Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

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

By:  Richard E. Gower

Secrecy is to governments what nitromethane is to racing engines. And secrets are the hard currency of espionage. Ben Macintyre’s very thorough: A Spy Among Friends is all about secrecy, secrets and spying. The book explores the Kim Philby affair – one of the most spectacular international espionage debacles of the twentieth century. Much has been written about this in the past, but Macintyre has dug and delved deeper into the Philby biblio-detritus and has come up with material previously unearthed or unexamined in any detail.

The name Kim Philby may be meaningless today to anyone born after 1990, unless they are a student of recent military history or political science. But, in 1963, Philby became, notoriously, world famous; a household name for a time. He was a trusted senior operative of the British intelligence organization MI6, who defected to the Soviet Union after it was discovered he had been working as a double agent and passing secrets to the Soviets.

In this role, Philby successfully spied for the opposing side for almost thirty years.  And, arguably, even more damaging, he consistently betrayed and duped the entire Anglo-American counter-intelligence network that was set up against the Soviet Union throughout the tensest period of the Cold War during a time when the hands of the Doomsday Clock had crept up to within two minutes of midnight.

Everyone has secrets; even from their friends and family. The need to have some small part of one’s self off limits to others seems immutably imprinted into human DNA. But keeping something to yourself need not equate with deceit and duplicity (although some will see it that way). It usually just means that you are the type of person who places a greater value on discretion than on revelation, when it comes to personal matters. In a friend, this is usually considered a positive attribute.

The applecart of that axiom gets upset however in A Spy Among Friends.  Macintyre has steered the narrative mostly from the viewpoint of how the discovery of Philby’s betrayal affected his colleagues, close friends and family. Philby had deceived them all and the effect on some was professionally and emotionally shattering.

According to a snippet in the front of the book attributed to the International Spy Museum, “friends” in the context of the worlds of espionage and spydom is: “…general slang for members of an intelligence service; specifically British slang for members of the Secret Intelligence Service [or MI6].”  Therein lies the play on words that is the title of the book: A Spy Among Friends. Kim Philby betrayed not only his country, but also his most trusted MI6 inner circle.

And Philby did not discriminate and restrict himself to deceiving only the home team.  A Spy Among Friends focuses in good part on his long-standing relationship and falling out with Nicholas Elliott, the MI6 operative and colleague who was closest to him.  But high-ranking American CIA operatives James Angleton, who headed up the CIAs counterintelligence organization, as well as Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, who ultimately became CIA Directors, were also fully taken in by the Philby glibness and charm.

The book begins in 1963 with Philby’s denouncement and denouement by Nicholas Elliott, and then loops back to 1939 and the beginning of World War Two to introduce the denouncer and his first connection to Philby. It then follows on to cover their subsequent near life-long friendship and identifies the interesting group of other spies and associates who moved in Philby’s circle of influence and who were all hoodwinked by his charisma. Such was his magnetism that even after he was first suspected of being a double agent, many of Philby’s colleagues would not believe the evidence and remained fiercely loyal to him until his ultimate unmasking.

Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) who served in British Naval Intelligence was a school friend of Elliott and moved in the same circles as Philby. Macintyre speculates that some of the real-life exploits of that time may have found their way into the Bond books.  Novelists Graham Greene and John LeCarré were also both operatives in MI6 during the Philby era. Greene was one of Philby’s deputies, and a personal friend.   Le Carré interviewed Elliott twenty-three years after Philby’s defection and, in the afterword of the book, described Elliott still seething with outrage and frustration even then at “…the enormity of what had been done to him;..”

In some ways however, Philby comes across as almost a sympathetic character in this accounting of his deceitful and duplicitous life. Macintyre adeptly chronicles the pathos of Philby’s gradual psychological decline as the double agent descended further and further into frequent public drunkenness and periodic incoherence prior to his defection, possibly brought about by the strain of upholding the dangerous life of duality he had chosen.

But however much he humanizes Philby, Macintyre does not spare expanding on his appalling role in the mayhem and loss of life that took place behind-the-scenes in the spy world during WW2 and the Cold War. According to the investigation following his defection, dozens, perhaps hundreds of people died in intelligence and military operations over a twenty-five year period; deaths that might be directly attributed to Philby’s treachery.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Crown Publishers, 2014) is listed in the non-fiction category, however in places it reads like a novel. Also, the factual claim just might be a tiny bit fallacious as the author qualifies that much of the source material was: “..secondary; the evidence of third parties” and he also says that: “Spies are particularly skilled at misremembering the past.”

So there you go; a work of partially-fictional non-fiction that could appeal to a reader of either genre.  Not that this is a bad thing. Regardless of this literary murkiness, I found it an interesting examination of the world of espionage and a compelling take on the human condition.  A Spy Among Friends is definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than as a case study to explore and better understand humanity’s infinite capacity for both perfidy and loyalty. REG 

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