Tuesday 27 January 2015

Friendship and Betrayal

In the preface of this fast paced book (A Spy Among Friends, Bloomsbury 2014, Rs.399)  by the editor of The Times, Ben Macintyre, the author makes it clear that this book is not another biography of perhaps the most well know spy in modern history-Harold Adrian Russel Philby a.k.a Kim Philby. A lot has already been written about Kim Philby in the past but in this book the author looks at the life of the master Spy with reference to his long and enduring friendship with two other men in the same profession – fellow British Nicholas Elliot (Kim’s colleague at MI6, the British secret service) and the American James Jesus Angleton, chief of the counter-intelligence at the CIA.
Kim Nichols’ friendship lasted for over 20 years and they hit off right from the moment they first met as young spies at MI6 in 1939. Maybe it was there common background (British upper-class, public school-educated, Cambridge) and love for cricket which helped. They also had a common link to the sub-continent -Kim was born in the Punjab (he was named after the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s novel) and Elliot’s father was born in Shimla. Kim was four years older and soon a deep bond developed between them. Elliot began to adulate Kim. As Elliot’s son recalls, ‘Kim was as close a friend as my father ever had’. However what Elliot did not know was that that Kim’s reasons for joining the British secret service was very different from his. Having been radicalized by the extreme left during his days at Cambridge Kim had agreed ‘to work as an undercover agent for the communist cause’ when approached by Arnold Deutsch, the chief recruiter for Soviet intelligence. Was it just Philby’s commitment to the communist cause or some other factors also influenced his decision is still open to debate. The author offers some insight into this by quoting  C.S.Lewis –‘Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring- the belief that somewhere, just beyond reach, is an exclusive group holding real power and influence, is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things’.

After the attack on the Pearl Harbor brought America in to the war, their intelligence agency which was at that time known as OSS-Office of Strategic Services (which was to later morphed into the CIA) sent their young officers for training to MI6 and it was Philby who was entrusted with the job of briefing the young officers on the MI6 operations. James Angleton was one of these officers and one of the few who impressed Kim. James was also taken in by Kim’s ‘charm’, (the word most commonly associated with the master spy) and started looking up to him as an inspiration. ‘His sophistication and experience appealed to us…Kim taught me a great deal’ he was to say later.

The friendship between the three friends grew stronger as they rose through the ranks. Kim perfected the art of leading a double life and sent a countless people to death by exposing them to his Soviet masters. It is surprising and fascinating as to how he managed to stay a step ahead and did not come under the scanner though as the author points out he had his fair bit of good luck.

However Kim’s luck began to run out when one of his friend from Cambridge and a fellow Soviet spy, Donald Maclean came under the scanner thanks to some brilliant work done by the American cryptanalyst Meredith Gardner to decode Soviet intelligence telegrams. Philby immediately alerted the Soviets fearing for his own cover. Along with the help of another Soviet mole (and a Cambridge friend) Guy Burgess, Maclean escaped to the Soviet Union before MI6 could close up upon him. This sudden disappearance of two MI6 agents sent shock waves through the espionage community and with Kim’s friendship with Burgess and the fact that all three were together in Cambridge immediately brought Kim under the scanner. Kim could have also escaped like the other two but he decided to stay put and fight it out as there was no direct evidence to nail him. Plus, he had his two trusted friends-Elliot and Angleton to back him all the way. And they left no stones unturned to ensure that their friend-mentor would come out clean of the whole episode though some people across both the sides of the Atlantic were convinced that Kim was guilty .Here one has to admire Kim ability to maintain an unflappable demeanor in the various interrogations he was subjected to in spite of knowing internally he was betraying not only his country, his friends but even his wife (whom he kept in dark throughout) and children.

Eventually after the dust had settled, Elliot ensured that Kim moved to Beirut where he doubled up as a freelance correspondent and an agent for the MI6, ’gathering information in for British intelligence in one of the world’s most sensitive area’. Once settled in Beirut, Kim soon resumed his undercover espionage for his Soviet masters. Elliot was then posted in Beirut as the chief of MI6 and it once again gave an opportunity to the two fiends to be socializing together again though Philby’s alcohol intake increased dramatically. Was this increase due to his inability to reconcile his dual life or his insensitivity towards his family or some other reason, one can only speculate?

The cookie finally began to crumble for Kim when another spy was unmasked in the British intelligence in 1961 and murmurs against Kim again began to float again. Maybe Kim knew that the end was near and his drinking became uncontrollable and his behavior volatile and unpredictable. He began to make mistakes as well. To add to his woes, Elliot shifted to London as director of Africa operations. Then came a confession by a lady whom Philby had tried to bring abroad as a Soviet spy way back in 1935. This was enough for MI6 to go for the kill. Even Elliot was convinced this time and asked for confronting Philby himself. Finally in January 1963 the two friends met in an apartment in Beirut sipping tea while a microphone concealed beneath the sofa picked the conversation and passed it through a wire to the room next door where the full conversation was being recorded on the tape recorder.

What transpired during this meeting? What was its aftermath? How did it effect the three friends-Elliot, Angleton and Kim? Find out all the answers in the book. The pace of the book never slackens and it will hold your attention throughout. It is non-fiction written like a fictional thriller. Like any good thrillers everything is not presented in black and white. There are shades of grey and it is up to the reader to interpret the events.

 Apart from Philby’s friends, the book also focusses on his three wives and what effect his dual life had on them. I only wish the author had also covered a bit in detail about his children and what they thought about their father and his dual roles. It would have completed the picture.

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