A best kept secret

A best kept secret

A Spy Among FriendsKen MacintyreBloomsbury2014, pp 352399
The story of Kim Philby who worked for the Soviets from the heart of British intelligence machine for decades has no parallel. In the early years of Cold War, when the West wanted to roll back the red tide by fomenting rebellion against communist governments by recruiting local allies and organising infiltration operations, espionage networks had a crucial role.

 As the chief of British MI6 counter-intelligence operations, Philby knew a lot and tipped Moscow on most secret Anglo-American operations scuttling clandestine missions. He fooled and manipulated key figures in western security services at will.

Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends explores the deception of this double agent with the consummate skill of a storyteller throwing light on the most ignoble chapter in 20th century British intelligence system. Philby, as a student of Westminster School and Cambridge graduate, clubman and cricket enthusiast, was a natural choice for a career in MI6, where what mattered most was the class. 

Like many young Englishmen of his generation, the Nazi rule in Germany and the horrors of the Spanish civil war drove him to communism. He found the Soviet system only bulwark against fascism. It was a life-long unwavering loyalty to the ideology. 

After his defection to Moscow, when his wife Eleanor joined him, she happened to ask him what was more important in his life, her and their children, or the communist party. “The party, of course,” he answered. It was this ferocity of his commitment to the cause that drove him to betray his motherland. What was considered betrayal by his enemies was loyalty for Philby. He had no regrets.

By charming his way up, Philby had a fast rise in MI6 during pre-war years. In section V, he was handling German espionage system around the world. In 1949, he was sent to Washington DC as MI6 station chief, a post that offered him unlimited possibilities. There James Angleton, who later became CIA chief, fell under his spell. In the cold war espionage battle, it was a defining moment for this Soviet mole. 

From him, Philby extracted every sensitive information and passed on to the KGB. The result was that well-planned CIA operations came a cropper, sending hundreds to their deaths. Among them were Albanian guerrillas pining to liberate their country, who walked into traps laid by Soviet-sponsored troops. During the final years of the war, a list of non-communist opponents to the Nazis in Germany was passed on to the Russians. The advancing Russian troops executed 5,000 named people.

Once he was almost unmasked by a would-be Soviet defector Volkov, who threatened to expose all Soviet moles in Britain. Philby was the person assigned to probe the case. What undid Philby were his links with traitors and fellow university men Burgess and Maclean, whose defection to Russia rattled the British government. 

Suspicion on Philby as the person who helped them to escape grew. Despite substantial evidence against him, he was allowed to retire with handsome benefits. He always protested his innocence and the MI6 defended him, while MI5, in charge of internal security, wanted to bring a case. After some years, Philby was recruited again by the security services while working in Beirut as a journalist for the Observer and the Economist. His luck ran out finally when a woman he had attempted to recruit in the 1930s came forward with irrefutable evidence.

His old friend, Nicholas Elliott, a senior intelligence official who had protected him for years, went to Beirut to confront him with evidence. During an emotional encounter, he partly confessed, but fled to Moscow the next day. How Philby was allowed to escape remains a mystery. Perhaps the British government found the Philby case too hot to handle. But Macintyre’s conclusion is that the British class system let him go.The work, relying on newly released MI5 files and hitherto unseen family papers, and through accounts of former officers of MI6 and the CIA, is an attempt to uncover the charmed life of the most famous British defector.

But this cannot be the whole truth as the KGB, CIA and MI6 files on the tumultuous years of McCarthyism remain classified. The reader has a glimpse of the reversal of the roles of British and US espionage systems after the war. From being a junior partner during the war, US intelligence system with CIA as vanguard stole a march over Britain. 

The book is about bonds of class and friendship as well with the life-long affinity between Elliot and Philby forming the backdrop. Philby betrayed the closest of friends who found the reality hard to stomach. Macintyre has succeeded in capturing the atmosphere of those years when social connections triumphed over everything else. The beautifully-written work reads like a fast-paced novel.