Conscience or Country: Pink Gins and the Long Game

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

 

One would have hoped that all branches of the British war effort against the Nazis would have been tightly organised and facing their respective fronts against Hitler effectively. If the elderly and patriotic could keep watch on rooftops each night for German planes the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – otherwise and incorrectly known as MI6 – should have been able to manage a little order and focus within its ranks.

Incredible to learn that the SIS during the war years, was an exclusive gents’ club: the members of which had a penchant for pink-gins and long lunches at White’s. That any serious work was done seems an afterthought to justify the salary, and the salary – for Philby at least – was hit upon over a hand-shake and a wink. Six hundred a year and no bother from those chaps at the inland revenue. Got the gist, old-boy?

In short, the ‘service’ was a shambles: no ranking structure in place as such, no recognised pay-grades and no pension arrangements for retiring officers. This was not rectified until after the war, and Philby played his part in drawing up the new structure, but during the first half of the forties, planning and resources were not up to scratch.

Philby’s first posting was to a training school – newly formed – to teach hand-picked recruits in counter-espionage. Things were far from perfect. One horrific tale involves an agent, fresh out of training, being parachuted into territory over mainland Europe. His gear, quite inexplicably, became entangled in the plane’s undercarriage and he was ‘hurtled along, at mercifully high speed, into unconsciousness and death’.

What a way to go.

The most memorable tale from this period is also the most amusing. The Luftwaffe, for reasons best known to them, dropped a landmine over London and let it float slowly to the ground attached to a parachute. This was seen descending by Philby and his comrade, Guy Burgess. After cooking up a little mischief, Burgess called SIS and spoke to the duty officer, a chap busy fielding telegrams from stations all over the world. The hapless officer was told many parachutes were seen – ‘between eighty and none’ – and the necessary calls better be made swiftly. A reserve force stationed in East Anglia was mobilised on the strength of this jape.

Philby was an officer in – not just for – Soviet Intelligence for seven years before he was recruited into the SIS. He was a straightforward penetration agent from the beginning. One early adventure for the Soviets was spent in Spain working with Franco’s forces as a journalist for the London Times. This was a wash-job, insisted upon by the NKVD, to cleanse his name of the leftist allegiances he had made at Cambridge. It worked – or rather Philby worked it splendidly – because Franco himself gave Philby the ‘Medal of Merit’ for his right-wing efforts. By the time he was offered his six hundred a year, he had plenty of hours under his belt in deep-cover work.

With the end of the war came the re-structuring and recruitment. Occasionally, though, there was a morsel of something interesting to engage the brain. Called into the chief’s office and handed a file of papers, Philby was asked to read through and see what he made of it. It was almost the end of him.

Konstantin Volkov, a jittery fellow looking to defect to the West from Istanbul, had told our man in Turkey a few titbits to wet the British appetite. One little detail was the confirmation of three agents deep in the British establishment: two in the Foreign Office, the other, a senior of counter-espionage in the SIS – Philby himself!

He wrangled it to go to Turkey to interview this fellow, but before Philby got to him – something he had been delaying for obvious reasons – Mr Volkov was urgently spirited away back to Moscow. Neither Volkov or his wife were heard of again, and were removed from the stream of history. One can imagine Volkov and his wife begging to die.

Philby was a fanatic.

A few years abroad, not much more than mischief-making, were followed by a posting to Washington DC to forge closer ties between the SIS, CIA and FBI. One can only imagine the glee with which a master of his art approached a few years in the US while the country was in its paranoid McCarthy phase. Philby had coached a group of yanks who had come over during the war to learn the trade, and one of these chaps was James Jesus Angleton, a man who was to head the CIA later and was Philby’s friend. (Philby’s treachery sent old JJ half mad later in life.)

One may be forgiven for assuming that J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy would have been on good and close terms, being as they were both obsessed with communists; but Hoover, at his first meeting with Philby, when asked directly what he thought of the Senator’s credentials, replied: ‘Well, I often meet Joe at the race-track, but he has never given me a winner yet.’ I am still wondering which is more surprising: that McCarthy was useless, or that Hoover could use metaphor to impart this knowledge to Philby.

Perhaps it is directly connected to the Americans’ surplus of money and men that incompetence and poor thinking about the enemy are imbedded into the DNA of the US hierarchies charged with finding their enemies? Whatever the answer, some amazingly poor thinking infected the Whitehouse as well. The Rosenbergs were caught, eventually, by leads uncovered by the SIS in Washington. Of this case, Philby mentions Eisenhower revealing his total ignorance of espionage:

It is worth mentioning that Esienhower explained his refusal to reprieve Ethel Rosenberg on the grounds that, if he did, the Russians in future would use only women spies. It was an attitude worthy of the most pedestrian of United States’ presidents.

It is frightening that a US president could believe that. Did he not have any advisers to put him straight before he went public with that stupid assertion?

