Ben Macintyre’s ‘A Spy Among Friends’
When devouring this thriller about Kim Philby, the high-level British spymaster turned Russian mole, it is easy to forget that it’s not a novel. It reads like a story by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming or John le Carré, all of whom make appearances, leavened by a dollop of P. G. Wodehouse. But, in fact, A Spy Among Friends is a solidly researched true story. The London journalist Ben Macintyre, who has written nine histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery, takes a fresh look at the grandest espionage drama of our era. And like one of his raffish characters relaxing around the bar at White’s, that venerable clubhouse of England’s old boys’ network, he plays the role of an amusing raconteur, cloaking psychological and sociological insights with dry humour.
The story of Philby and his fellow Cambridge University double agents has been told many times, most notably by Phillip Knightley and Anthony Cave Brown, as well as by Philby himself, and two of his four wives. Macintyre, who draws on these and other published sources, was not able to pry open any archives or uncover startling new revelations. Instead, he came up with a captivating framing device: telling the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow Cambridge-educated spy who was, or thought he was, Philby’s trusted friend. In doing so Macintyre has produced more than just a spy story. He has written a narrative about that most complex of topics, friendship: Why does it exist, what causes people to seek it and how do we know when it’s real? The world of upper-crust young Englishmen provides a rugged yet rewarding terrain for such an exploration. Taught on the playing fields of Eton to shield themselves from vulnerability, they mask their feelings for one another with jokes, cricket-watching, drinking and ‘a very distinctive brand of protective dishonesty’.
Macintyre also takes on a related subject: the tribal loyalties of the social class system, and the fraying fringe of the British aristocracy that nurtured such friendships, both real and feigned, and created the boys’ club that populated its foreign, colonial and intelligence services. Members harboured, Macintyre writes, ‘a shared set of assumptions about the world and their privileged place in it’. While watching the races at Ascot one day, Nick Elliott mentioned to a diplomat friend of his father, who was the headmaster of Eton, that he would like to be a spy. ‘I am relieved you have asked me for something so easy,’ the diplomat replied, and Elliott was soon ensconced at MI6, Britain’s counterpart to the C.I.A.
Kim Philby had the same desire, and he was recommended by the deputy head of MI6, Valentine Vivian, who had served as a colonial official with Philby’s father. Even though the younger Philby had moved in Communist circles while at Cambridge, there was little vetting other than Vivian’s asking Philby’s father about it over drinks at their club. ‘Oh, that was all schoolboy nonsense,’ the elder Philby replied. So Vivian had him hired. ‘I was asked about him and said I knew his people’.
Elliott not only became Philby’s friend, he began to worship him “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated.” He even bought the same expensive umbrella that Philby liked to sport. What he did not know was that Philby was a double agent working for Russia. That meant he had a different angle on their friendship. “Nicholas Elliott was a rising star in the service and a valued friend,” Macintyre writes, “and no one understood the value of friendship better than Kim Philby.”
One of us. That was Philby’s deep cover, and Macintyre recounts in ways both amusing and appalling how powerful a cover it was. Even as his betrayals doomed colleagues and potential Soviet defectors to their deaths, no one in his circle suspected him, and he rose to be MI6’s Washington-based liaison with the C.I.A.
There he became friends, in the Philbyesque sense of that word, with another excessively fascinating character in this book, James Jesus Angleton, who was rising in the ranks of the C.I.A. “Angleton was a little like one of the rare orchids he would later cultivate,” Macintyre writes, “alluring to some but faintly sinister to those who preferred simpler flora.” He was obsessed with rooting out spies and moles, but he missed the biggest one in his midst, indeed became enamoured of him. Just as Elliott took to carrying around the same umbrella as Philby, Angleton wore the same homburg hat.
Like almost every character in this book, Philby and Angleton were ferocious and competitive drinkers. They would meet at a club-like Washington saloon and oyster bar, Harvey’s, and match each other drink for drink. As they exchanged confidences, Angleton was at a deadly disadvantage: He didn’t know that Philby wasn’t on his team.
An undercurrent of Macintyre’s book is the sense that, for those living a duplicitous life, alcohol was a tool of the trade and a psychological necessity. Philby’s Cambridge colleagues in the ring of Russian double agents, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, were also world-class drinkers. At one point a drunken Maclean, then in Cairo, smashed up the apartment of two embassy secretaries and ripped up their underwear. Yet he was soon promoted to head the American desk at the British Foreign Office. “Even drunken, unhinged knicker shredding, it seemed, was no bar to advancement in the British diplomatic service if one was the ‘right sort,’ ” Macintyre writes.
Through decrypted Russian messages, the British finally discovered, in 1951, that Maclean was a spy. Among the first people MI6 informed was Philby, its top man in Washington. Philby dispatched Burgess, who happened to be living with him as a houseguest, back to England to warn Maclean. They both quickly defected to Moscow.
