Britain’s puzzling master spy

Retelling of the Kim Philby case still fascinating.

08/10/2014 12:00 AM

08/09/2014 8:32 PM

The story of British double agent Harold “Kim” Philby may be the most familiar spy yarn ever. But Ben Macintyre retells it in a way that makes Philby’s destructive genius fresh and horridly fascinating and ultimately inexplicable. In an age when every puzzle is thought to have its solution, Philby’s inner motivation remains unfathomable.

Philby emerges from A Spy Among Friends as a supremely perverse antihero, remarkable for his sheer guts and tenacity in concealing for more than 30 years his treason against his country.

He was arguably the most gifted liar in intelligence history, a man who, despite what sounds like almost constant drunkenness, never really cracked, even as the evidence against him became overwhelming. One of his Soviet handlers, Yuri Modin, wrote that he was “breathtaking” in publicly denying a 1955 parliamentary leak that he was a KGB spy. Some Russians wondered whether he was a triple agent.

This is the latest of a series of Macintyre’s superb reconstructions of classic tales about British intelligence. He is deep inside the world of MI6, understanding its class-bound rituals and loyalties.

Readers who loved his previous book, Double Cross, about Britain’s amazing wartime deception of the Nazis, will find this volume something of an antidote. In this book, MI6 appears to be a collection of drunken, self-celebrating upper-class twits. Double Cross showed the Brits at their devious best; this new book is a story of staggering incompetence.

Macintryre has chosen to retell Philby’s story by linking it to two friends who were among the most brutally deceived: Nicholas Elliott, his closest MI6 chum, and James J. Angleton, the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence. This is not entirely satisfying because, as Macintyre concedes, neither Elliott nor Angleton left a clear record of what he thought about how Philby had tricked him so successfully.

Macintyre’s thesis is that Philby was shielded by the dumbly self-protective ethos of the British upper class, of which MI6 was the ultimate expression. Elliott was recruited into the intelligence service at the Ascot races. Philby was recruited despite the knowledge that he had been a communist at Cambridge in the 1930s, something that was chalked up to youthful indiscretion.

Macintyre narrates scenes in clubs, universities, country houses, cricket grounds and other places where the upper classes gather to seduce and dissemble. He speculates that Philby’s voyage of betrayal was between two arrogant elites, from upper-class Brits to Russian Leninists, with both sharing a belief in their innate right to rule.

The elitist mindset was well-described by Elliott when he was quizzed about a botched MI6 operation: “We don’t have a chain of command. We work like a club.”

David Ignatius reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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