A SPY AMONG FRIENDS:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
by Ben Macintyre
(London: Bloomsbury Publishing)
Paperback: 368 pages
Reviewed by Warren Reed
Ben Macintyre has chosen well for the lead title of his new book on one of Britain’s most notorious traitors, a spy who worked for Soviet intelligence as a mole at the heart of the British establishment.
Harold “Kim” Philby was indeed “a spy among friends”, and uniquely so in being both a professional intelligence officer himself, as well as being a man who betrayed those around him and all that they stood for.
The book’s author is a top forensic journalist, as readers of his numerous other works (such as Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II and Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies) will know only too well.
Macintyre could perhaps have done a fine job himself in the world of secret intelligence. The two professions, after all, are remarkably similar. And no doubt that is why he is able to go straight to the core of the issue in this latest endeavour.
It is not, he informs his readers in his preface, yet “another biography of Philby”. “Rather”, he says, “it is an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history.”
While some traitors are loners, most are not. They have a network of friends and colleagues who provide support, in addition to information. Sometimes those friends are themselves complicit — directly or indirectly — in the perpetration of the foul deed and, by extension, in perpetuating the existence of the turncoat.
Those human dimensions of traitors’ lives are vital to a full understanding of why they do what they do and how they get away with it, often over extended periods of time.
In that regard, Macintyre’s work is neatly book-ended by two quotations, the first, of his selection, at the beginning. It’s from E.M. Forster in 1938: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
“Such a choice may scandalise the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.”
The other quotation is that which David Cornwell, aka novelist John le Carré — himself a former officer in the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6 — places at the head of his intriguing 12-page afterword. It is from Mike Tyson, a former world heavyweight-boxing champion, and may at first seem incongruous, but it is not. It is spot on: “God, it would be good to be a fake somebody, rather than a real nobody.”
Secret intelligence work provides rich soil in which such men and women flourish. And Macintyre’s book runs along an axis between those two thought-provoking observations. It is, as his publisher describes it, a tale of political loyalty and personal duplicity — a chilling examination of how far anyone can ever really know another human being.
This is where Macintyre shines: he obviously has a deep appreciation of the human condition and, combined with a playful mastery of his native language, presents us with a rollicking and revealing portrait of Philby and those who not only idolised him but felt they knew him best.
The story revolves around a triangulation of friendship — that between Philby; his close MI6 colleague, Nicholas Elliott; and James Jesus Angleton, an American who was later to become the legendary head of CIA counter-intelligence during much of the Cold War and who was excoriated by as many as those who praised him.
As Malcolm Gladwell notes in his endorsement for the book, Macintyre’s biography is “brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining”.
The event that brought the three men together, both professionally and personally, was World War II. It was a time, as Elliott later wrote, when friendships were formed more quickly than in peacetime, particularly amongst those involved in confidential work. Philby and Elliott found they had much to talk and joke about within the snug confines of absolute secrecy, with MI6 then enjoying a reputation as the world’s most redoubtable intelligence agency.
Readers who work, or have worked, in such agencies will be well acquainted with the “need-to-know” principle, which aims to compartmentalise highly classified information so that a traitor in one area will have access only to that division to which he or she is assigned. But that is not always how it works in reality.
We know what was once proclaimed — and widely believed — about the Titanic’s watertight compartments, and what happened on that ship’s maiden voyage. It is the more human “need-to-be-mates” principle that proves again and again to be the iceberg that shouldn’t be there.
The book is rich in insights into the day-to-day mechanics of the latter principle, humming away like a Rolls Royce engine. A key part of MI6 at the time was based outside London, with Philby in charge of a subsection. Macintyre describes it thus: “The Philby home [with his first wife] became a gathering place for the young intelligence officers of Section V … where the doors, and various bottles, were always open.
“Graham Greene, then one of Philby’s deputies, recalled the ‘long Sunday lunches in St Albans when the whole subsection relaxed under his leadership for a few hours of heavy drinking’.
“Philby was adored by his colleagues, who recalled his ‘small loyalties’, his generosity of spirit, and his distaste for petty office politics. ‘He had something about him — an aura of lovable authority like some romantic platoon commander — which made people want to appear at their best in front of him. Even his senior officers recognised his abilities and deferred to him.’
