“A Spy Among Friends” dramatises the treachery of Kim Philby

From The Economist:

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends,” E.M. Forster wrote in 1938, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The English author’s words are used as an epigraph to “A Spy Among Friends”, Ben Macintyre’s bestselling book of 2014 about Harold “Kim” Philby, as well as for a new television adaptation. Yet the British intelligence officer and double-agent made no such choice: he betrayed his country, his friends and his family for decades and without remorse.

Philby’s name is synonymous with treachery on a colossal scale. Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Donald Maclean—the other members of the Cambridge Five, a spy ring—committed many duplicitous deeds for their Soviet masters, but none can claim the title of Britain’s most notorious spy. Philby played his high-stakes game of double-cross so ruthlessly, so successfully and for so long that he acquired a different level of infamy after he was unmasked.

During the second world war, Philby worked in Section V of the Secret Intelligence Service, where he analysed intercepted German wireless messages alongside Graham Greene (who was already a celebrated novelist). Rising through the ranks, Philby was posted to Istanbul in 1947 and two years later secured the plum post of mi6 chief in Washington. For the best part of his career, he could do no wrong. Some of his colleagues believed he would come to lead the service. He was admired, respected and, above all, trusted.

The whole time Philby was working for his country, he was also jeopardising it. He was recruited by the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and remained fully committed to the communist cause for the rest of his life. The extent of his betrayal only became apparent after his defection in 1963. It is estimated that he passed on tens of thousands of classified documents to his Soviet controllers, information which resulted in sabotaged operations, nationwide scandal and the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

Much has been written about the Cambridge Five in general and Philby in particular. Yet in “A Spy Among Friends” Mr Macintyre found fertile new ground to explore by focusing on the relationship between Philby and Nicholas Elliott, a longtime friend and fellow spy. For years, John le Carré contemplated writing a play about the pair; instead, he suggested that Mr Macintyre, who had published several books about double-agents and criminals, offer an account. The book draws on mi5 files and hitherto unseen papers and shines a valuable light on what Mr Macintyre considers “one of the most important conversations in the history of the cold war”—an exchange in Beirut during which Elliott obtained a confession from his old friend and arch-deceiver.

Link to the rest at The Economist

2 thoughts on ““A Spy Among Friends” dramatises the treachery of Kim Philby”

  1. When the American oil companies went to Saudi Arabia they collected a bunch of English books that were already in the kingdom and put them in their library in Dhahran. I don’t know all the details. I do know the collection is still there, and I used to browse through looking for old things to read. (Saudi does not have a thriving market in English books.)

    I picked up one book, flipped it open, and found, “Property of Kim Philby.” His father was in the English foreign service and Kim Philby spent some time with him in Saudi.

  2. It’s all so topsy turvy and confusing! If Kim Philby had never been caught there would never have been a monument of him in Moscow and most of us would never have heard of him. If only he had read the epic spy novel Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series. It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti. Have a look at a recent news article in TheBurlingtonFiles website dated 31 October 2022 about Col Pemberton’s People in MI6, John le Carré and Kim Philby.

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