Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Heard: "A Spy Among Friends" by Ben Macintyre

Heard: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the great betrayal by Ben Macintyre, 2014, download. Narrated by John Lee.

Macintyre's Foreword says he is not trying to repeat the Philby stories and analysis of previous books. Macintyre wanted to focus on the personalities and relationship between Philby and longtime friend and colleague Nicholas Elliott. (These are my notes as I listened to the book. I won't clean them up much.)

In case you forgot: Philby was one of the Cambridge Five, a Soviet spy ring that proved hugely successful from it's 1930s inception to the 1960s.  Philby and his Cambridge University classmates were recruited in the 1930s and they went on to join government and newspaper jobs. All of them were upper or middle class and presented themselves as loyal Englishmen.

The Cambridge Five were part of the English crust that thrived on exclusivity: public school, university, private clubs, family ties and spying. You did not apply to the spy service, you were recruited. You were recruited only after a family friend or relative gave you a recommendation. Background checks were minimal and could be resolved after a reference of, "I know his father." Being a Soviet mole is the elite of the elite - the only one - and that attracted Philby.

Philby and Elliott met during World War Two and were fast friends. They worked in the same cities and freely traded shop talk over many boozy evenings. They both advanced through the ranks of MI6 (British secret intelligence service that focuses outside Britain, akin to the CIA). Elliott was Philby's friend and defender. Elliott never knew that Philby's allegiance had always been to Philby's communist ideal.

Philby was charismatic. People wanted to be around him and be his friend. His presence would lift their feelings and made a party successful. Spy and political information flowed during late night booze ups and dinner parties. That inside information stayed inside the spy agencies - among the employees - but traveled from office to office, , bureau to bureau, person to person, agency to agency. News went from "Bob" to "Dave" to Philby to Russia.

All that free flowing shop talk is what made Philby such a successful spy. As a senior agent and social butterfly Philby was directly responsible for hundreds of deaths. During the late 40s and early 50s Albanian and Ukrainian infiltrations were completely given up: landing locations, gear, radio equipment and codes, agent names and hometowns. Many more people - relatives, friends, former neighbors of agents - were killed, tortured or imprisoned by governments.

During WWII a German defector gave over names of non-communist anti-German fighters. Philby shared those Eastern European names and locations with the Russians. As the Russians pushed through Poland and Germany they carried lists of names and murdered any possible future opponents.

Things were dicey for Philby in the early fifties when his pal and fellow spy Guy Burgess split England with a third spy, Donald Maclean. Some intelligence officers starting connecting the dots among all the failed operations that all had a connection to Philby. But, there was no proof and Elliott repeatedly went to the mat for Philby. Philby was forced to resign, had a few jobs, was denounced in Parliament, and ultimately hired back by MI6.

MacLean and Burgess skipped town after a Venona cable was decrypted. That Russian cable from 1944 said a British mole was living in NYC and had a pregnant wife - that was enough to identify MacLean. Burgess was used as intermediary to warn MacLean and smuggle him out of England. Burgess's name was already mud because of his alcoholic guzzling and bizarre and rude behavior. Both of them skipping out put suspicions everywhere, certainly on Philby.

Philby was forced to resign.  Tons of circumstantial evidence from multiple failed operations behind Iron Curtain. He struggled financially, the Reds got him some money at one point, and MI5 thought him guilty. MI6 was split with Elliott going to the mat for Philby again and again. Elliott was the one who gained public school admission for Philby's oldest son. Philby went to work for MI6 in Lebanon under cover as a reporter. He also went right back to work with the Russians.

Proof against Philby was finally strong enough. Shortly before this another spy was found out, convicted and sentenced to over forty years imprisonment. The sentence was shockingly long. Philby was under a big threat with no Old BOy network to save him. Elliott interrogated Philby over a couple days. Philby skipped out of Beirut and went to Moscow. He never regretted his actions.

1. The wartime stories reminded me of Soldier of Orange. Most of the agents sent from England into Holland were caught and killed. The Germans had an inside track on the infiltrations and tortured and killed the men. They used stolen radio codes to send false positives to England.Soldier author Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema knew something was wrong but British intelligence ignored the signs and kept sending people to their death. The same things happened in the Cold War.
2. Philby was pals with CIA agent MIles Copeland, Jr. Copeland's son Stewart was in The Police.
3. Oh, Yeah! That was one of the jokes in Anthony Neil Smith's The Drummer. Someone says Merle's band should do some covers, like some Police tunes. Merle responds with "What?! You try drumming that stuff. Too hard."
3. Philby worked with Graham Greene as well. Greene was a junior colleague to Philby and Elliott.
4. The Afterword by John Le Carre discuses Le Carre's brief stint in British Intelligence and his many conversations with the famed Elliott. Elliott's career was long and successful but Elliott's reputation was darkly stained by his defense or and decades long friendship with Philby.

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