- - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

By Ben Macintyre
Crown, $27, 384 pages

There is no question that Kim Philby was the most legendary spy of World War II, carving a trail of deception and death in the world of espionage. The most chilling aspect of this riveting book is its contention that his success was dependent on the protective boundaries of the British class system.

Philby was so deeply embedded in the British upper class that even the Russians doubted him for years, and Ben Macintyre makes the excellent point that the super spy survived for decades as a traitor because he was accepted by the elitists who enabled him to slip away to Moscow to avoid a huge scandal in Britain.

In “A Spy Among Friends,” Mr. Macintyre also speculates that the entire story of Philby may never be told, partly because of still-classified information and partly because the spy probably never told the whole truth about anything, including himself.

One of the many ironies of the Philby story is that his best friend was Nicholas Elliott, another British master spy who was as loyal to his country as Philby was to the Soviet Union. It is he who becomes etched in irony as a result of his faith in his faithless friend.

Mr. Macintyre, a shrewd and masterful chronicler, launches his story with a searing vignette of a taped conversation between Philby and Elliott in Beirut in 1963 when the Soviet agent has been unmasked and his old friend is trying to elicit a confession. Noting the joint background of two men who had risen together through British intelligence — one previously unaware that the other was passing on all information to his Moscow handlers — the author observes, “Both men tell some truth, laced with deception, and lie with the force of honest conviction. To an eavesdropper their conversation appears exquisitely genteel. In reality it is the death throes of a bloodied friendship.”

Mr. Macintyre emphasizes that in his book he wished to describe a strange friendship that played an important role in history, and which reflected a very British psychology. The author does not claim this is the last word on Philby, but it is a book that seeks to tell his story “through the prism of personal friendship and perhaps arrive at a new understanding of the most remarkable spy of modern times.”

The rise and fall of Philby has fascinated espionage writers for years. John le Carre used him as a model for the traitor Bill Haydon in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” one of his best-known novels, and Mr. le Carre contributes an epilogue to the Macintyre saga in which he writes of a series of meetings in which Elliott is as frank as a seasoned spy can be in his outrage at what Philby did to him as a friend as well as to his country. Stressing the importance of a skillful cover story in the hands of a veteran spy, Mr. le Carre argues that while Philby’s cover story was drafted to deceive his enemies, Elliott’s was drafted to deceive himself.

In the long years of their friendship, Mr. le Carre notes, these two men from the same dark world walked shoulder to shoulder exchanging secrets. He seems to feel that Elliott’s trust in Philby was so rooted that he had never been suspicious enough to see chinks in Philby’s formidable psychological armor. Mr. le Carre recalls that when Philby was dying, he sought to meet with the famous espionage author, hinting he wanted to work on a memoir. Mr. le Carre declined the meeting, and he speculated that although Elliott concurred with that refusal, he still wondered whether the most betrayed and bruised of Philby’s circle might have wanted privately to hear final news of the man whom he had cherished as a friend.

The Philby legend as told by Mr. Macintyre involves such enigmatic and eccentric characters as James Jesus Angleton, the head of CIA counterintelligence, who was one of the last to believe the truth about the Englishman who was channeling all their deepest confidences to his Soviet handlers, bringing about the execution of dozens of agents and demolishing almost every great Anglo-American spy operation for two decades. Yet, Mr. Macintyre also raises the question of how much of a surprise it was to the British intelligence world in 1963 when Philby at last defected to Moscow, where he spent the rest of his life. Philby made at least one final effort to resume contact with Elliott, which was ignored, yet it was felt that the most notorious spy of his time had been allowed to escape by the British establishment.

Among those who held that view, Mr. Macintyre notes, was a “canny” Russian case officer named Yuri Modin who wrote, “The whole business was politically engineered. The British government had nothing to gain by prosecuting him. It would have shaken the British establishment to its foundations.”

Mr. Modin maintained that Elliott and MI6 had made it easy for Philby to slip away without more revelations about his nefarious career — which, of course, reinforces the theory expounded by Mr. Macintyre that the British old-boy network had once again taken care of its own.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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