A Spy Among Friends, Philby and the Great Betrayal


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The history of Kim Philby, the KGB agent at the heart of British Intelligence, has often been told before but what makes Ben Macintyre’s book eminently readable is that it approaches the story from a fresh angle. Macintyre seeks to shed light on Philby’s character by examining those closest to him, his friends, family and colleagues in the Intelligence Service all of whom he would ultimately betray.

Central to the story is Nicholas Elliot. Like Philby, he is an ex-public school boy, (Elliot is an Old Etonian and Philby attended Westminster School). Both men live to an extent in the shadow of successful but somewhat remote fathers. Wartime work for the secret services brings them together and the charismatic Philby and Elliot become firm friends. Later in the war when the fledgling United States intelligence service arrived in London looking to learn from its longer established British counterparts, James Jesus Angleton, a figure that was to loom large in the post-war CIA and a staunch Anglophile of American-Mexican parentage who spent much of his early life in England, was also to fall under the spell of the magnetic Philby. By this time Philby had already been in the employ of the Soviet Union for a number of years having been recruited after becoming a communist at Cambridge University and having spent time in the radical political scene of 1930’s Vienna where he was to marry for the first time to an Austrian communist.
After world War Two Philby took up the prime post of the Secret Intelligence Service’s man in Washington and he soon became a star of the social scene around the new Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation with which he liaised in its role as the American domestic counter espionage service. It is widely believed that it was Angleton’s influence that landed him this job and the two men regularly shared boozy lunches at which they discussed confidential matters with Angleton little realising that the information he was sharing with his good friend Philby was being passed on to the Soviet Union’s spymasters.

What might have been Philby’s eventual rise to the top of SIS was brought crashing down by figures from his past. Guy Burgess, an unstable individual who was part of the so-called Cambridge spy ring along with Philby, was posted to America after various drunken escapades in London. Becoming Philby’s house guest he further added to his record of disgraces including upsetting the wife of a CIA counter-intelligence chief at a drink sodden dinner party at the Philbys’ house. Then another Cambridge spy, Donald Maclean in the Foreign Office, was on the verge of being arrested, a development that could have led to the exposure of Philby himself. On learning that the finger of suspicion was pointing at their fellow Soviet agent, Philby and Burgess sought to warn Maclean with Burgess being recalled to London, (whether by accident or design has never been clearly established), and despite Philby’s injunction to Burgess not to defect along with Maclean, the two men disappear together behind the Iron Curtain.

As feared by Philby, the flight of Burgess and Maclean turned the spotlight firmly on him. While no definite proof could be found of his treachery, the circumstantial evidence was considerable. Missions compromised, agents lost, calamities that had befallen western intelligence that in one way or another could be linked to Philby. Under questioning he would admit nothing. His friends such as Elliot and Angleton leapt to his defence and there formed somewhat of a split between MI6 and the spy-catchers of MI5 over the question of Philby’s guilt or innocence, with MI5 being convinced of his guilt but lacking the evidence to prove it. The shadow of suspicion was too much to make his continued employment by SIS tenable and he was forced to leave and eke out a living working for an import-export company while trying to find work in his pre-war field of journalism. Although he was temporarily cut-off from his Soviet controllers, he was receiving aid from those convinced of his innocence and Nicholas Elliot was paying many of Philby’s bills.

The climax of this book comes in January of 1963. By this time Philby has been enjoying something of an upturn of his fortunes having survived near exposure of his espionage, including being named in Parliament as the “Third Man” in the Burgess and Maclean scandal. He is living and working in Beirut as a journalist and is also working as an agent of MI6, although not as an officer. He largely owes this position to the good offices of Nicholas Elliot. It was another figure from his past that was going to bring about his downfall and the chain of events that was to lead to a confrontation in Beirut between Philby and his long-time friend and defender Nicholas Elliot began not too far from that city.

In 1962 Flora Solomon, an old friend of Philby from university days and who also introduced him to his second wife Aileen, was attending a conference in Israel when she complained to Victor, Lord Rothschild, about Philby: “How is it the Observer uses a man like Kim? Don’t they know he’s a communist?” and went on to relate how Philby had attempted to recruit her as a communist spy in 1935. Lord Rothschild, himself a decorated former British intelligence officer, reported back Solomon’s denunciation of Philby to MI5 and for those still convinced of Philby’s guilt it was the final piece of the puzzle that proved he had an active link with Soviet intelligence. These revelations posed a dilemma for both the British security services and the government. The now Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when Foreign Secretary cleared Philby of being a spy when he was named in Parliament and another spying trial after the George Blake case could seriously harm the government. Could Philby be lured back to London? Should he be kidnapped? Or perhaps assassination would be the solution? All these options were considered and rejected in favour of a good old-fashioned British compromise: Philby would be offered immunity from prosecution in return for a confession that he had spied for the Soviets but that he had not done so since 1949, (the choice of this cut-off point a sop to the Americans so that his period in Washington was somehow espionage free and thus his treason only a matter for the British to deal with), and his full co-operation with MI5. To the consternation of MI5, the man to be sent to Beirut to deal with Philby was not going to be one of their men but Nicholas Elliot of MI6.

Elliot arrived in Beirut in January of 1963 and interviewed Philby in a safe flat in the city. Their conversations were taped although the recordings contain a lot of background noise from the street outside. They duelled in a very civilised way over tea initially but despite Philby trying to call on their old friendship, the game was up and he knew it. Over a four day period he made partial admissions of guilt but also held back on the whole story. After Elliot’s departure Philby set in motion his defection to the Soviet Union. The book concludes with an account of Philby’s less than idyllic later life in Moscow, and a fascinating afterword from John Le Carre in which he recounts his conversations with Nicholas Elliot.
“A Spy Among Friends” is a well-researched and extremely readable book. Ben Macintyre has done an excellent job of portraying the characters and times involved in the Kim Philby story. The bonds of social class and club may seem anachronistic in 2015 but they played a real part in the lives of people in Philby’s era. There are still questions that the reader is left with such as why was Philby not monitored in Beirut after Elliot’s departure? Did the British establishment secretly wish him to defect as a less embarrassing alternative to having to put him on trial? Alas, until the files of the respective security services on both sides of the old Cold War are fully opened we shall not know.

Reviewed by Andrew Hunter


1 Comment »

  1. A fascinating review; I’ve found Macintyre a very readable historian who makes his books almost like novels, was that a similar experience in this book?
    Best, Matt


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