By Ben Macintyre, Crown, July 29, 2014, 0804136653

Kim Philby is England’s, and probably the world’s, most notorious double agent. His story is told in countless article and books. Ben Macintyre tells the story from a much more personal perspective than I believe it has been told before. The afterword by John Le Carre is also excellent.

This is a well written historical narrative, not a spy thriller. There are some action scenes, but most of the book is about every day conversations and life of work colleagues who happen to be spies.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I learned a lot of history about the 20th century.

[k747] The fatal conceit of most spies is to believe they are loved, in a relationship between equals, and not merely manipulated. Deutsch made a careful study of Philby’s psychology, the flashes of insecurity beneath the debonair exterior, the unpredictable stammer, his veiled resentment of a domineering father.

[k758] Completing this lurch from extreme Left (secretly) to extreme Right (publicly), he joined the Anglo-German Fellowship, a society formed in 1935 to foster closer understanding with Germany. A sump for the forces of appeasement and Nazi admiration, the fellowship included politicians, aristocrats, and business leaders, some naive or gullible, others rampantly fascist.

[k767] The NKVD was convinced that someone as well connected as St John Philby who traveled widely and freely must be a spy. “It seems unlikely that his father … would not be a close and intimate collaborator with the Intelligence Service.” Not for the last time, Moscow elevated its erroneous expectations into fact.

[k785] For a spy, Maly was conspicuous, standing six feet four inches tall with a “shiny grey complexion” and gold fillings in his front teeth.

[k825] There was no equivalent welcome from his Soviet spy friends, for the simple reason that they were all dead or had disappeared, swept away by Stalin’s Terror. In the wild, murderous paranoia of the Purges, anyone with foreign links was suspected of disloyalty, and the outposts of Soviet intelligence came under particular suspicion. Theodore Maly was among the first to be recalled to Moscow, an obvious suspect on account of his religious background: “I know that as a former priest I haven’t got a chance. But I’ve decided to go there so that nobody can say ‘That priest might have been a real spy after all.’ “ Maly was tortured in the cells of the Lubyanka, headquarters of the secret police, until he eventually confessed to being a German spy and was then shot in the head. The fate of Arnold Deutsch has never been fully explained.

[k835] The task of running the Cambridge spies was taken over by one Grigori Grafpen, until he too was arrested and sent to the Gulag. Philby’s controller in Paris, Ozolin-Haskins, was shot in Moscow in 1937. His successor, Boris Shapak, lasted two more years before he too was ordered home to be killed.

[k837] As Maly put it: “If they don’t kill me there, they will kill me here. Better to die there.” One by one, Philby’s handlers were declared enemies of the people.

[k863] This, then, was the man who met and befriended Nicholas Elliott in 1940, a two-sided man who used one side to disguise the other. Elliott loved and admired Philby, the upper-crust, Cambridge-educated bon viveur, the charming, happily married, conservative clubman, the battle-scarred war correspondent now playing a vital part in the thrilling world of espionage. Elliott had no inkling of the other Philby, the veteran communist spy, and it would be many more years before he finally met him.

[k959] As his former controller Theodore Maly had discovered to his cost, in the warped logic of Stalinism, refusing to do something just because it was impossible was a sign of disloyalty. Philby obediently set to work.

[k974] The files showed there was no British spy network in Soviet Russia, no MI6 espionage campaign, and “no Soviet citizens whatsoever who worked as secret agents either in Moscow or anywhere else on Soviet territory.” The report was received with incredulity; Moscow’s paranoia and sense of self-importance combined to provoke a reaction of furious disbelief. The Soviet Union was a world power and MI6 was the most feared intelligence organization in the world; it therefore stood to reason that Britain must be spying on the USSR. If Philby said otherwise, then he must be lying.

[k983] But when Anthony Blunt confirmed that MI6 had no secret agents in the USSR, he too fell under suspicion; Philby and Blunt must be in league. And so began a bizarre situation in which Philby told Moscow the truth and was disbelieved because the truth contradicted Moscow’s expectations.

[k1100] After just a few months in Istanbul, Elliott concluded there were “more people involved in various forms of skulduggery per head of population than any other city in the world.”

[k1200] One of the richer ironies of Philby’s position is that while he could do no wrong in British eyes, in Moscow he continued to be viewed with mistrust.

[k1416] The defections set off a chain reaction that destroyed it utterly, just three months before D-day.

