Kim Philby: The Spy Who Loved Himself

October 27, 2014 Topic: HistoryIntelligence Region: United Kingdom

Kim Philby: The Spy Who Loved Himself

As Ben Macintyre’s biography of Kim Philby demonstrates, it was the very strength of the British ruling class that left it prone to betrayal from within once old certainties and loyalties began to falter.

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown, 2014), 384 pp., $27.00.


IT SHOULD be easy for the intelligence community to spot potential traitors early on, except for one problem. Many of the attributes that make for a potential traitor are the same ones that make for a successful agent, most notably a capacity for deception and the ability to lead two or more conflicting lives at the same time, a truly Freudian form of multitasking most normal people are incapable of. Anyone who has encountered practicing or retired spooks over the years—and as a native Washingtonian and three-time presidential aide I’ve certainly been exposed to my share—will be familiar with certain widely shared professional characteristics. Among these are a love of the mysterious for its own sake, a fascination with real or imagined conspiracies, the conviction that a straight line is almost never the shortest distance between a problem and a solution, and both a talent and a taste for juggling multiple identities—usually out of necessity, but sometimes for the sheer pleasure of it.

The exceptions to this ambiguous and often-conflicted mind-set—and fortunately there are many of them—are skilled espionage professionals with a secure sense of self, firm values and loyalty, and a willingness to serve their country in ways they may sometimes find distasteful, just as a good cop routinely must deal with sordid people and disgusting behavior while fighting crime.

Potential traitors, on the other hand, seem to be drawn to deceit for its own sake. Fooling those around them—usually including their own families, friends and loved ones—and being the secret sharers of forbidden knowledge gives them a much-yearned-for feeling of superiority. In the case of double agents such as the CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, the desire to outshine distant, scornful and, in some cases, abusive fathers may have lent treason extra appeal: a symbolic act of patricide on a national scale. Such may have also been the case with Kim Philby, whose taste for betrayal and talent for lying made him perhaps the most successful double agent in modern British history. He has certainly been the most written about, with well-respected observers like Anthony Cave Brown and Patrick Seale, along with many others, weighing in at length on the subject. It is therefore understandable that, in A Spy Among Friends , British author-journalist Ben Macintyre set out to write “not another biography of Kim Philby” but instead a description of “a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history, told in the form of a narrative. It is less about politics, ideology, and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before.”


Herein lies both the strength and weakness of this generally sound and highly readable tale of friendship and betrayal. By trying to fit the story of Philby’s treachery into a neatly novelistic structure, the author occasionally lets art trump historical perspective. Philby’s story, as told by Macintyre, is all about friendship betrayed—especially the betrayal of Philby’s two most important professional friends, MI6’s Nicholas Elliott and the CIA’s James Angleton. Elliott, who might best be described as an armed, dangerous version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, emerges as a thoroughly decent, delightful character in over his head. One of Macintyre’s more enjoyable passages describes the family background that predestined Elliott for high government service:

The Elliotts were part of the backbone of the empire; for generations, they had furnished military officers, senior clerics, lawyers, and colonial administrators who ensured that Britain continued to rule the waves—and much of the globe in between. One of Elliott’s grandfathers had been the lieutenant governor of Bengal; the other, a senior judge. Like many powerful English families, the Elliotts were also notable for their eccentricity. Nicholas’s great-uncle Edgar famously took a bet with another Indian Army officer that he could smoke his height in cheroots every day for three months, then smoked himself to death in two. Great-aunt Blanche was said to have been “crossed in love” at the age of twenty-six and thereafter took to her bed, where she remained for the next fifty years. Aunt Nancy firmly believed that Catholics were not fit to own pets since they did not believe animals had souls. The family also displayed a profound but frequently fatal fascination with mountain climbing. Nicholas’s uncle, the Reverend Julius Elliott, fell off the Matterhorn in 1869, shortly after meeting Gustave Flaubert, who declared him “the epitome of the English gentleman.”

“Eccentricity,” Macintyre concludes, “is one of those English traits that look like frailty but mask a concealed strength; individuality disguised as oddity.” Even Philby, in an otherwise snide report to one of his early Soviet handlers, paid grudging tribute to “MR NICHOLAS ELLIOTT. 24, 5ft 9in. Brown hair, prominent lips, black glasses.” Philby called Elliott “ugly and rather pig-like to look at,” but also added, “Good brain, good sense of humor.”