Book Review: A Spy Among Friends

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Ben Macintrye
Crown Publishers (US)
(c) 2014 by the author

It’s kind of easy for most people today to forget that there was a Cold War before the Reagan Era. Or even that it began well before World War II. In the 1930s, young intellectuals dabbled with Communism as a political philosophy, figuring it would be the only way to stop fascism from taking over. Most people in charge didn’t think much of these interests. But the Soviet Union was playing a much longer game than anyone else. Someone like Kim Philby, a well-networked scion on Britain’s upper crust, was an easy target for recruitment. Even before any open hostilities. You’d never know how your investment would pay off.

Macintyre isn’t out to write a biography of Philby – there have been others before – nor does he try to write the definitive work on Philby’s effect on the West’s intelligence operations. A good deal of the information necessary to do that is still classified.

What he does do is consider what Philby did to the people around him. His friends, like schoolmate Nicholas Elliott who joined MI6 at about the same time. Macintyre has essentially written a biography of that friendship, detailing the “old boy” network that opened doors for you without question. Today, it boggles the mind that there weren’t even the most rudimentary of background checks before appointing someone to a sensitive position. But back then, as long as you could be vouched for by the right sort of people, there were no problems. “A friend of yours is a friend of mine, and if you trust him, so do I…”

When things began to come apart, and the net started to tighten around Philby in the mid 1950s, he used his great personal charm to make his escape. One gets the sense from Macintyre that it was a willing blindness on the part of the authorities that let him slip away. Getting and prosecuting Philby would reveal all their own personal failures, and that would be too great an embarrassment. Better to let him slip out of Beirut in the dark of night, and flee safely to Moscow…

It’s arguable that Philby’s exposure did more damage to Western intelligence operations than anything that he actually did. Aside from the damage to the reputations of those directly involved, there was the panicked housecleaning in the intelligence community (especially in the CIA) that hurt more careers and disrupted even more plans and programs.

In Dante’s Comedy, at the very center of Hell, Lucifer is chewing on the shades of Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The standard analysis is that the three of them each conspired to betray the rightful government (at least in Dante’s view). Brutus and Cassius both fought against Julius Caesar in a civil war, but he later pardoned them and accepted them as friends. They used that access in their conspiracy to assassinate him. Judas, likewise, used his personal friendship with Jesus to get close enough to enable the betrayal to Roman authority.

Philby also used his friendships to gain access to the inner circle of power in order to sell out his country. From Macintyre’s point of view, selling and trading intelligence and government secrets is a part of what all governments must do. It is understandable, and in a lot of cases even forgivable. Philby’s real crime was something much worse than espionage. He betrayed his friends.

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