A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
by Ben Macintyre
384 pages, Crown, $17
When the Cold War came grinding to an end, the thought struck many of us that it was not over. As long as there are potential superpowers competing for the throne, there will be some form of a Cold War.
President Bill Clinton did not agree and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about securing or dissolving the former Soviet Union, and now the disaster rears its head in a new form that barely obscures the old. As we watch Edward Snowden leak more documents than were related to the point he was ostensibly making, and then run back to Moscow, the names of Aldrich Ames and Kim Philby come to mind. A generation ago, those names inspired a queasy sense of helplessness among those of us who knew how difficult it is to find traitors within our ranks.
For that reason, we are fortunate to have books like A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal to remind us of the absolutely devastating effect such betrayals have. As a member of a ring of Soviet double agents who converted to Communism in college, Kim Philby forged the greatest breach ever into Western intelligence services, sent many of our agents to their graves, and helped bring down the old school network of which he was part. Ben Macintyre peers into this subject with the skills of a novelist but the mind of a researcher.
To those who have been living in the happy bubble of illusions that insists the Cold War ended and all will turn out just fine as long as we keep globalist commerce in control, this book serves as a wake-up call. Not only are our enemies brutal, but our traitors are glib, self-congratulatory and morally self-affirming in what ultimately are selfish acts of revenge that have consequences far beyond their own lives. We forget what it was like to be locked in constant unstated combat with an enemy who had no compunction about starving, shooting and beating to death over 20 million of its own people. Nor can we forget how fanatical and maniacal the drive of this enemy was to crush, subvert and destroy us, or how willing to deceive their double agents were. Imagine for a moment that the threat of nuclear missiles still holds the sky, that an Iron Curtain keeps millions in starvation and ideological obedience, and that the West has just escaped a disastrous World War only to find itself in a new kind of conflict where rules remain unclear and casualties pile up in silence.
Philby grew up among the privileged to an iconoclastic father and neurotic mother, then went to the best schools in England where he picked up the social fashion of Communism. Unlike others, perhaps driven by a desire to eradicate his own origins, he took it further and trucked down to the local KBG recruiter. At their instruction, Philby joined the UK intelligence services and began passing vast hoards of documents on to his KBG handlers. During that time intelligence services were our eyes and ears much sonar serves that purpose for a submarine, revealing a murky series of abstract patterns. Travel was closed inside the Soviet bloc and details were few, so brave men and women penetrated that enigma to reveal what they could. Since Soviet doctrine threatened Europe with a rolling army of 50,000 tanks at any moment, American and UK intelligence services took the lead in trying to assess Soviet strength, intentions and degree of penetration in our own lands.
McIntyre writes of Philby much as one would of a business leader or politician: the gregarious, drunken, imaginative and playful Loki who haunted social circles and succeeded powerfully at his job. This performs an important role in our postmortem of this penetration as it shows us not only how human the mole was, but also how human and humane it was that the people searching for the anonymous traitor were blinded to the fact that their close friend was reporting to Moscow. Philby spent his evenings bleeding secrets from them over drunken dinners and parties, then went home to encrypt his transmissions back to the Borg. He was invisible in part because he was so socially adept, despite somewhat odd personal habits. McIntyre puts us in the minds of those around Philby at the time to reveal how difficult it was to discover Philby. The result approximates fiction in style but arises from relentless research and expert sources that McIntyre uses to construct his tale.
Philby did not seem concerned or even aware of the impending crisis. He was the same charming, cheerful figure, roué enough to raise the eyebrows of the more straitlaced members of the diplomatic fraternity but not nearly so wicked as to damage his career prospects in the secret services. In the eyes of MI6: “He was both efficient and safe.” And besides, he was doing important work, taking the fight to the Reds, even if the results of his efforts to penetrate the Soviet Union were proving less than successful (117).
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal traces the double agent through his friendship with Nicholas Elliott, an earnest member of MI6 who defended Philby multiple times throughout his career. One theme of the book is the hampering effect of both bureaucracy and public politics on the Western intelligence services, and how in comparison the Soviets and their Western enablers moved quickly and decisively. The ideologues turned out to be more fanatical and committed than the employees of capitalismland for the time being, but eventually, the fox gets caught in the henhouse. McIntyre reveals both the difficult pursuit and the consequent disaster for both US and UK intelligence services with efficient chapters that avoid wallowing and allow the book to complete its intense emotional journey without feeling like an after-action report.
As we gear up to go yet again into the breach, books like this communicate important knowledge lost in the passage of generations, not only about spycraft but about human psychology. As McIntyre deconstructs him, Philby is a privileged child who was never heard as a youth and thus boils over with resentment and an impulse to destroy in adolescence. After his indoctrination to ideology, and the consequent salve to his ego, he could never turn back. From that point the disaster remained assured despite the inevitability of loss of many good people, years and mountains of secrets. McIntyre is humane enough to without issuing an apology for Philby reveal the personal tragedy of Philby that led him to destroy all that he ambivalently loved to die alone and drunken in a foreign land that ultimately proved even more alienating to him.