Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre

How amused and flattered the infamous British traitor Kim Philby would be to discover he is again the subject of fascinated scrutiny in his home country and in America fifty years after his defection to Moscow. Ben MacIntyre has managed to reignite interest in Philby by presenting the most rounded and detailed picture yet of this uniquely talented and duplicitous man through the use of newly declassified material from MI6 files.

Kim Philby rose within the ranks of British Intelligence and gave secrets to the Soviets during WWII and at the beginning of the Cold War. The outwardly charming diplomat was responsible for the deaths of possibly hundreds of covert agents working in British interests. The especial charm he radiated may have come from his “flashes of insecurity beneath his debonair exterior, the unpredictable stammer…his intellectual curiosity…and his old-world manners.” [Yuri Modin] But reading about a man whose great skill was “charm” falls strangely flat without access to the man himself; it is a little like trying to describe the performance of a great actor. In order for the reading audience to really understand how this man escaped censure for so long, we need to see the man in action.

Fortunately, Macintyre seems to have understood this and the publication of his book in Britain was accompanied by a two-part BBC documentary showing essential photographs and a (too short) video clip of Philby’s 1955 demurral of his involvement with earlier defectors Burgess and Maclean. Macintyre calls the videotaped press conference a “virtuoso performance” revealing a master of duplicity and misdirection, yet he shows us only a fraction of its contents. The November ’55 press conference is apparently still used as a MI6 training tool: “a master class in mendacity.”

One other audio record of Kim Philby we know exists: Philby’s debriefing in 1963 Beirut by his longtime friend and colleague, Nicholas Elliott. We need to hear, not just read, this interview in order to make our own assessment of Philby’s extraordinary charm and manipulative skill, but that debriefing is still being withheld by MI6.

For these reasons, Macintyre’s description of Philby’s legendary rise within the ranks of British Intelligence is incomplete and two-dimensional, despite the fulsome detail that is far more exciting than any fiction. It still boggles the mind that Philby was allowed the access he was; only his particular personality can explain that access. A spy of Philby’s particular gifts may need four or more dimensions to fully reveal his fatal charm. People who knew Philby often used the same words to describe Philby’s effect on people, which only serves to further occlude our vision of the man and his talent. Like the story of the blind man and the elephant, this biography catches some truths but the reader has the disconcerting feeling that the man himself has once again absconded with his secrets intact.

One could argue that good nonfiction cannot answer every question but is successful if it impels a reader to avidly seek out additional materials in the subject area. By this standard, MacIntyre’s book succeeds admirably. While at first I was entranced by MacIntyre’s concurrent descriptions of Philby’s work for British Intelligence and his work for the Soviet Comintern, by the end of MacIntyre’s book I had more questions than answers about his work and the reaction to it in Britain. MacIntyre also (to propel the narrative I suppose) was a bit sketchy with dates. I needed some basic scaffolding to support by queries.

To fill in some of the holes in my understanding, I found the gossipy 1980 history by Douglas Sutherland, The Great Betrayal: The Definitive Story of Blunt, Philby, Burgess, and MacLean, a useful addition to MacIntyre’s since it came at the material from a different angle, and gave me a more solid understanding of the thinking in MI5 and -6.

That MI6 did not react to Philby’s betrayal in the way we might expect--by jailing Philby, for instance—was something I needed to understand more fully. Sutherland’s analysis was “that under no circumstances could we have afforded to put [Philby] on trial. He was a man of immense ambition, hungry for power and with a mental dexterity which made him a very formidable character…he might have convinced a jury that he was the innocent victim of a witch hunt…” MacIntyre makes the point that the spy agencies in Britain couldn’t go through a drawn-out trial revealing the vast amount of damage Philby had wreaked upon them. So they stood by and let him defect to Moscow.

Sutherland’s account helped me to grasp that in those days the British government had a completely different reaction than the average citizen might expect to the discovery that some of their intelligence agents were spies. In some ways those defections, identified by former KGB Controller Yuri Modin in his book My Five Cambridge Friends: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross by Their KGB Controller, shaped the government we have and the people we are today. Loss of faith by government, and in government are two different things. Kim Philby, charismatic British traitor, had something to do with both.

Another thing I needed to understand after reading MacIntyre’s history was what spies actually do. I believe MacIntyre expects us to already understand this and he is not going to be the one to reveal any real secrets. The spies in this book don’t act like my idea of spies, and the government that uncovers them doesn’t act like any government I’ve known. These spies spend a great deal of time drinking and carousing with other spies, and everyone seems to know who they are. The only ones that appear to use spy craft are those acting as double agents. And our drunken spies don’t reveal anything either, according to MacIntyre, except to each other.

Yuri Modin ran five British spies for only a short time (1948-1951) but he is frank in what makes a successful spy: “I know from experience that a high IQ should never be the main criterion for recruiting the average secret agent…On the other hand, certain other qualities…are absolutely essential for a spy…he should have a childish, gleeful, mischievous side to his nature…I also believe that a good intelligence agent should have a strong political awareness. [A good agent will] possess physical and moral strength…being in good physical shape will help him stand up to all kinds of peculiarly nasty pressures…[and] will help him to view problems with complete clarity…” Philby was a long-term penetration agent working in Soviet interests, “probably the best ever.”

MacIntyre also points out the insular world of spies at the time shared the common vocabulary of public schools, private clubs, and high-born parents. Many simply could not conceive that ‘one of their own’ could or would deceive them so completely for so long. I expect that has changed now.

This is a blood-curdling story of deception and intrigue, one that must be read alongside the documentary. It is an unsettling, but essential read.

An advance of this title was sent to me as part of First Reads from and The advance does not have photographs, but I understand the hardcopy, when it is released in the United States in July 2014, will have pictures of the personalities featured in this book.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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