Spy scan­dal around Kim Philby gets an air­ing

The Kim Philby spy scan­dal is a study in the ap­palling con­se­quences of class snob­bery, writes Philip Hen­sher

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Be­trayal By Ben Macintyre With an af­ter­word by John Le Carré Blooms­bury, 368pp, $29.99

THE story of Kim Philby is, of course, like so many English sto­ries, re­ally one of so­cial class. He was one of the most scan­dalous traitors in his­tory, and from within the se­cu­rity ser­vices sent spe­cific in­for­ma­tion to the Sovi­ets dur­ing the early years of the Cold War that re­sulted di­rectly in the deaths of thou­sands of men and women. Among them were the Al­ba­nian gueril­las, hop­ing to lib­er­ate their coun­try, who found Soviet-spon­sored troops wait­ing at their land­ing places to shoot them. A list of non-com­mu­nist op­posers to the Nazis in Ger­many was passed on to the Rus­sians who, ad­vanc­ing into Ger­many in the last years of the war, sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted 5000 named people.

Philby worked for the Bri­tish se­cu­rity ser­vices for years, al­most all the time pass­ing sig­nif­i­cant in­for­ma­tion to Bri­tain’s en­e­mies. He was closely as­so­ci­ated with those other traitors, Guy Burgess and Don­ald Ma­clean, and clearly helped them to es­cape. De­spite very sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence against Philby, he was al­lowed to re­tire from the ser­vice and left un­pros­e­cuted. MI6 seems to have pro­tected and de­fended him; MI5 wanted to bring a case, but was re­buffed.

Much later, work­ing in Beirut as a jour­nal­ist for The Ob­server and The Econ­o­mist, Philby was re­cruited once again by the se­cu­rity ser­vices. He was only fi­nally un­masked when a woman he had at­tempted to re­cruit in the 1930s came for­ward with un­de­ni­able ev­i­dence.

Philby’s old friend Ni­cholas El­liott, a se­nior fig­ure in the ser­vice who had pro­tected him for years, went out to Beirut to in­ter­ro­gate him and seems to have al­lowed him to es­cape to Moscow, like Burgess and Ma­clean be­fore him. El­liott’s much later at­tempts to jus­tify him­self, in con­ver­sa­tions with John le Carré, pro­vide an


af­ter­word to Ben Macintyre’s book, writ­ten by the nov­el­ist.

How did Philby get away with it, and how, at the last, con­fronted with in­dis­putable ev­i­dence of his treach­ery in his ex­ile in Beirut, was he al­lowed to flee to Moscow? The an­swer, ac­cord­ing to Macintyre, is the Bri­tish class sys­tem, and in par­tic­u­lar the loy­alty felt on ac­count of so­cial stand­ing by two men, El­liott and James Je­sus An­gle­ton of the CIA. An­gle­ton seems to have handed over the de­tails of ev­ery one of those Al­ba­nian land­ings dur­ing im­mensely long boozy lunches in Wash­ing­ton. What was El­liott’s re­spon­si­bil­ity? Why did he al­low Philby to slip through his fin­gers at the end? They are ques­tions that still can’t be an­swered.

The at­mos­phere of those years, and the ways in which so­cial con­nec­tions trumped any se­cure pro­ce­dures, are nicely caught in dozens of small de­tails recorded in Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends. This is an in­ter­ro­ga­tion of El­liott by a lo­cal head of se­cu­rity in Is­tan­bul. “Does your wife know what you do?’’ “Yes.’’ “How did that come about?’’ “She was my sec­re­tary for two years and I think the penny must have dropped.’’ “Quite so. What about your mother?’’ “She thinks I’m in some­thing called SIS, which she be­lieves stands for the Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice.’’ “Good God! How did she

come to know that?’’ “A mem­ber of the War Cab­i­net told her at a cock­tail party.’’ “Then what about your fa­ther?’’ “He thinks I’m a spy.’’ “Why should he think you’re a spy?’’ “Be­cause the Chief told him in the bar at White’s.’’

Though some of these de­tails have a comic as­pect, the con­se­quences of this snob­bish vague­ness were ap­palling. A Rus­sian po­ten­tial de­fec­tor, Kon­stantin Volkov, held out the pos­si­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing the names of hun­dreds of Soviet agents, in­clud­ing one who, he said ex­plic­itly, was the “head of a sec­tion of the Bri­tish coun­teres­pi­onage ser­vice in Lon­don’’. The head of MI6 id­i­ot­i­cally sum­moned the head of Soviet coun­teres­pi­onage, who hap­pened to be Philby, and told him to deal with it. Philby de­layed and de­layed, and in the mean­time let the Sovi­ets know what was up. Volkov was tor­tured and ex­e­cuted, along with his wife. Even then, no­body in MI6 seems to have won­dered how the in­for­ma­tion leaked out, de­spite the speci­ficity of Volkov’s in­for­ma­tion. Philby was just too much the right sort of chap. And you were never go­ing to bump into Volkov’s fa­ther at White’s, af­ter all.

