Kim Philby’s deceptions are brought to light in deft and entertaining style
By Andrew Lycett
23 March 2014
Outside a small flat in Beirut in January 1963, the usual Middle Eastern sounds – blaring horns, raised voices and amplified music – rent the air, while inside “one of the most important conversations in the history of the Cold War” (to use author Ben Macintyre’s words) was taking place.
Finally, almost three decades after Kim Philby, product of Westminster School and Cambridge, had been recruited into the Soviet secret service, and had wormed his way into its British equivalent, MI6, to become the most dangerous traitor in British espionage history, he was being confronted by Nicholas Elliott, his friend and former MI6 colleague.
Elliott had been sent to the Lebanese capital to extract a confession, a dozen years after Philby had been identified in parliament as the “third man” in a top-level spy ring, following the defection to Moscow of two of his co-conspirators, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. But, despite overwhelming evidence which had forced him to resign, Philby had always protested his innocence and, such was the camaraderie in MI6, associates such as Elliott had believed him. Indeed Elliott had helped him financially and later pulled strings to find him employment as a journalist in Beirut, where, amazingly, he still performed occasional freelance jobs for MI6.
However, following the discovery of further incriminating evidence, even Elliott now realised Philby was guilty. So there was much pent-up emotion involved in this Beirut interview. Yet the proceedings, as Macintyre shows, were conducted with that same mixture of old-school courtesy, bluster and hard drinking that had become the hallmark of the British secret services.
This is the sort of incongruous situation on which Macintyre has built his reputation as an author. His previous books, such as Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat, have emerged from the pack of genre espionage history, largely because of their deft characterisation and humour.
He does not let his readers down here. The Cambridge spy ring was British intelligence’s most damaging and in many ways most puzzling episode: the impregnable fortress of MI6 had been breached by insiders.
The story has been told before, but Macintyre’s ability to unbundle intelligence acronyms is unrivalled. His master-stroke is to set Philby’s story against that of Elliott, to whose papers he had access. It would be easy to portray the latter as a bumbler, a Wodehouse figure with “one elbow cocked for the Martini glass”, as John le Carré, who drew on this wilderness of mirrors in his fiction, puts it in a wry afterword.
But Elliott was more than that. Both he and Philby were recruited into MI6 around the start of the Second World War. Already a Soviet spy, Philby had earned his spurs as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War, so was fast-tracked to head the Spanish department of MI6’s Section V, which attacked foreign intelligence operations.
Elliott, the son of a former headmaster of Eton (his own alma mater), left Cambridge to become honorary attaché to a family friend who was British Minister in the Netherlands. There he was inducted into the secret service and later, when war started, ran Section V’s operations in that country.
As members of the same MI6 branch, the two men worked, played and drank together. Macintyre is revealing about the bonds of class and friendship in these circumstances. After the war, Philby was appointed head of Section IX, which specifically countered communist espionage, a role in which he wreaked his worst, sending anti-communist insurgents to their deaths throughout Eastern Europe. In 1949 he managed to be appointed MI6’s representative to Washington, where he befriendedJames Jesus Angleton of the CIA, who, later, as head of American counter-intelligence, was so discomfited by Philby’s betrayal that he saw spies everywhere. Elliott meanwhile prospered, heading MI6 operations in Switzerland and elsewhere.
Macintyre’s use of a recording of that final Beirut showdown is a coup. He raises the possibility that Elliott connived in allowing Philby to arrange his final escape to Russia.
In the absence of official files, Macintyre admits that he has not written a definitive history. He has, however, thrown a detailed and always entertaining light on the practices and culture of 20th-century British intelligence through the lens of its most ignominious episode.