Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby was certainly the most famous Soviet mole in the British secret services. For nearly three decades, while being intelligence agency MI6’s shining star, he wreaked untold havoc on Western interests for his Communist masters. His betrayals may have caused hundreds, if not thousands of British and US agents — and their families — to be captured, tortured and executed behind the Iron Curtain. In popular culture, his story forms the basis of John le Carre’s classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, written with access to recently declassified MI5 (the counter-intelligence arm) files, is by far the most detailed — and shocking — account of Philby’s career of treachery. But it is told through the prism of his relationship with Nicholas Elliott, his closest friend and colleague, who remained loyal to Philby till the bitter end, but who then took it upon himself to tell his friend that his game was up.
In the pre-World War II era, MI6 was the classic British Old Boys’ network which valued your school tie more than anything else. Philby and Elliott were both hired merely on the basis of their impeccable family credentials and Cambridge education. Such men were supposed to have “faith in King, country, class and club”; none of them could possibly be a Communist agent.
But that is what Philby was, along with his university mates Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, drawn to Leftist ideology as students, and they never gave up the faith. Philby rose fast in MI6, using his lethal charm, all the time passing on vital information to his Soviet masters. In 1949, not yet 40, he was appointed Washington DC station head, one of the world’s most critical posts for MI6. In DC, he ruthlessly cultivated legendary CIA officer James Jesus Angleton, and sent over everything he extracted from Angleton over long boozy lunches to the Soviets. Meticulously planned CIA operations were all crushed, entire agent networks busted, hundreds died.
Philby’s undoing was his connection with Burgess and Maclean, who, as the CIA and MI6 net closed around them, fled to Moscow in 1951, shaking up the British government. MI6 never doubted Philby’s loyalty, but MI5, to whom the investigation had been handed over, thought otherwise. Repeated interrogations confirmed their suspicions, but Philby’s accusers could find no hard evidence. However, finally, Philby was asked to resign but given a handsome severance package. He turned into an alcoholic, and survived on the charity of Elliott, who was still fighting his friend’s battle in MI6. In 1956, MI6 gave in and arranged a backdoor re-entry for Philby, as a Beirut field operative. He immediately began working for the Soviets again.
In 1962, MI6 received damning evidence that Philby was after all ‘the third man’, and Elliott decided it must be he who should confront him. In January 1963, he met him in Beirut and offered a deal: immunity if Philby made a full confession and no one would come to know, otherwise “his life would be made intolerable… he would be a leper”. Philby wrote out two long confessions, though concealing much, and Elliott simply let him walk out of the door. A day later, Philby made his escape to Moscow where he resided till his death in 1988. Russia issued a postage stamp in his honour.
Why did Elliott let Philby go? The consensus today is that the British government did not want him back in London; it wanted him off its hands to avoid another public scandal.
Philby’s is an extraordinary story of steadfast lifelong betrayal — though he later said that he never betrayed his country, because he was never loyal to it in the first place. “I have always operated on two levels,” he wrote, “a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first.” He maintained that he had never felt any regret about causing the terrible deaths of thousands of people.
Macintyre’s book is thoroughly unputdownable, as gripping as a masterclass thriller. But it is also a brutal exposition of the British class system, which Philby took full advantage of for his career of relentless deception. Years later, on the topic of Philby’s getaway, le Carre asked Elliott: “Well, what about the ultimate sanction then…could you have (had) him killed, liquidated?” “My dear chap,” protested Elliott. “(He was) one of us.” Even in his final escape, the class system aided Philby.