Jan 16, 2015

British Upper Class Soviet Agents: Ben Macintyres Book

15 people participated in a lively discussion of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre at the always hospitable Kensington Row Bookshop. The meeting, as usual, was held from 7:30 to 9:30 on the second Wednesday of the month (January 14th). Prior to the meeting, club members were provided with a link to the review of the book in the New York Times.

Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt were recruited as Soviet spies during their education at Cambridge University in the 1930s. All later held important positions in the British government while continuing to serve as Soviet spies. The book covers the pre-war, World War II, and early Cold War period. Kim Philby was perhaps the most effective spy in modern history, over time serving as a senior officer in the British MI6, as the MI6 liaison with the CIA in Washington, and eventually-- even after he fell under suspicion left the service and was rehired -- as an MI6 field operative in the Middle East. Eventually Burgess, Maclean and Philby all defected to seek asylum in Moscow.

Ben Macintyre's book poses two questions:
  • What kind of man was Philby that he could live such a double life for so long? 
  • How was it that the British Intelligence service could be so penetrated for so long (and how could that penetration not be discovered by the CIA)?
It is important to underline that there have been a great many books on spies and spycraft, many focusing on that related to World War II and the Cold War. Indeed, the History Book Club read The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant in 2010. During the meeting 
Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent by Larry Berman was also mentioned. Macintyre wisely avoided dealing with too much in this single book, focusing specifically on what he takes to be key relationships critical to the success of Philby's Soviet spying.

Clockwise: Anthony Blunt,
Donald Maclean, Kim Philby,
Guy Burgess
Macintyre stresses the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott, and to a lesser degree that between Philby and the American, James Angleton (who became head of CIA counterintelligence); both Elliott and Angleton are depicted as protecting Philby, or at least not giving credence to the accumulating evidence against him. The book portrays MI6 as run by members of a narrow British upper class who attended expensive public (read private if you are a Yank) schools and elite universities and whose families knew each other; these posh folk could not believe a member of their class would betray their country. Elliott was a little younger than Philby, and began their long relationship admiring Philby's journalistic career. Angleton had been educated in England, and shared many of the English upper class attitudes. Philby maintained long term social friendships with Elliott and Angleton, making it still more difficult for them to believe him a Soviet agent.

Macintyre's answer about Philby as a man was perhaps less than convincing to the members of the club, and they in turn offered a number of hypotheses.

The British Class Structure

The British class structure is hard for members of the book club (Americans all) to fully understand. There has long been a clear delineation between the upper classes and the working class. Entry to key government posts apparently was often achieved through family connections or through the recommendations of faculty at expensive public schools or elite universities to upper class officers of the relevant government agency. Indeed, vetting for sensitive posts was often simply based on the candidates coming from a "good family", or by informally asking a mutual acquaintance about the candidate.

The men who occupied the key positions in the foreign ministry and MI6 tended to belong to clubs, and those clubs limited membership to the upper classes. Belonging to the right club was a ticket to entry into the agency elite. Some of the government business was conducted in the facilities of these clubs.

Kim Philby was clearly a member of the British upper class. His father, St. John Philby was a distinguished British orientalist. As mentioned above, Kim Philby went to the "right schools". We were impressed that even after a long career as a Soviet spy, he was greatly concerned with assuring that his two sons also were educated in the right English public schools. Even when he was living in Moscow, married to a Russian citizen, teaching new Soviet spies, and honored by Russians as a distinguished former Soviet agent, the Russians regarded him as a British gentleman.

Nicholas Elliott's father had been a Don at Cambridge and was the headmaster at Eton. Nicholas too was educated at a public school and Cambridge, and he too was very upper class.

Nicholas Elliott

We noted that the OSS -- created in significant part on the model of British intelligence -- and later the CIA both recruited from Ivy League colleges. Often those who would run American intelligence were recruited by personal contacts, especially with a recruiter asking an acquaintance on an Ivy League faculty if he had some good student who might be right for a job in intelligence.

