Spying on One’s Friends: A Review of the Latest Kim Philby Biography

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
by Ben Macintyre
Crown, 384 pages, $27

The annals of the Twentieth Century will never forget the name Kim Philby. To the British intelligence community, Philby was a traitor, whose illicit devotion to Communism was concealed by his pedigree and charisma. To the KGB, Philby was a hero who infiltrated the highest ranks of British intelligence and successfully divulged countless MI6 secrets over the course of 30 years. He thwarted major British intelligence operations, such as the attempted coup of Albania; he was directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of German Catholics and Western allies; and as Ben Macintyre’s latest addition to the Philby canon illustrates, he betrayed all of his lifelong friends.

Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends goes beyond merely recording Philby’s evolution from accepting Communism at Cambridge to ultimately defecting to the Soviet Union: Macintyre makes the great betrayal personal both to Philby’s interlocutors and to readers. The book first introduces the tragic Nicholas Elliot. As the archetypal “Old Etonian” brought in to MI6 through a nepotistic offer at the Ascot horse races, Elliot plays the part of Philby’s naïve friend, whose inherited belief in English chivalry and manners blind his capacity to doubt his comrade’s true intentions. As Macintyre correctly observes, Elliot and Philby effectively foil each other, as Cambridge-based spies from similar aristocratic roots.

Macintyre convincingly portrays the true nature of Philby’s treason not through appeals to the anti-Communist attitudes of his readers but rather through the escalating degree of Philby’s betrayal of the ever-loyal Elliot. As suspicion begins to loom over Philby’s head after the defections of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (fellow members of the Cambridge Spy ring), Elliot puts his reputation on the line to defend Philby. But Elliot’s obstinate defense of Philby is not derived from upper-class solidarity; rather, it is rooted in robust loyalty. By dint of Elliot’s integrity and blameless naïveté, the climax of the biography—the successful Soviet extradition of Philby from Beirut—becomes all the more frustrating, especially in light of the revelation that Kim Philby, on several occasions, singlehandedly escalated Cold War conflict.

The truly remarkable aspect of Macintyre’s latest is its seamless integration of inconceivable, though accurate, history with the style of a gripping John Le Carré novel. Facts are woven together in accordance with Philby’s life, but Macintyre manages to superimpose the exciting structure of a spy novel over this narrative. For instance, in describing the mysterious disappearance of frogman “Buster” Crabb during his clandestine reconnaissance of Soviet ships, Macintyre incites sharp pangs of suspense, while simultaneously debunking conspiracy and honestly reporting the facts. Throughout the account, Philby always remains just under the surface, and his influence over the Cold War becomes all the more fascinating and sordid.

While Macintyre’s overture promises to depart from the famous political and ideological biographies about Philby by focusing on Philby’s friendships, the biography still raises significant political questions. After reading of Philby’s betrayal of Elliot, how are we to consider the relationship between the intelligence community and friendship? At the very least, Philby’s ability to conceal his identity in the “old boys club” of MI6 and his ultimate vindication by the system he worked tirelessly to undermine demonstrate a certain tension between these two forces. The superficiality of a friendship is not always detectable. And even more frightening, even elite spies like James Jesus Angleton can unwittingly befriend and abet a nemesis. Institutions run by tribal kinship are perhaps bound by obsolescence, as was the case with Nicholas Elliot and “The Robber Barrons” of MI6 who lost their influence over operations after the revelation of Philby’s actions. During the course of the Cold War, in the intelligence community, nepotism gave way to the tides of meritocracy and accountability. Sons were no longer handpicked from Cambridge (or even Yale, for that matter). By Macintyre’s account, the CIA and KGB pulled ahead of MI6 for this very reason.

As A Spy Among Friends seems to suggest, these institutions’ capacities for comparative transparency are derived from deep-seated patriotism and ideology. And the unrelenting and dastardly betrayals of Philby—as well as the eventual paranoid neuroticisms of Angleton—in the name of Communism lend credence to the view that friendship and spying are fundamentally incompatible.