- - Tuesday, July 10, 2018


By Roland Phillips

W.W. Norton, $28.95, 440 pages

Even after the passage of more than half a century, anyone even vaguely familiar with national security clearances must blink at British handling of the coterie of Soviet spies known as “The Cambridge Five.”

Consider the rogue at hand, Donald Maclean. Although a blithering drunk for much of his career in the Foreign Office, he seemed on a path to be foreign minister while in his mid-30s.

Roland Phillips, who had a long career in London publishing, uses newly-released British archives to add fresh details on the oft-told story of the five Cambridge students recruited as Soviet agents the 1930s.

He also gained access to Maclean family papers.

Aside from H.R. “Kim” Philby who culminated his career as counterintelligence chief for British intelligence, Maclean was the most effective agent.

Campus communists inevitably drew the attention of Soviet recruiters. Maclean possessed four desirable qualities of a secret agent: “an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness, a yearning to belong, and an infantile appetite for praise and reassurance.” He was given the code name “Waise” in German, meaning “Orphan.”

When interviewed for the Foreign Office, Maclean was asked about his “strong communist views” while at Cambridge. He decided to “brazen it out,” replying that “I haven’t entirely shaken them off.”

He was hired. In the 1930s, a time of worldwide depression, with Hitler rising in power, student communism raised no security concerns.

But in later years, when the Soviet Union emerged as a threat to the West, Maclean’s early background somehow did not draw any serious scrutiny,

Maclean began his spying in the pre-war years when Foreign Office security was non-existence. Hence he could carry home a briefcase filled with classified documents.

Office policy was that “secret” papers should not be removed from the office. “But nobody checked because they assumed that the edict would be heeded,” even as “his briefcase bulged more and more each evening.”

In 1935, he was assigned as a handler an English-born woman named Katy Harris, who had lived briefly in Chicago. While there, she married Earl Browder, secretary of the Communist Party USA (who already had a wife and son in Russia).

Defying tradecraft rules, the two became lovers. In five years Maclean gave Harris enough documents to fill 45 boxes, each containing 300 pages — 135,000 in all. (The sheer volume caused Moscow analysts to worry that British intelligence was feeding false information.)

In 1939, while living in Paris, Maclean met and married an American woman, Melinda Marling, from a well-do-to family. Early on, he told her he was a spy. As Mr. Phillips concludes, “he needed a secret sharer in his life a silent witness.”

The bride, whose father was alcoholic, worried at her husband’s dependence on booze. She pleaded, “If you feel an urge to have a drinking orgy, why don’t you do so at home — so at least you will be able to get safely to bed “

Maclean ignored her. When he was in the embassy in Cairo, he became irate on a boating trip and began choking Melinda. Horrified friends dragged him away.

Foreign Office colleagues ignored Maclean’s heavy drinking, and his frequent absences from the office because he “had a cold.”

Nor did security offices pay significance attention to Maclean’s classmate Guy Burgess, also in the Foreign Office. In an era when homosexuality was a criminal offense in England, Burgess made no secret of his affairs.

He was proudly flamboyant, happy to entertain pub crowds by singing, “Little boys are cheap today, cheaper than yesterday “

(Burgess would claim he and Maclean had homosexual relations while at Cambridge, and Mrs. Maclean later said that her husband told her of sexual trysts with men.)

But a particularly outrageous drunken episode resulted in Maclean being recalled from Cairo. He and a friend capped an evening by trashing the apartment of a woman assigned to the U.S. embassy. He was sent home but his clearance remained intact.

Maclean gave Russia a steady flow of secret documents before and during the war. Posted to Washington later, he revealed details of Cold War strategy.

He was such a trusted figure that the Atomic Energy Commission gave him a visitor’s past enabling him to roam the top-secret facility with an escort.

Soviet spy cables intercepted by the U.S. eventually led to disclosure of the ring. Maclean and Burgess fled to Russia.

Mr. Phillips — who notes that he is the grandson of a prominent British communist — maintains that Maclean “always disliked the grubbiness inherent in the physical business of spying. He justified spying saying it was “like being a lavatory attendant: it stinks but someone has to do it.”

He succeeded because trusting colleagues ignored stinks that should have alerted them to an untrustworthy man. A horrible example of “personnel security.”

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

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