[k1415] The Abwehr might have been corrupt, inefficient, and partly disloyal, but it was, at least, a functioning worldwide intelligence service. The defections set off a chain reaction that destroyed it utterly, just three months before D-day. In the words of the historian Michael Howard, German intelligence was “thrown into a state of confusion just at the moment when its efficient functioning was vital to the survival of the Third Reich.”

[k1524] After a few months back in Turkey, Elliott was summoned to London and told by C that he had been appointed MI6 station chief in neutral Switzerland, a crucial intelligence battleground during the war that would acquire even greater importance as the cold war grew hotter.

[k1527] “After the gloom of London and France it was an extraordinary contrast to be shown up to a clean bedroom with a view across the lake and to relax in a hot bath with a whisky and soda.” After Turkey, Switzerland seemed disconcertingly civilized, tidy, and regulated, an almost artificial world.

[k1532] Swiss efforts to discourage espionage during the war failed utterly: Allied, Axis, and freelance agents had converged on the country as a base from which to launch intelligence operations into enemy territory.

[k1535] In 1943 an anti-Nazi German diplomat named Fritz Kolbe had turned up in Bern and offered his services to the Allies: first to the British embassy, which turned him away, and then to the OSS station chief Allen Dulles (who would go on to become director of the CIA).

[k1563] Over the coming years, as Soviet intelligence penetrated deeper into Western Europe, James Angleton and Nicholas Elliott worked ever more closely with Philby, the coordinator of Britain’s anti-Soviet operations. Yet the separate sides of Philby’s head created a peculiar paradox: if all his anti-Soviet operations failed, he would soon be out of a job; but if they succeeded too well, he risked inflicting real damage on his adopted cause. He needed to recruit good people to Section IX, but not too good, for these might actually penetrate Soviet intelligence and discover that the most effective Soviet spy in Britain was their own boss.

[k2769] Elliott was wholeheartedly, unwaveringly convinced of Philby’s innocence. They had joined MI6 together, watched cricket together, dined and drunk together. It was simply inconceivable to Elliott that Philby could be a Soviet spy.

[k2777] Within MI6 Elliott swiftly emerged as Philby’s most doughty champion, defending him against all accusers and loudly declaring his innocence.

[k3101] An amplifier, placed under the floorboards beneath Philby’s chair, fed sound to the microphone, which was then relayed to Leconfield House, MI5 headquarters. Here the conversation would be recorded on acetate gramophone records and then handed to typists who would transcribe every word.

[k3116] Philby was sent home with a friendly handshake and a not-guilty verdict: “You may be pleased to know that we have come to a unanimous decision about your innocence.”

[k3201] What followed was a dramatic tour de force, a display of cool public dishonesty that few politicians or lawyers could match. There was no trace of a stammer, no hint of nerves or embarrassment. Philby looked the world in the eye with a steady gaze and lied his head off. Footage of Philby’s famous press conference is still used as a training tool by MI6, a master class in mendacity.

[k3371] Operation Claret was an unmitigated, gale-force cock-up: it embarrassed the government, offered the Soviets an open target, deepened cold-war suspicion, produced no useful intelligence, turned Eden’s diplomatic triumph to disaster, provoked renewed infighting between the secret services, and led to the death of a certified war hero.

[k3456] The Beirut job finally put paid to the Philbys’ marriage. “Haunted by Kim’s life of treason” and agonized by the stress of his public acquittal, the discovery that her husband was leaving the country sent Aileen into terminal alcoholic decline.

[k3462] Beirut was exotic, tense, and dangerous, a salmagundi of races, religions, and politics rendered even more febrile by the rising tide of Arab nationalism and cold-war conflict. It was fertile ground for journalism in 1956 and an even better place for espionage.

[k3526] But there was more than politics in Philby’s eager return to the embrace of the KGB. Philby enjoyed deception.

[k3531] Philby did not want to give up spying, and he probably could not have stopped if he had wanted to: he was addicted.

[k3558] The Furse family took over all the arrangements for her funeral back in England, which Philby did not attend. The five Philby children never knew where their mother was buried.

[k3599] In truth, Philby was going soft and drinking hard, content to do a little journalism, a little espionage on the side for both sides, but nothing too strenuous. He was coasting, it seemed, toward quiet and comfortable irrelevance as a second-rate journalist and a minor spy.

Then Nicholas Elliott arrived in Beirut as the new station chief of MI6, and the wheel of their friendship turned again.

[k3648] Some have claimed that Elliott’s energetic deployment of Philby was merely a ruse to see if “greater participation in the British intelligence effort” would reveal contact with the Soviets. There is little evidence to support this theory. If Elliott had suspected Philby, he would have put a tail on him and easily discovered his meetings with Petukhov.