“Section V was a tight-knit little community.… Officers and secretaries were on Christian-name terms, and some were on more intimate terms than that. [It was] Philby’s ‘merry band’.…
“Colonel [Felix] Cowgill was the boss, but Philby was the animating spirit of the group: ‘The sense of dedication and purpose to whatever he was doing gleamed through and inspired men to follow him.’
“Elliott was not alone in his adulation. ‘No one could have been a better chief than Kim Philby,’ wrote Graham Greene. ‘He worked harder than anyone else and never gave the impression of labour. He was always relaxed, completely unflappable.’ In even the most casual bureaucracies there is room for jockeying, but Philby was the epitome of loyalty. ‘If one made an error of judgment he was sure to minimise it and cover it up, without criticism.’
“Desmond Bristow, a new Spanish-speaking recruit … was welcomed by Philby, ‘a gentle-looking man with smiling eyes and an air of confidence. My first impression was of a man of quiet intellectual charm … he had a spiritual tranquillity about him.’
“The ‘cosiness’ of Section V distinguished it from other, more reserved parts of MI6. The team kept few secrets from one another, official or otherwise. ‘It was not difficult to find out what colleagues were doing,’ wrote Philby [later]. ‘What was known to one would be known to all’.”
While, at first glance, this may seem like the very sense of collegiality that any organisation — even a secret intelligence service — would seek to foster, it can also be a recipe for disaster, as it was in Philby’s case.
Most readers of Macintyre’s book will become well versed in this traitor’s final days in MI6, the investigations that took place, his surprising clearance, and his departure in 1956 for a correspondent’s job in Beirut, from whence he fled to Moscow in January 1963. They will also have puzzled over how those who knew him stood by him, even after his loyalty had been seriously impugned. Despite all this, the head of MI6 was still able to comment in a memo that “it is entirely contrary to the English tradition for a man to have to prove his innocence”.
John le Carré puts it neatly when he observes that, whereas Philby’s cover story was crafted to deceive his colleagues — including his close friend Nicholas Elliott, who went to interrogate him in Beirut to elicit a final confession — the person Philby deceived even more than Elliott was himself.
Macintyre’s careful examination of the upper echelons of the British class system, and of the eccentricities that frequently characterise it, is an important part of this book, and although it is ground raked over in many previous works on the Philby case, it is useful when viewed through the human prism of those who were beguiled by him.
Le Carré captures this exquisitely in his afterword to the book, when he recalls a meeting he once had with Elliott long after the Beirut debacle:
“So what were your sanctions,” Le Carré asks, “if [Philby] didn’t cooperate?”
“What’s that, old boy?” Elliott replies.
“Your sanctions, Nick, what you could threaten him with in the extreme case. Could you have him sandbagged, for instance, and flown to London?”
“Nobody wanted him in London, old boy.”
“Well, what about the ultimate sanction then — forgive me — could you have him killed, liquidated?”
“My dear chap. One of us.”
Elliott’s father, Sir Claude Aurelius Elliott, OBE, was the headmaster of Eton, England’s grandest public school. Macintyre describes him as “a noted mountaineer, and a central pillar of the British establishment. Sir Claude knew everybody who was anybody, and nobody who wasn’t somebody.” No shades of Mike Tyson there.
Philby’s father was less orthodox. Hillary St John Bridger Philby was a figure of considerable notoriety. Macintyre explains: “As adviser to Ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, he had played (and would continue to play) a key role in the oleaginous politics of that region. He had converted to Islam, taking the name of Sheikh Abdullah, spoke Arabic fluently, and would eventually marry, as his second wife, a slave girl from Baluchistan presented to him by the Saudi king.
“He remained, however, quintessentially English in his tastes, and wildly unpredictable in his opinions. The elder Philby’s opposition to the war had seen him arrested and briefly imprisoned, an episode that did no harm to his social standing, or his son’s career prospects.”
If readers of A Spy Among Friends here in the Antipodes feel that this is all quintessentially un-Australian, and that we surely couldn’t have traitors of Philby’s ilk here, they ought seriously to reconsider their views. It is to our country’s lasting shame that we don’t expose and prosecute them.
The unspoken assumption seems to be, “If you can’t catch ’em, you don’t have ’em.”
Warren Reed is a former intelligence officer with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). He was trained by MI6 in London and served for 10 years in Asia and the Middle East. His recent spy novel, Hidden Scorpion, will be reviewed in the next issue of News Weekly.