Though Philby was able to feign shock when told the news, his closeness to the Cambridge defectors finally made him a target of suspicion. Once again, class lines were drawn. The old boys’ network of MI6, led by Elliott, rallied to Philby’s defense. But MI5, the British domestic service akin to the F.B.I., was filled with rough-and-tumble cops and constables who did not have the same reverence for toffs whose parents had known one another at Eton. The evidence against Philby was circumstantial and not enough to have him arrested, but he was quietly eased out of the intelligence ranks.
It was amazing that Philby had risen so far and been undetected for so long. But in 1954 something even more astonishing happened. His connections began a quiet campaign to rehabilitate him. It was led by Elliott and Angleton, who that year became chief of the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence division. Philby held a press conference to deny that he had been a spy. When Edwin Newman of NBC asked about his friendship with Burgess, Philby gave his one honest answer: “On the subject of friendship, I’d prefer to say as little as possible, because it’s very complicated.”
Philby was allowed to return to the fold of MI6, albeit as a lower-level agent, and was sent to spy-infested Beirut under the cover of being a journalist. He was soon reunited with Elliott, who became MI6’s station chief there. “Kim Philby’s return to British intelligence displayed the old boys’ network running at its smoothest: A word in an ear, a nod, a drink with one of the chaps at the club and the machinery kicked in.” Just as smoothly, Philby also resumed being a double agent serving Moscow.
Why did Philby betray his country, club mates, class and friends? He later insisted that it was because of his higher loyalty to the Communist ideal. “I left the university with the conviction that my life must be devoted to Communism,” he said. Yet there’s no evidence that Philby ever read Marx, had any interest in ideology or harbored burning sympathies for the plight of exploited classes.
Macintyre emphasizes a more psychological factor: “Philby enjoyed deception. Like secrecy, the erotic charge of infidelity can be hard to renounce.” That thrill seemed to be ingrained at an early age. “Philby tasted the drug of deception as a youth and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life.”
Underlying this explanation was a deep-seated urge familiar to many biographers: a desire to come to terms with a father. St. John Philby, an adventurous colonial service officer who helped both the British intelligence services and the Saudi king navigate the murky politics of the Middle East, “was a man who regarded his opinions, however briefly adopted, as revealed truth.” In 1960, on his way back to Saudi Arabia from England, where he had gone to watch a Lord’s cricket test match, he stopped in Beirut to visit his son. Elliott threw a drunken lunch party for the Philbys and friends. St. John Philby, Elliott later wrote, “left at teatime, had a nap, made a pass at the wife of a member of the embassy staff in a nightclub, had a heart attack and died.” His last words were, “God, I’m bored.” Kim Philby buried his father (who had become a Muslim) with full Islamic rites, then went on a drinking binge that lasted for days.
Philby’s mooring began to slip after his father’s death and, inevitably, his past caught up with him again. By 1962, enough evidence had accumulated that even Elliott became convinced his friend was a mole. He insisted that he be the one allowed to confront Philby and try to extract a confession. “Inside he was crushed,” Macintyre writes. “He wanted to look Philby in the eye one last time. He wanted to understand.”
Macintyre’s book climaxes with a psychological duel over tea, cloaked by a veneer of gentility, which led to some subsequent meetings and a partial confession from Philby. But instead of arranging an arrest or abduction or assassination, Elliott told his erstwhile friend that he was going to Africa for a few days before the process of interrogation resumed. On his own in Beirut, Philby immediately contacted his Russian handlers, who whisked him on a freighter to Moscow, where he lived the rest of his life in exile.
Why did Elliott let Philby escape? At first it seemed as if he and the British intelligence service were bumbling fools. But Macintyre offers a different theory, one made plausible by his book’s narrative. After extracting Philby’s confession, Elliott may have intentionally left the door open for him to flee. Perhaps he even nudged him to do so. The old boys’ network had nothing to gain from further revelations or a public trial. It also probably had no stomach for punishing one of its own.
At first Philby reveled in the fact that he had escaped. It was only after a few months in Moscow that it dawned on him that he may have been pushed. He smuggled Elliott a letter suggesting that they secretly meet in a place like Helsinki to clear things up. “Our last transactions were so strange that I cannot help thinking that perhaps you wanted me to do a fade.” Elliott rejected him with a cold, blunt response.
One new piece of evidence comes from the former spy John le Carré, who tackled the Philby case in his novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Le Carré interviewed Elliott in 1986 and resurrected his notes to write an afterword for this book.
He asked Elliott whether he and his MI6 colleagues ever considered having Philby dragooned back to London. “Nobody wanted him in London, old boy,” Elliott replied.
Le Carré followed up: “Could you have him killed?”
To that Elliott gave a disapproving response. “My dear chap,” he said. “One of us.”
That neatly encapsulates the underlying theme of this book, one Macintyre explores with both insight and humor. What does it really mean to be “one of us”?