- - Wednesday, February 8, 2017


By Andrew Lownie

St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 433 pages

Russia tables turn, roping Clinton, Obama, Holder, not Trump
Melania Trump spox says Greta Thunberg fair game: Barron 'not an activist who travels the globe'
Student says teacher yanked 'Women for Trump' pin off chest, files police report: 'It's not OK'

Nonfiction writers on two continents have dined out for decades with books on the gaggle of British officials who served Stalin, collectively known as the “Cambridge Spy Ring.” The names of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean live in history with well-earned infamy, and the story of how they stole secret information of enormous value to the USSR is a familiar one.

Now Andrew Lownie adds a valuable contribution to the literature: Just how did Guy Burgess hold sensitive positions in MI6 (the British Secret intelligence Service) and the Foreign Office for several decades, despite repeated klaxon-horn warnings that he should not be trusted?

On the surface, Burgess had an attractive background. His grandfather, father and stepfather enjoyed respectable careers in the Royal Navy. Hopeful of a Navy career himself, Burgess entered Dartmouth Naval Academy at age 13 but was soon dropped on grounds of “poor eyesight,” which Mr. Lownie writes, “was often an euphemism for dishonesty or homosexuality.”

No matter. Burgess continued his education at two of the more prestigious institutions in England, Eton and Trinity College of Cambridge, “the Establishment school par excellence.” A brilliant scholar blessed with personal charm, Burgess ranked high in his class at both institutions. Alarmed by the fascist rise to power in Germany, and excited by leftist politics, Burgess joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society (CUSS), which was an affiliate of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Thus was the young Burgess drawn into Soviet espionage, recruited by a KGB spotter along with classmates Philby and Maclean. His homosexuality was an open secret among friends, especially members of an honorary society, The Apostles.

After a stint with the BBC, when war began Burgess joined a black propaganda arm of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Britain has long boasted of the efficacy of its intelligence agencies. Yet there was always a striking flaw: the absence of any meaningful background checks as to whether recruits could be trusted.

On the surface, Burgess had two vulnerabilities. Under British sodomy laws, homosexual relations, even among consenting adults, carried a jail term. Thus, Burgess risked being blackmailed by a foreign intelligence service. (The law was repealed in 1967.)

As Mr. Lownie writes, “The Soviet intelligence service had discovered that the penalties for homosexuality in Britain meant that homosexuals had to live part of their lives in secret and formed a tight and loyal network, which if penetrated, could be very fruitful.” Burgess was signed on and given the cover name “MADCHEN,” meaning “girl.”

Then there was booze. An early colleague remembered Burgess going to lunch at 12:30 “and staggering back quite drunk and reeking of brandy around 3:30 or 4 p.m.” Such conduct continued on a regular basis when he switched to the Foreign Office after the war.

In later years, Burgess himself would wonder, rhetorically, how he was cleared to work in government. “Why? Class blinkers [sic] — Eton, my family, an intellectual . Only people like me are beyond suspicion.”

Burgess proved invaluable. As a Soviet assessment stated, “In the course of only several months, MADCHEN has become the most productive source now he gives most valuable documentary material.” The first six months of 1945, he turned over 389 documents classified “top secret.”

Burgess‘ spying — and heavy drinking — continued when he was posted to the British embassy in Washington in 1950. A colleague there remembered him appearing for work at 11 a.m. “in a suit with a waistcoat which was covered with droppings of food.” He would return from lunch “absolutely drunk” and retire to his office, “where he sat, sprawled out and snoring loudly . No one trusted him a yard.”

Burgess also managed to offend some powerful Americans. James J. Angleton, a founding baron of CIA, saw him at lunch in a Georgetown cafe, wearing “a white British naval jacket which was dirty and stained. He was intoxicated, unshaven, and had, from the appearance of his eyes, not washed since he last slept.”

At a drunken party, he drew an insulting sketch of the wife of William Harvey, a former FBI agent then working for CIA counterintelligence. A near-brawl ensued.

In due course, sensing they were about to be exposed, Burgess and Maclean fled to Moscow, soon joined by Philby. Only then did the government require positive vetting of civil servants who had “regular and constant access to the most highly classified defense information.” (The words “regular and constant” cut the heart from the provision.) And even the new rules did not dictate background checks — which are considered an essential feature of U.S. security clearances.

Mr. Lownie makes a convincing case that Burgess was the most important of the Cambridge spies. A must-read for intelligence buffs — and especially those charged with protecting our nation’s secrets.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide