Another spy book, but this one will be the last one for a while.
Review: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre, 2014.
“I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people,” and with that Harold Adrian Russell aka Kim Philby passed his security check on the personal word of Valentine Vivian, deputy head of the Secret Intelligence Service aka MI6, and started on his legendary career as a double agent.
My impression of the British Empire is that, for a long time, it ran on the cheap and its administrators were often picked via nepotism and allowed a great deal of flexibility. (That element of nepotism was a large resentment on the part of the rebels in the American Revolution.) That method worked for a long time. But the career of Kim Philby shows its downside.
Macintyre assures us
this is not another biography of Kim Philby . . . it is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history.
There are a lot of biographies of Philby. I myself have read three, but there are several in this book’s bibliography that I’ve never heard of much less read. Philby himself, when he died in 1988, had a bookshelf full of them in his Moscow apartment.
This is almost a dual biography of Philby and his best friend and professional associate in British Intelligence, Nicholas Elliott.
Elliott was the man, Macintyre insinuates, that let Philby bolt from Beirut in 1963 to his master since 1934, the Soviet Union. Philby was forced to resign from MI6 in 1952 after he fell under suspicion of being a spy after Soviet agents Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, a friend of Philby’s, exfiltrated from Britain to the USSR to avoid arrest. Better that Philby go to Russia than an embarrassing trial be held or that the suspicions of the FBI be confirmed: that Philby had been a spy while stationed in Washington D.C. and pumped his friend James Jesus Angleton, head of the CIA’s counterespionage efforts, for all his secrets.
It was only one of many betrayals Philby committed during his life. The number of men killed directly by his deceit directly numbers in the thousands, most of them guerillas the British and United States governments tried to infiltrate into Soviet controlled Europe.
He betrayed his family, his friends, his country, and his class. He was a master of deceit and committing deception thrilled him. While many claimed – Eliot not among them, that they had always suspected Philby even before he showed up in the USSR, even before 1952, Macintyre makes it clear that Philby’s charm and geniality fooled them all. (YouTube clips of Philby’s 1955 press conference in his mother’s apartment after he was publicly accused of espionage give some sense of his charm.)
The only people that seemed to have suspected him. One was his second wife Aileen, a former department store detective and a mentally disturbed woman given to setting fires and self-mutilation and a former department store detective. The second was the seemingly duplicitous Flora Solomon who claims to have always known that Philby was a communist when he tried to recruit her for Soviet espionage in 1935. Conveniently, she forgot to mention this when Philby was publicly under suspicion in 1955, and only mentioned it in 1962 when she complained about Philby’s anti-Israeli bias during his job as a reporter – he was back on the MI6 payroll in 1956 with cover as a journalist. She seems to have motivated, despite being a British citizen, more by Israeli security than British security and, possibly, may have wanted revenge of Philby’s treatment of her friend Henrietta.
It was Eliot that brought Philby back into intelligence work – at least for the British. It wasn’t that there weren’t people, after 1951, who continued to suspect Philby. They worked in MI6, MI5, and the FBI, but Eliot’s friendship and Philby’s charm and connections – and the lower- class origins of his accusers in MI5 – got him back in.
It was that “I know his people” attitude that protected a spy who left, in his early career working for the Soviets, plenty of evidence to be suspicious of before hiring him.
Philby wasn’t a double agent during all this time. The surveillance attendant on the suspicion of him meant the Soviets made no contact, offered no assistance to him from 1952 to 1955, and he did not actively pass intelligence on to the Soviets from 1952 to 1956.
Macintyre doesn’t pull any punches about the ideology that was Philby’s lodestar. It was always communism, in its theoretical depiction of a just and good life and not practice, that Philby served. His alleged anti-fascism didn’t prevent him from revealing a group to the Soviets a group of anti-Hitler plotters who were also anti-communists. They were liquidated when the Soviets took over part of Germany. His respect for his cultured KGB controllers didn’t stop him from serving the Soviets when they were recalled and executed in purges.
There are a surprising number of celebrities and or their fathers that show up here. Peter Ustinov’s family was a noted British intelligence agent. Mile Copeland, father of musician Stewart Copeland, hung out with Philby in Beirut. (The documentary The Spy Who Went Into the Cold interviewed another of Miles’ sons who claimed his father was there to keep an eye on the suspicious Philby. Macintyre doesn’t buy that the CIA suspected him.) Ian Fleming puts in an appearance too.
And there are a few pages on the strange affair of Buster Crabb, a British frogmen who died mysteriously in 1956 on a reconnaissance mission to spy on Soviet ships visiting Portsmouth. It was an operation run by Eliot even though he had been strictly forbidden by Prime Minister Anthony Eden to do so, and it may have been a loose word by Eliot to Philby that tipped the Soviets off and led to Crabb’s death at their hands.
The book concludes with an interesting afterword by John le Carre who talks about a conversation Eliot had with him towards the end of his life. Eliot seemed to want to unburden himself about his relationship with Philby, his old friend.
One mystery is whether Philby, before fleeing Beirut, ever confessed to his old friend. How much did he really admit in the written “confession” he prepared? When advising KGB trainees, Philby would always tell them when, under interrogation, to never confess.
All in all, a well-written, highly readable biography of Philby and look at the social connections that so long enabled his treachery. My only complaint is that I wish that Macintrye would have tagged more of the events with specific dates. The index is quite complete, and there are lots of photos.
More reviews of books on espionage history are indexed here.