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Cold War traitor's spy story more compelling than fiction

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/8/2014 (1098 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Most people find living one life difficult enough. Kim Philby lived two.

And what a duplicitous existence it was: on the surface a decorated spymaster for the British, but underneath a heartless double agent for the Russians who smilingly sent maybe hundreds of his own spies to their deaths behind the Iron Curtain.

Kim Philby fed information about British spy operations to the Russians for 2over 20 years.


Kim Philby fed information about British spy operations to the Russians for 2over 20 years.

The first book in 25 years about the Cold War's worst act of treachery, Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends describes so many twists and turns in human conduct and is so compelling a true story that writers of spy fiction will read it with envy.

Thanks to the traitor Philby, for close to 20 years during the Cold War the Russians knew whom the British were sending to spy on them, what they were up to and where they could be found (at least most of them). To make matters worse, Philby was able to consistently neuter much of the British spy community by feeding it false information supplied by his real bosses in Moscow.

As British intelligence would find out, to its everlasting embarrassment, fiasco is what happens when you put a liar in charge of the truth.

Veteran journalist and frequent author Macintyre focuses on Philby's relationship and betrayal of his two closest friends in cloak-and-dagger -- spy Nicholas Elliott of Britain's MI6 and American CIA intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton.

Macintyre's writing is an electric ride through spy country and is based on personal papers and recently declassified files that add a new depth to this sometimes-humorous but largely sordid tale. (British secrecy laws guarantee the whole truth will never come out.)

Philby was able to pull off an Olympic-class masquerade as a brilliant psychological acrobat on a very dangerous tightrope of chicanery -- and, remarkably, without once losing his balance. (He skipped to the Soviet Union in 1963 when the heat got too much, and died there in 1988.)

Macintyre doesn't say so, but it's obvious Philby was a connoisseur of the principle that the best place to hide is in plain sight. Who would ever suspect that the very person in charge of counterintelligence for the British, the very person charged with feeding lies to the Russians, would be doing the reverse -- spoon-feeding his own people lies and the Soviets the truth?

Philby was a handsome man and party animal, a well-dressed hustler known to soak himself in gin. He had been a secret Communist since university. He was a genius at fooling people (including his own wives and kids); one of his friends later called him "the greatest actor in the world."

Philby was so confident in his guile, and so good at deception, that even when his own MI6 counterintelligence people became suspicious of him the government, instead of digging deeper, publicly endorsed Philby as one of their trusted own, and suggested he was owed an apology by his compatriots. They had already awarded him the Order of the British Empire for his work, which must have made his Russian masters feel very secure.

When Philby finally fled the scene for Russia, the resultant shock in the hidebound British establishment was one of immediate incredulity -- like suddenly finding out Wellington didn't win the Battle of Waterloo after all, or that the Americans make a better cuppa tea.

Philby had one unique advantage in concealment: whether he wanted to be or not, he was part of the insular and fatuous Old Boys' network made up of classically educated men who had gone to the same hallowed schools, held their martini glasses correctly, knew a Jaguar wasn't just a pussycat and had grown noses long enough to look down on the bourgeoisie.

These snobs believed being an Old Boy excused just about any kind of stupidity, incompetence or conduct short of cursing royalty or cricket. And many of them were high up or climbing in British intelligence and other departments of the civil service.

Spy writer John le Carré, in an afterword as enthralling as the book itself, recounts how he interviewed Nicholas Elliott in 1986 about Philby. Both le Carré and Elliott had worked for MI6.

Le Carré asked Elliott if the British spy service considered killing Philby after he defected. Elliott's reply, even though he must have been terribly hurt by Philby's betrayal, was obviously no, and typically Old Boy apologetic: "My dear chap. (He was) one of us."

Macintyre has written a delicious account of human weakness and evil that is all the better because, unlike most books about spies, this one is true.

Barry Craig thinks that because most spies are ordinary-looking he'd make a good one.


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Updated on Saturday, August 16, 2014 at 8:23 AM CDT: Formatting.

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