Title: A Spy Among Friends
Rating: 5 Stars
This is one of the most entertaining narrative histories that I’ve read in a long time. It is the story of Kim Philby and his close friend Nicholas Elliott.
Elliott met Philby when they were both in their early 20’s. Philby was a couple of years older, and by all accounts was the quintessential Englishman. Elliott idolized him and they became close friends. Ultimately they both ended up as spies.
After a close friendship of twenty-five years, Elliott discovers that Philby has been spying for the Soviets the entire time. After a confrontation, Philby successfully escapes to the Soviet Union, where he spends the rest of his life.
This is the story of their individual careers, Philby’s spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, and how Philby was discovered, all told within the arc of their friendship.
This is a compelling story of real life spying derring-do, with moments of humor almost too bizarre to be believed. That combination made it one of those fairly rare histories that was almost compulsively readable.
I knew the basic story of Kim Philby. In fact, I wrote about it some time ago (under the title of something like Person of the Twentieth Century). Here are some new things that I learned:
- Following a long spying tradition, Elliott married his secretary. He married her in Turkey. The priest that officiated was himself very involved in espionage and ultimately became Pope John XXIII.
- MI6 and MI6 was pretty much every stereotype that you can imagine. The application process involved knowing someone who could get you in. Important decisions were made at the club after work (usually White’s). Everyone drank copiously. Security was at best haphazard. It was a very loose ship run with a tight upper lip.
- Philby’s second wife had Munchhausen. During times of stress, she would regularly make herself so sick that she would have to be hospitalized.
- The so-called Cambridge ring consisted of Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt. Maclean falls under suspicion of being a mole. He is able to avoid detection for a while because the watchers of MI5 do not work evenings or weekends. WTF?
- Philby is on track to be head of MI6. He is posted to the prestigious post in Washington DC, where he gets to see all of the spy traffic of both the US and England. His actions directly lead to the deaths of many and an overall general failure to successfully penetrate the Iron Curtain.
- Ultimately, one person does defect from behind the Iron Curtain and provides enough information that allows the English to identify Maclean. Philby sends Burgess off to warn Maclean, and they both escape to the Soviet Union. Burgess was actually living with Philby at the time this occurred. This obviously leads to suspicion. Philby is exonerated for the moment but his useful career as a spy (and as a Soviet mole) is effectively over.
- As I wrote before, James Jesus Angleton, who also deeply admired Philby, takes the betrayal especially hard and becomes convinced that there must be Soviet moles in the CIA as well. In his obsessive pursuit, he effectively destroys the CIA to the extent that ultimately people start thinking that he might be the mole. He ends up resigning in disgrace.
- The noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the novelists Graham Greene and Ian Fleming all had some kind of connection to Kim Philby.
- In case you think there aren’t enough weird connections in the world, another of Philby’s close friends in his later years living in Beirut was a man named Miles Copeland. He was ex-CIA but still tangentially involved in intelligence. His son was Steward Copeland, as in the drummer from The Police.
The bottom line to me is, at the end of the day, what a cluster fuck spying really is. The act of spying almost inevitably causes blowback or ends in disaster. In many cases, the information that a country acquires via spying is inevitably tainted because the source of the data is usually an act of betrayal to begin with.
Most of us have a notion of spies as being suave, skillful, tremendously confident James Bond types, when actually the reality is that they are drunken, clumsy, dim-witted, buffoons.
It does make you wonder if there really is a net positive value to the business of spying.