We noted that MI5, the British counterpart to the FBI in terms of its role in combating foreign spies at home, had tended to recruit from the police, and was thereby less of a bastion of the upper class. So too, we noted that the FBI in Philby's day recruited heavily from lawyers and accountants (we thought less so today) and thus was socially different than the OSS or CIA.

The British informal process for vetting candidates for the diplomatic and intelligence services seems likely to have played a role allowing the Cambridge ring of Soviet spies to gain entry. Perhaps the upper class disdain for the more proletarian staff of MI5 played a role in the Soviet moles' continued success. It does seem likely that the upper class men running British intelligence found it hard to conceive of members of their class betraying the country, their class and their friends as double agents. (And there seems to have been a closing of the ranks to protect colleagues from criticisms by others.)

As an aside, a member asked when the United States became paranoid about communist infiltration in U.S. institutions. A couple of people related high school experiences in which they had been interrogated by their school's Vice Principals after expressing liberal ideas in class. A long term teacher in the group told us that the large majority of reports to school principals of such "un-American activity" in fact come from other students. We briefly noted that the Rosenberg's were tried, found guilty and executed at the beginning of the Cold War (the execution took place in 1953). That was a unique event, and might mark an early maximum in the paranoia about communism and communist subversion,

How Important Was Philby's Intelligence to the USSR?

The group chatted briefly about the importance of the intelligence supplied to the Soviet Union by Philby. Given that he achieved important posts in MI6 and was passing a lot of information to his Soviet handler, we assumed that in that role he was an important agent. He had access to some of the Bletchly Park decryptions of German coded messages, and can be assumed to have passed them on as well; we judged that that intelligence was very important, especially when it concerned military movements on the German-Soviet front. When Philby was liaison to the CIA he must have had access both to information the British were sharing with the USA, and to information that the USA was sharing with the UK; this would also have been passed to his Soviet handlers. Indeed, that his intelligence was eventually routed directly to Stalin implies that it was very important indeed.

The Advantages of a "Ruling Class"

A member of the club suggested that there was an advantage that the British had relying on an upper class, trained from childhood to rule. The public schools and elite universities deliberately trained their students to take important roles in public life as adults. (We did not mention it, but the members of the upper class also tended to have responsibility early in their careers and rapid promotions; they were thus trained to ultimately accept very great responsibility by the end of their careers.)

In the past, the officers of the British foreign office or MI6 might find themselves serving during their careers in several different countries with the same counterparts from allied or competitor countries, thereby forming long term relationships with those counterparts. (A member described a U.S. and a Soviet intelligence agent that she understood personally to have formed such a relationship.) Ultimately -- later in his career upon achieving very senior rank -- a British government officer might know his foreign counterparts (who had also achieved senior rank) quite well and be well positioned to deal with them. Thus the system worked well, and perhaps there is little comparable in modern government.

What Kind of Man Was Kim Philby?

The key characters in this book were all trained intelligence officers, who presumably were trained on how to deceive others. The British agents of the Soviet government were all successful deceiving their closest friends and colleagues in English and American intelligence agencies for many years. Philby gave a famous press conference in which he totally deceived the press and public. We assumed that memoirs or interviews given after the double agents defected were likely to suffer from normal memory lapses as well as to have been self-serving. Angleton is know ultimately to have burned the extensive contemporaneous notes he made following his Washington luncheon meetings with Philby. Others who were interviewed about the spies may also have been less than accurate in their accounts. Thus author Macintyre was at a huge disadvantage trying to discover motivations of his subjects. 

One of the club members mentioned that Macintyre sometimes gave details about  Philby's motives or even physical "tells" from which motives and emotions might be inferred. Macintyre could not have been sure of these things; while he references sources, the sources could not have been both that specific and reliable. Still we recognized that the use of that narative device by the author made the book more interesting for the reader.

In retrospect there were clues in their character that could have alerted the British and American governments to the dangers these men posed. It seems clear that many of these characters were heavy drinkers. (The book suggested that increasingly heavy drinking may have been a response to the stress of spying and especially the role of double agent, but it was noted that many people similarly become heavier drinkers over time without any such stress.) Just before he defected to Russia, Burgess was drinking to great excess; we recalled one dinner party when he roomed with Philby in Washington in which his drunken comments about a fellow guests breasts caused her and her husband to take great offense. 