Philby continued his work for and against Communism, eventually inviting Guy Burgess to stay with him after the latter’s posting to the US. It was here they both were forced to cook-up the plan to save their comrade, Donald Maclean.

Maclean was under surveillance and could not approach his Soviet handler for this reason. He was also in London; his two comrades, far away in the US capital, needed to get him to safety. Philby could not simply jet back to Britain, it would have looked too out of place; but Burgess, if he could get posted back to London, could use his own soviet contact to help Maclean. Within days Burges was pulled over for numerous speeding offences, much to the displeasure of his station and their American hosts, and sent packing back to London. The plan worked and Burges and Maclean did their famous midnight-flit. Burges wasn’t meant to go with Maclean. All knew he had lived with Philby in Washington, so that put him under immediate suspicion.

Philby was called back to London for interrogation, but no decent evidence existed against him. He was interrogated several times and gave nothing away. Eventually he resigned but was called back into service and spent time in Beirut before he was forced to make the trip home to Moscow. Possibly it was Anthony Blunt – at that time the unknown ‘fourth man’ – who tipped him off. However it seems more likely that Nicholas Elliot, a career MI6 man and friend of Kim’s, deliberately made it easy for Philby to defect from Beirut. A trial would have been a messy embarrassment: Philby had been publicly exonerated some years before, and the nod had come from the top, so having him up on charges would have been worse than having him turn up in Moscow.

Damage limitation, old-boy.

It is interesting that British spies fled to Russia only after being compromised; and did so to avoid prison terms of decades. Although the motivations of all are worth considering: the motivations of the British especially.

The question which many characters asked themselves – and this was especially true of Angleton and Elliot – was how did Philby manage to deceive so many for so long? This is a masochistic question. It can easily lead to a person’s psyche eating itself as it replays the past looking for clues, finding none, and ends with the person concluding they are lacking somehow or that Philby was some sort of genius. Philby was not a genius. Stories about his ‘charming character’, and how this helped to fool people is probably a sort of romantic excuse making for the inherent stupidity of the system which gave him a job and mindset of those within it. His deception was successful partly because the ‘establishment’ did a large part of the job for him. The old-boy network had a childish naïveté running through it. The belief that a man from the correct background was automatically a ‘good chap’ is an article of religious faith. One can only despair at Philby’s vetting. He was recruited into the SIS because the head pinstripe, Valentine Vivian, knew Philby’s people. It’s almost unbelievable that the security of the country was maintained in this way. That he was a communist at Cambridge and a soviet agent in Austria and Spain, and that he married that communist sex-pot, Litzi Friedman, should have raised an eyebrow somewhere in London’s clubland. That old Kim wasn’t filtered out before he got in is religious faith in action. This is the first reason Philby was successful. The second was his extraordinary good luck in not being exposed by a defector from the other side. The Volkov incident seems to be the only time this came close to happening. The stress must have been enormous, and it’s no surprise he was a boozer. No, the impressive thing about Philby is not the deception, it’s that he held his nerve.

To call Philby a fanatic is probably correct, and it’s the defectors who would have used his name as their buy-in to the West which suggests he was a fanatic. There was a reason they wanted out, and the Soviet spies risked their lives to pass their information to the West, while the likes of the Cambridge spies risked only prison and disgrace. The risk was unequal. The choice, between the West and the Soviet state, wasn’t simply a choice between two ideologies, where everything was a matter of taste, there were objective differences. Stalin’s regime was objectively wicked. It tortured and starved and murdered. It was an evil regime. The British and American governments, though hardly perfect or without blame in the world, ran things more generously for their citizens. Philby’s claim that he could support the ideal while not supporting the regime might be logical – such a thing is quite possible for a mind to do – but only a fanatic would help the regime. Philby could have looked at Stalin’s doings, and decided to keep Britain’s secrets to himself until a more realistic communist regime came on the scene. That he chose not to suggests he really wasn’t messing about. (Unlike Blunt, say, who seems to have been a Marxist and a spy because it was intellectually fashionable at the time.)

The Cambridge spies are called ‘traitors’ but one could argue it’s only really Blunt who deserves that title. Philby certainly doesn’t, and the argument why not is perfectly simple. It’s fair to say that, to label someone a traitor, they must have switched sides. That is hardly controversial, and actually seems to be necessary to avoid the disgusting idea of ‘automatic loyalty’ to a country or state, which is a servile idea and one to be avoided. One cannot claim that Philby switched sides because he was never on ‘our’ side to begin with. Even if many of the claims in his memoir are to be doubted, the claim he was a penetration agent from the beginning is obviously true given his doings before joining the SIS. The ‘establishment’ call him a traitor, and it’s that establishment he made look stupendously idiotic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Knightley: Philby: KGB Master Spy

Miranda Carter: Anthony Blunt: His Lives

Ben Macintyre: Philby: A Spy Among friends

Kim Philby: My Silent War

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