[k3764] The major players in the Philby story were invariably wise after the event. Spies, even more than most people, invent the past to cover up mistakes.

[k3767] Philby’s fellow journalists (another tribe adept at misremembering the past) later claimed that they had always seen something fishy in his behavior. Even Eleanor, his wife, would later look back and claim to have discovered clues to his real nature.

[k3769] The truth was simpler, as it almost always is: Philby was spying on everyone, and no one was spying on him, because he fooled them all.

[k3824] Blake had been “turned” during his North Korean captivity. In detention he had read the works of Karl Marx and found what he thought was truth. But “it was the relentless bombing of small Korean villages by enormous American flying fortresses” that triggered his wholehearted conversion to communism.

[k3832] In Berlin Blake contacted the KGB, under the guise of recruiting spies within the Soviet service, and began passing over reams of top secret and highly damaging information, including details of numerous covert operations such as the Berlin tunnel, a plot to eavesdrop on the Soviets from underground.

[k3899] The news of Blake’s harsh sentence left Philby stunned. He had spied for longer than Blake, at a far higher level, and at greater human cost.

[k4144] As John le Carre once wrote: “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth…. Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool…. He can have a Force Twelve nervous breakdown while he stands next to you in the bus queue and you may be his best friend but you’ll never be the wiser.” Elliott had survived a brutal prep school, the chilliness of his father, the death of his first friend, by pretending that everything was perfectly all right. And he survived Philby’s intimate disloyalty in exactly the same way. But those who knew him best saw that beneath the ever-languid manner, the armory of jokes, and the insouciant air, from the moment he finally understood and accepted Philby’s treachery Elliott’s world changed utterly: inside he was crushed, humiliated, enraged, and saddened.

[k4176] In Beirut Eleanor Philby watched in despair as her once-charming husband fell apart in a miasma of drink and depression.

[k4322] He would later claim he had been merely playing for time, toying with Elliott, controlling the situation with “just a little stalling, just a little drinking” while he made his plans. His behavior suggests otherwise. Philby was in turmoil, trapped, tempted by Elliott’s offer, and acutely conscious that his future depended on how he played the game.

[k4399] Elliott later claimed that the idea Philby might defect to the USSR had never occurred to him or anyone else. “It just didn’t dawn on us.” This defies belief. Burgess and Maclean had both defected; Blake would escape from Wormwood Scrubs Prison in 1966 and make his way to Moscow.

[k4519] To Elliott fell the delicate and exceedingly unpleasant task of breaking the news to James Angleton. The FBI knew about the confrontation in Beirut and Philby’s confession, but the CIA had been kept entirely in the dark.

[k4558] Many in the intelligence world believed that by leaving the door open to Moscow and then walking away, Elliott had deliberately forced Philby into exile. And they may have been right.

Divining Elliott’s precise motives is impossible, because for the next thirty years he carefully obscured and muddied them.

[k4696] James Jesus Angleton’s personality was transformed by the realization that he had never really known Kim Philby.

[k4700] He became convinced that a vast, overarching conspiracy must be taking place under his nose, orchestrated by Philby from Moscow.

[k4704] “Never again would he permit himself to be so badly duped. He would trust no one.”

Convinced that the CIA was riddled with Soviet spies, Angleton set about rooting them out, detecting layer after layer of deception surrounding him.

[k4708] The damage he inflicted on the CIA reached such levels that some even accused him of being a Soviet mole himself, destroying the organization from within by creating a climate of debilitating suspicion. Uncompromising and obsessive, more than a decade after Philby’s vanishing act Angleton was still ascribing every fresh sign of treachery to the man he had once idolized. “This is all Kim’s work,” he would mutter.

[k4717] James Angleton was forced out of the CIA in 1974, when the extent of his illegal mole hunting was revealed.

He continued to insist that he had suspected Kim Philby from the start; but his weeding from CIA files of every reference to his relationship with Philby was proof enough of the falsity of that claim.

[k4727] Nicholas Elliott’s career was hobbled by his association with Philby. Some in MI6 believed he had allowed Philby to flee Beirut out of personal loyalty. Some still do.

[k4751] Nicholas Elliott had become–no one was quite sure how–an unofficial adviser on intelligence matters to Margaret Thatcher. What was discussed during these meetings has never been fully revealed, and Elliott was far too discreet to say, but his political antennae were impeccable: after the breakup of the Soviet Union, he correctly predicted the emergence of an authoritarian government in Russia, and he foresaw the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of Iranian aggression, and the growing economic and political clout of China.