Burgess was gay, and apparently had many sexual partners. Philby's first wife was a communist, and he was known to have had an affair with the wife of a friend as well as several marriages.

What was Philby's motivation to spy for the Soviets? Was he simply ideologically committed? Perhaps. It was also suggested that his motivation may have changed over time. As a university student of history and economics in the Depression he may have concluded that something was seriously wrong with capitalism; many of his contemporaries did. He might have come to believe that socialism or communism was a superior alternative to capitalism. During his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, he may have concluded that the Nazis and Fascists were the greatest threat and thus that support for the Spanish socialists and communists was important. We wondered why, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was announced, Philby did not abandon communism as so many contemporary western communists did. A decision to help the Soviets once the Nazis and Britain were at war was more comprehensible, since without successful American and Soviet allies the British were likely to lose the war. Eventually Philby may have been so deeply involved and so handled by Soviet intelligence agents that he had little alternative but to continue as a double agent. However, all of this is pure supposition.

We noted that the alliance of the four fellow Soviet spies lasted for years. These friends from their university days with common experience as foreign agents in their own government may have provided mutual support helpful to the maintenance of their duplicitous roles. We noted, however, that Anthony Blunt eventually appears to have ceased spying for the Soviets.

It was also suggested that the comradery of men who had served together in dangerous circumstances during wartime may have helped form bonds which sustain them in their common devotion to the Soviet cause.

Philby as a British agent, early in the Cold War, helped train anti-communist insurgents who were intended to overthrow the Communist government of Albania; indeed he was on the boat that took them to Albania. As a Soviet Agent he informed his handlers of the attempt to overthrow that government, leading to the capture and death of most of the insurgents. Of course, Philby must have known that his espionage had led to the discovery, capture and death of many allied agents prior, but the Albanian situation was direct and personal; what kind of man would do that? One answer is that the Americans and British were training and inserting insurgents to kill others; those who make a career of covert sabotage must accept the deaths that they cause as part of the job. Philby was surrounded by colleagues who took such treachery as a standard part of their jobs,

It was noted that the CIA employs more PhD social scientists than any other organization in the USA; they tend to fill desk jobs as intelligence analysts, rather than field jobs running agents to sabotage governments; intelligence analysts and field agents tend to be different kinds of people. While Philby served in desk jobs, he was recruited by both Soviet and British intelligence to run agents in the field. He seems likely to have had the kind of matter of fact attitude that this would imply. This too is consistent with early reports from his university days that he was not deeply interested in the ethics and deeper implications of the historical behavior he was studying..

We thought that Kim Philby might be one of those people who deliberately seek to take risks; he certainly did lead a risky life. We understood that there are some soldiers who seek out battle and find a return to peace to be difficult, that there are people who seek out careers in the most dangerous form of policing, such as drug enforcement work. Race car drivers, sky divers, and those who participate in dangerous sports may also exemplify such risk seekers. Philby sought out dangerous work in Austria, then in Spain during its Civil War, then in France as it was being invaded by Germany; he worked as a double agent when exposure would have resulted in disgrace and jail and when his handlers were sequentially executed as under suspicion of lack of loyalty to the USSR. He continued to work in the middle east when that was one of the most dangerous regions in the world. That pattern fits a man who wanted and perhaps even needed to experience risk in his life.

The Book Did Not Deal in Depth With the Soviets

A member said that she felt that a major failure of the book was that it did not deal well with Russian/Soviet sources. Macintyre did not mine the Venona project files for relevant information on Philby and the other Soviet agents of his circle. The files that became available from Moscow through defectors or at the end of the Cold War might also have been reviewed. There were a number of very capable Soviet agents who handled the British agents and their reports might have shed a great deal of light on the subjects of this book.

Do We Get the Full Story from the U.S. Press?

