies seems to have known of his contacts with Soviet agents during World War and, afterwards, in Turkey and approved of them. The great question is whether Philby was a loyal British agent feeding the Soviets disinformation or a Soviet agent fed misinformation. I tend to think the latter, or, should I say, that was the plan. I think, along with others, that Philby was not taken in by the misinformation he was fed. (Philby famously noted that counterintelligence work could degrade the reasoning power of the enemy.)

Kim’s relationship with Angleton is fascinating. In Mangold’s book, I got the impression that Angleton simply became, after his friend Philby was revealed to probably be an enemy agent, paranoid about a Soviet mole in the CIA and gave too much credence to the foolish notion of defector Golitsin that the split between China and the USSR was a deception. Brown, however, brings up a more sinister notion: that Golitsin was a Soviet plant, carefully engineered by Philby who had defected a few months earlier, to degrade the reasoning powers of his old friend. A third possibility exists. Angleton, rather than a paranoid fool, was a Soviet agent. This was discussed in the Mangold book and seemed an inevitable conclusion of some CIA employees given the disruption Angleton, who insisted on vetting all officers’ postings, defectors, and operations for Soviet penetration, wrought on the agency. Brown, however, provides more evidence for the theory even if he doesn’t come to a firm conclusion. In this scenario, Golitsin is a plant to provide justification for Angleton’s disruptive actions. Further evidence is that the official CIA investigation of Angleton, while not proving he was a Soviet agent, couldn’t definitively prove he wasn’t. Also, Angleton met with Philby thirty some times, kept memos of the meetings, and those memos could not be found. Furthermore, for a supposedly resolute anti-Soviet counterintelligence chief, Angleton sabotaged future efforts in counterintelligence by leaving few useful records of his operations and no real damage reports on Philby’s contact with the CIA.

There is some satisfaction in Philby’s fate in Russia. Oddly, for an intelligence man, he seems to have little understanding of conditions there. He seems to have dismissed newspaper stories of impoverished Soviet life as so much propaganda nor did he know much about the Soviet military. He was eager for Soviet approbation and awards but angered to find that he was distrusted as a possible double agent. One long time controller of Philby’s, Modin, remarked that he seemed so British that he was never quite sure if he was actually a loyal British agent. Philby was run as a lowly agent. He was not, as he thought, an officer in the KGB. Some KGB officers, with habitual hate and distrust of foreign communists, thought he was, as they termed such, “idealogical shit”. Philby, according to the remarks of KGB officers who knew him, seemed to have been one of those communists disappointed by Soviet Communism but naively and hopelessly keeping the faith in an eventual international communist utopia, who found the reality of the USSR just the result of some human corruption of a good idea — not the inevitable result of a bad idea.

This book is a treasure trove of information. That includes material about MI6 operations against the USA at the end of WWII and the seizing of several British Intelligence documents by the OSS. That latter came from a trove left behind by a Nazi general in Italy which he, in turn, got from the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. At the time of the book, those documents were still classified and mentioned St. John).

Its only flaws are that Brown, perhaps to preserve readability, leaves out specific dates he should mention, especially when he goes forward and back in time; that Brown is perhaps a little too eager to show that Kim someone influenced perestroika via the back door channels of his KGB friends and Graham Greene, a colleague of his from his WWII days in MI6. (Greene makes the rather silly observation that he admires Philby since he was faithful to an ideal and that, if he would have known for sure that Kim was a traitor, he would have given him 24 hours to flee before notifying the authorities.)

For his part, Kim provides the reasonable explanation of a man who called many of those he betrayed friends: he had both political and personal loyalties but that the political ones always came first when there was a conflict. Brown also, at times, puts some rather extraneous material in about Menzies, and I suspect it’s solely because he did a biography of him too. The book also seems to suffer from some bad copyediting at times since certain names seem to be confused at a couple of points along with dates. Also there is no text for the final listed footnote. Still, this is a very fascinating look at some of the bizarre possibilities surrounding one of the century’s great spies.


More reviews of espionage related works are indexed on the Espionage page.

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