Wednesday 24 January 2018

Books: Questions remain over Russian mole and his friend

A spy among friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben MacIntyre, Bloomsbury, £20

British intelligence officer and Soviet spy Kim Philby holding a press conference after being cleared of spying charges by Harold MacMillan
British intelligence officer and Soviet spy Kim Philby holding a press conference after being cleared of spying charges by Harold MacMillan
A spy among friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Charles Lysaght

Kim Philby, who espoused communism as a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1930s, got himself recruited by MI6, the British spying agency, during World War II. Charming and able, he rose rapidly.

When posted to Washington in 1949, he won the confidence of his American counterparts and access to their secrets. Information he sent to his Soviet spymasters exposed anti-communist resistance behind the Iron Curtain and resulted in the death of one Soviet defector.

He fell under suspicion in 1951 when his old Cambridge buddy and close associate in Washington, Guy Burgess, defected to Russia with diplomat Donald Maclean, another Cambridge communist. But the suspicious circumstances fell short of proof and Philby brazened it out with the support of colleagues in MI6. Foremost among these was his close friend and fellow patrician Nicholas Elliott, who railed against the investigations carried out by the less patrician officers, mainly ex-policemen, of MI5, the counter espionage agency.

Philby was retired for a time but, thanks to Elliott, brought back and sent to Beirut where he renewed contact with the Soviets through a local handler. In 1962 a Russian defector revealed that they had five 'moles' in Britain, but could not name them.

Coincidentally, an aggrieved friend of Philby's deceased wife came forward, recalling something he had said to her in the 1930s that she now interpreted as an invitation to become a Soviet spy.

Although Philby had always been open about his youthful flirtation with communism, this was enough to convince Elliott that his friend was a Soviet spy. He flew to Beirut, confronted Philby and, acting on orders, offered him immunity from prosecution if he confessed and told all he knew about Soviet intelligence. Philby crumbled and wrote out an obviously incomplete confession for Elliott, who then departed.

Philby alerted his local Soviet handler who spirited him away to Moscow where he later acquired a Russian wife (his fourth) and spent his last 25 years working for the Soviet government. Mistrusted at first, he died in 1987 a communist hero commemorated on a postage stamp.

The story has been told before from various angles in memoirs and other books. Macintyre adduces little of significance not already in the published literature, on which he relies almost exclusively. He focuses on the friendship of Philby and Elliott, concluding that this blinded Elliott. Philby, it is suggested, was allowed to escape because a prosecution would have been politically embarrassing.

I knew Nicholas Elliott, who was self centred and rather too convinced of his own smartness, and so vulnerable to deception. But there are implausible aspects of the story not sufficiently probed by the author that make me doubt his conclusions.

It is, for instance, odd that Philby was apparently not kept under surveillance in Beirut and strange that he risked regular meetings there with a Soviet handler when he knew he was suspected.

It is odd that Elliott was so easily convinced in 1962 by evidence no more conclusive than that he had rejected in 1951. It is odd that Philby, who had been so brazen in 1951, should crumble so readily later without getting particulars of the new evidence against him.

It is odd that MI6 were so casual about completing the interrogation begun by Elliott when Philby had shown a readiness to confess and obviously had more to tell.

The facts have been clouded by the face-saving or sanitised recollections of various participants and the unavailability of British, American and Soviet intelligence records. For all its vivid and convincing portrayal of Philby and Elliott, this book gets us no nearer the full truth.

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