Having immersed ourselves discussing duplicity for a while, a member asked if we ever get "the full story" in the American media, or are critical aspects of events held back? Certainly a great deal of information is withheld by the government under the government secrecy acts.

Another member, one who had spent a long career in a major network newsroom, told us about the deterioration of foreign news by U.S. media due to cutbacks in funding for the news bureaus. His network has closed many of its foreign offices, depending instead on stringers to cover unfolding events. Thus, for example, there is no on-site network foreign reporter covering southern Africa, and a huge area of Africa is covered by only a few stringers. The only news broadcast by the network from the region tends to be that of armed conflict, and then only if the United States is somehow involved.

It was suggested that we now have other sources in addition to U.S. media. One member described watching RT (Russia Today) news, and finding it gave quite a different slant on its stories than U.S. media. We not only have television news from several countries available on our TVs (BBC, France24, Al Jazeera, etc.) but the Internet makes newspapers from other countries available online. While foreign language ability is required to read most foreign papers online, most major cities have at least one English language paper  available via the Internet. When questioned, a half dozen of the members present reported having used a foreign news source in the last week.

Did Philby Defect or Was He Allowed to Defect?

Kim Philby was separated from British intelligence after his career was tarnished by the defection of Burgess and MacLean. However, he was rehired as an agent working out of Beirut and working in the Middle East under cover as a journalist. He again came under suspicion at that time, and was interrogated by Nicholas Elliott. A club member asked, why was that interrogation limited to only the time before 1949? Was it to assure that the British government was not embarrassed even more before the CIA and FBI? Was it to protect Elliott's own career?

Why were the Soviets able to extract Philby from Beirut? Elliott interrupted his interrogation, announcing he was traveling and instead hiding in the city. Philby might have been taken to England for detailed questioning. Indeed, why was Philby not assassinated? We postulated that it was much more convenient to MI6 to have him living in Moscow than being fully interrogated by British and allied intelligence officers the west. A public trial in London might have been a public relations disaster for MI6 and would have made the British officials involved look very bad indeed. It was suggested that it was likely that the British had allowed him to escape -- as escape made with the help of the Soviet intelligence service.

On Current Movies

The current movie, The Imitation Game, rather naturally came up in discussion as it deals with the breaking of the German codes by the British during World War II. That led to a fulsome condemnation of the film by a computer professional in the group. He was offended by the many inaccuracies in the film's depiction of the breaking of the enigma code. He was even more offended by the movie's depiction of Alan Turing, finding it demeaned a very important mathematician and founding father of the field of computer science. Turing was in our member's opinion a far better rounded person than the film depicts.

That led to comments about another movie nominated for a 2014 Academy Award -- Selma. The film rewrites a number of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. It seems that the King estate sold the copyright of the speeches. When the movie's producers approached the current owners of those rights, there were apparently quoted a price for using them in the film (with the exception of the "I Have a Dream" speech which was to be free); the producers chose not to pay that price, but rather to write a script in which alternatives were given which did not infringe upon the copyrights. We were not amused by the choice.

Prior to the meeting, members were informed that Cambridge Spies, a BBC television series, is available on DVD. The DVD also contains supporting materials. Well acted, the series is dramatic rather than factual, but perhaps helps the viewer to understand the environment that these spies lived in as young men.

One member then asked who owns the copyright to what members say in the Book Club meetings. Since the meetings are not recorded, the issue may never arise in practice. (I suppose the author of anything written about the club, such as this blog, owns copyright to what he/she writes. If so, the reader is free to use this post.)

Final Comments

Several people attending had a deep interest in intelligence agencies and had read a great deal about the subject. That knowledge enlivened the discussion.

Generally, people liked the book. That is not surprising since the book has received strong ratings from many readers and has been listed as among the best books published in 2014.

One member noted that he very much liked the questions raised by author Macintyre, and he had enjoyed thinking about those issues. He was not certain that even after reading the book he really understood the personalities and motivations of the characters nor the aspects of the intelligence agencies that allowed double agents to survive for extended periods, but he was willing to live with that uncertainty.

The Kensington Row Bookshop
Where the History Book Club Meets

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