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The question of trust answered by treachery

Trust is a belief, a judgment made with tremendous consequence. Kim Philby was a trusted man, the faith showed in him betrayed. Scores of people died as a result, allied nations fell out and truth was submerged in a snakepit of lies.
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But trust is not only the preserve of official secrets and their keepers. Trust is the heart of friendship, and it is here that Ben Macintyre focuses his examination of Philby, the arch Soviet mole deep inside British intelligence. Philby’s gift was to deceive and exploit even those close to him.

The book offers a searing insight into this most notorious traitor, a spy for Russia from the 1930s over almost three decades. Macintyre shows how two friends that Philby duped held him in evident awe – Nicholas Elliott, a fellow MI6 officer in Britain’s secret service, and James Angleton, a protege American based in London during World World II and later a top CIA official.

Both had faith, a kind of blind loyalty born of class assumptions and self-delusion. They knew Philby, so they thought. He was a chap, like them – educated in elite English schools (Elliott went to Eton, Angleton also lived in Britain as a boy), a club man who wore sharp suits and drank prodigiously. The constant reference to British stoicism in the book is almost galling, but as John le Carre notes in a revealing afterword, to describe Elliott’s appearance is to ”invite ridicule”. Such were the times, and it was a wink from the old-boy network that invited each into the shadows.

Macintyre’s pacy narrative shows these men, as the ultimate insiders, dismissed any hint of guile in the search for vindication.

When doubters raised awkward questions – such as why Philby had vacillated in 1944 when a prospective Soviet defector offered evidence of a high-level spy in MI6, only for the Russian turncoat to be caught and executed in Moscow – Elliott and Angleton saw unfair aspersion.

Similarly, it was mere coincidence that secret American-sponsored operations in communist Albania failed time and again in the early days of the Cold War while Philby enjoyed boozy lunches with Angleton in Washington. And Philby’s secret marriage to an Austrian communist revolutionary was excused as nothing more than youthful dalliance.

Even after 1951, when spy hunters in America and Britain implicated Philby as the ”third man” after fellow Soviet agent and British Foreign Office diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to Moscow, Elliott and Angleton remained staunch Philby allies.

Philby was asked to stand aside after the defections, but he himself was protected by the mindset – the ”genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the establishment could do such things”. So impervious was this faith, Philby was again invited to serve in MI6 after Elliott championed his cause. Philby promptly also resumed his other occupation.

Like Burgess and Maclean, Philby attended Cambridge, where he embraced communism but kept his belief submerged. But for all his service to Russia, it was not always requited. His Soviet handlers almost lost their best agent by testing Philby with foolish requests to prove his loyalty, suspecting a British trap. Macintyre neatly captures Russia’s paranoia about an elaborate double-agent ruse, for ”it was surely impossible that men with communist pasts could enter the British secret service so easily, and rise so fast”.

By the early 1960s, even Elliott could no longer deny the evidence. He confronted his friend. A battle of wills ensued in which Elliott sought to hold his anger at betrayal in check, to convince Philby to accept immunity in exchange for a full confession. Philby eventually fled to Moscow – an escape, Macintyre implies persuasively, was courtesy of a deliberate blind eye by MI6 and Elliott rather than Philby’s brilliant tradecraft.

The book might deal with events past, but its lessons are modern. Philby was embedded and cultivated as a Russian spy over decades, recruited early and never wavered. Trust is always tested.

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