Philby’s treach­ery might have been helped, too, by the ev­i­dent stu­pid­ity of large parts of the se­cu­rity ser­vices, crisply de­scribed by him in dis­patches to his Soviet masters. Felix Russi was “an al­most to­tal mo­ron’’. Tim Milne, nephew of AA Milne, was “in­clined to­wards in­er­tia’’. Des­mond Bris­tow was “the weak link ... ow­ing to im­ma­tu­rity and an in­fe­rior brain’’. Sir Ste­wart Men­zies, head of MI6, had “an in­tel­lec­tual equip­ment [that] was unim­pres­sive’’. (El­liott thought he had a “true sense of val­ues’’, which prob­a­bly meant the same thing.) These judg­ments are backed by other sources. His­to­rian Hugh Trevor-Roper said they were “by and large pretty stupid, some of them very stupid’’. Cer­tainly the stu­pid­ity came to the fore when, years af­ter the mark against Philby’s name was as black as could be, El­liott ar­ranged for him to start work again for MI6 as an agent in Beirut.

Why did they stand by him? In­sanely, the head of MI6, even af­ter very se­ri­ous doubts had been raised about Philby’s loy­alty, wrote in a memo that “it is en­tirely con­trary to the English tra­di­tion for a man to have to prove his in­no­cence’’. In a court of law, per­haps, but surely not in the case of such an im­por­tant fig­ure in the se­cu­rity ser­vices? Hi­lar­i­ously, one of Philby’s main con­cerns at the height of his treach­ery was to get his sons into as ex­pen­sive a school as he could. “Eton and West­min­ster were be­yond his budget,’’ Macintyre writes, “but El­liott came up with the so­lu­tion.’’ It might be that Philby was main­tain­ing a use­ful front, but it is hard to see from his bi­og­ra­phy that this de­voted com­mu­nist ever spent a vol­un­tary mo­ment with a sin­gle horny-handed son of toil.

El­liott said about Harold Sher­gold, con­troller of MI6’s Soviet op­er­a­tions, that he “knew [Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet dou­ble agent] was all right. Shergy had the nose.’’ In fact, “hav­ing the nose’’ was ex­actly the sort of thing El­liott and his like put too much faith in, and let Philby es­cape for years — the sort of chap who didn’t ring alarm bells by his de­port­ment, shoes, ac­cent or be­hav­iour. Years af­ter the Philby catas­tro­phe, El­liott didn’t seem to have learnt any­thing. When le Carré asked him, “What about the ul­ti­mate sanc­tion, then — for­give me — could you have had Philby killed, liq­ui­dated?’’, El­liott replied, aghast: “My dear chap. One of us.’’ That, alas, was en­tirely the prob­lem.

Macintyre warns, quite rightly, that old spies have a habit of rewriting the past, and he mostly does a good job of ex­am­in­ing their later claims. A good, though triv­ial, ex­am­ple of his­tory rewrit­ten comes in El­liott’s con­ver­sa­tions with le Carré in the af­ter­word, when he says, re­gard­ing Trevor-Roper: “I laughed my head off when he took a dive on those Hitler diaries. The whole ser­vice knew they were fake.’’

In fact, no­body in the in­tel­li­gence ser­vice could have had any views about the diaries. As read­ers of Robert Har­ris’s 1986 book Sell­ing

Hitler will re­mem­ber, they were writ­ten to com­mis­sion by a forger and handed to Ger­man mag­a­zine Stern, which kept them un­der lock and key un­til they were shown to TrevorRoper. But nei­ther le Carré nor Macintyre chal­lenges El­liott’s claim, and per­haps more scep­ti­cism should have been ex­pressed about other sug­ges­tions by play­ers in this drama. Nev­er­the­less, Macintyre, a jour­nal­ist with

The Times and au­thor, has writ­ten an en­gag­ing book on a tan­ta­lis­ing and ul­ti­mately tragic sub­ject. If it starts as a study of friend­ship, it ends as an in­dict­ment. An­gle­ton was sent mad by the Philby case; El­liott is treated tact­fully, but is se­verely cen­sured. It could hardly have been other­wise.

The Spec­ta­tor

Philip Hen­sher is a nov­el­ist and critic.

Kim Philby af­ter be­ing cleared of al­le­ga­tions he was a Soviet agent in 1955; Philby with his Rus­sian wife, left, and fam­ily and friends in­clud­ing fel­low spy Ge­orge Blake in 1975, far left

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