Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mount TBR #29

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1930s. The ideological appeal of communism was that it wasn’t fascism nor was it an economic system that caused the Great Depression. His decision was purely political, he says, and so politics always trumped his personal relationships. He says it pained him to deceive and manipulate his friends and family. But then he said a lot of things. It’s just as easy to believe that he just felt jeering contempt for people he perceived as stupid and gullible enough to believe him.

His betrayal of many intelligence operations cost agents their lives. Remember too that Communists punish the family and friends of “enemies of the people.” For example, the British secret service hatched operations in which Albanian and Ukrainian patriots were infiltrated into their countries to work against the communists but they were effortlessly rolled up and executed because of Philby's advance warnings to his Soviet masters. There is no telling exactly how many people lost their lives or freedom due to Philby’s spying, but the figure must be in the hundreds. And all for a creed deservedly dead, in the trash can of history.

This is a well-written story of not only Philby but also the two Western agents he utterly took in, James Angleton of the CIA and Nicholas Elliott of MI6. During WWII, Angleton forged close ties with Philby and welcomed Philby to the US when he was assigned to DC after the war. Philby did his most serious damage from 1949 to 1951 in this job. The Americans had started to have grave suspicions about Philby, thanks to CIA employee William King Harvey, a former FBI agent, who had done research to back his doubts regarding Philby. Angleton obsessively double-checked for moles after Philby was confirmed as a Soviet mole defected to the USSR.  This obsession nearly wrecked the CIA.

Philby and Nicholas Elliott had been the closest of friends. After the truth about Philby came out, Elliott felt the betrayal bitterly. Elliott claimed he could not have prevented Philby's flight to Moscow. However, author Macintyre theorizes that Philby was allowed to defect to avoid an embarrassing trial. Embarrassing to the British Establishment, that is. This tale of the old boy network looking out for their own is right sick-making to us cosmopolitan readers that detest tribes, cliques, clans, syndicates, and secret societies that operate mainly for the convenience of their members. MI6 treated him like a gentleman even after they knew he was bad.

In the end, though, Philby remains a cipher. His egomania made him think he would never get caught, though as he aged his duplicity must have graveled him because he drank like a fish. It’s grim that somebody could feel so bad about his own country as to betray it, especially for a rotten system that meant oppression to millions.

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