Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2014)

For over twenty years Kim Philby operated as a Russian agent inside the British establishment, much of it working in MI6, including heading up Soviet counter-espionage.  The most famous of the Cambridge spies recruited in the early 1930s, he sent thousands of copies of secret documents to his spymasters and hundreds of Allied agents and provocateurs to their death or incarceration.  When asked to choose between family, friends, country and political ideology, he always chose politics.  A skilled liar and accomplished charmer Philby had a knack for establishing friendships and then exploiting them, relying on them to support his ‘good name’ when accusations eventually surfaced in 1951 as to his exploits.  Remarkably the strategy worked, with Philby not only remaining unprosecuted and free, but heavily defended by friends and colleagues and bought back into the intelligence fold, only defecting in 1963.  It is these duplicitous friendships that Ben Macintyre explores in A Spy Among Friends, notably his relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a high-flying MI6 agent, and James Angleton, who became the CIA head of counter-intelligence.  To a certain degree this does provide a new route into the story of Kim Philby and his exploits, though his charm and friendships are well known.  Moreover, the Philby story is one that has been told many times before; it is one that is highly contested with multiple versions of the truth and much disinformation circulating.  As a consequence, there is little in the book that has not previously been spun and reworked a few times over.  Indeed, most of the material is sourced from other accounts rather than archive sources.  What Macintyre offers then, is a slightly different take on an well-worn tale, but one that is told through an engaging narrative.

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