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A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the…

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Kim Philby looked like the perfect spy for MI6 all through the second World War and into the Cold War, but what he hid from friends such as Nicholas Elliott and James Angleton was that he was actually a Soviet spy - and a very good one at that.

This true story reads like a novel, and what sets it apart from the many spy accounts, including of Philby himself, is Macintyre's focus on Philby's friendships, particular with Elliott who grew up in with a similar background and Angleton, Philby's protegee American who worked for the CIA. This was a fascinating account showing how impossible it is to truly know another person. ( )
  bell7 | Oct 27, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Kim Philby was the most notorious spy in modern history. While working as the head of British counterintelligence against the Soviet Union, he passed along enormous amounts of highly sensitive information directly to the enemy. For more than two decades, beginning during the Spanish Civil War, through World War 2, and well into the Cold War, he secretly provided intelligence of the highest classification to the USSR. He also worked to protect his fellow Soviet spies, helping to ensure their safety and their flight to the USSR when suspicions were raised against them. The following is just one example among many of his actions. In the wake of WW2, the Soviets killed thousands of people in East Germany in order to consolidate their hold on the territory. Philby provided to them lists of people were working for the non-communist opposition, people who were promptly slaughtered. Over the decades, no one knows how many people died as a result of Philby’s treachery.

A Spy Among Friends is a remarkable work that humanizes the story by providing insight into Philby’s personality and motives, as well as those of other key players in the drama. Author Ben MacIntyre is well qualified to reconstruct this story, having written extensively on modern espionage in a series of highly - regarded books. As MacIntyre notes in this book’s Preface, this book is “an attempt to describe a particular sort of friendship that played an important role in history, told in the form of a narrative. It is less about politics, ideology, and accountability than personality, character, and a very British relationship that has never been explored before.” Of Philby, “it 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.”

Philby was a member of the “Cambridge Five,” a ring of British spies in the United Kingdom, who passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and through the early 1950s. The story of the Cambridge Five has been told in book form several times, but perplexing questions have never been adequately answered. Among these questions are what motivated the members of the spy ring; how Philby managed to remain above suspicion for so long; and how Philby managed to escape to the USSR once it became clear that he had been spying for decades. In answering these questions, MacIntyre draws on information released from Soviet archives and British intelligence files, as well as on memoirs, interviews, and a wealth of books and documents. A particular focus of his work is Nicolas Elliott, Philby’s long term friend and his colleague in British intelligence, and MacIntyre scores a coup in having been able to interview his son, grandson, and widow.

Nicholas Elliott, and the members of the Cambridge Five, were products of the same schools, members of the same social clubs, and long-term colleagues during WW2 and the Cold War. Their privileged backgrounds and connections provided a bond between them and a shield against possible suspicion. Unbeknownst to Elliott, of course, his friend Kim Philby had been working for decades for the enemy. The history of their friendship and professional activities is told by MacIntyre with keen insight, in a story that grows increasingly suspenseful as Philby’s role becomes evident.

A climax of the story comes in a chapter innocuously titled “Tea Time”. The year is 1963, and Elliott has traveled to Beirut to confront Philby with the evidence of his long-term perfidy. The conversation was recorded, and as described by one commentator “By the end they sounded like two rather tipsy radio announcers, their warm classical public school accents discussing the greatest treachery of the 20th century." Philby essentially admitted to the charge, but there’s an interesting aspect that sheds light on Elliott’s own motives. Elliott tells Philby that he knows that Philby had worked with the Soviets up until 1949. In his memoirs, Philby later said he was puzzled at the arbitrary cut-off date, until he realized that admission of a date after 1949 (when Philby had moved to Washington DC) could have elicited demands that he be extradited to the US on charges of espionage. In effect, it appears, Elliott was already letting Philby off the hook. Upon conclusion of the interview, Elliott said that he would be in touch again shortly, and left Beirut. Philby promptly fled to the Soviet Union, where he spent the remainder of his life.

The question arises as to why Elliott left Beirut without making any provision to have Philby monitored, despite his confession to having been a double agent. MacIntyre notes that although “Elliott later claimed that the idea that Philby might defect to the USSR had never occurred to him…. This defies belief.” He argues convincingly that Elliott made it easy for Philby to escape – through actions that were “either monumentally stupid or exceptionally clever.” MacIntyre's interpretation is bolstered by the assessment of a top Soviet case officer, who agreed that the affair was politically engineered, on the grounds that "the British government had nothing to gain by prosecuting Philby.” Other commentators have agreed that Philby was allowed to escape, even encouraged to do so.

MacIntyre's book contains an enlightening Afterword, written by none other than author and former spy John LeCarre. Among other events, LeCarre reflects on a series of conversations he had with Richard Eliott in the 1980s. Elliott told LeCarre that he never dreamed Philby would go to Moscow, but also acknowledged that no one wanted him in London. LeCarre asked “Well, what about the ultimate sanction then – forgive me – could you have him killed, liquidated?” “My dear chap,” replied Elliott. “One of us!” --- uttering a phrase that could have been used as the title of this book. Philby was a “spy among friends,” and just as his treachery was unthinkable, for his own colleagues to hold him accountable for it in a public trial was equally so.

MacIntyre’s book offers indispensable insight into the most serious case of espionage in modern history, if not of all time. The book is fascinating to read, and I recommend it highly. ( )
1 vote danielx | Aug 5, 2017 |
Almost unbelievable story of 3 decades of deception. Was he driven by commitment to ideology or commitment to his ego? Philby destroyed all his friendships and marriages. ( )
  ghefferon | Feb 20, 2017 |
Kim Philby rose easily through the ranks of England's MI6, the foreign intelligence organization. In a group made mostly of the upper class of British society, they prided themselves on being part of an elite group - a club, actually - that traded in secrets. And Philby was as charming as they came, easily making friends of nearly everyone, but especially those with information. Unfortunately, he was also passing that information on to the enemy - the Soviet Union - and did so for about 30 years!

I found this book frustrating and infuriating, and yet I couldn't put it down. Philby became friends with another member of MI6 who joined about the same time he did, Nicholas Elliot, and an American counterpart in the CIA, James Angleton. And while the men drank (and drank, and drank) together, Philby listened to all the information his friends shared. Whether it was about internal operations of operations that involved communist nations, he passed it all along to his Soviet handler, and the volume of information was such that even the KGB wondered if he was stringing them along. And yet his information lead to the deaths of numerous people: anti-communist Catholics in Germany (and their families), Albanians sent to foment rebellion (and their families), and British and American spies in Russia. It is estimated that thousands of people died because of Philby's friendships... and their eagerness to share their knowledge over drinks.

Ben MacIntyre knows how to tell a good spy story, especially when the story is true. I enjoyed Operation Mincemeat and have more by him on my to-be-read list. This isn't exactly a biography in the traditional sense, but also profiles Elliot and Angleton, and focuses on the friendship of the three men. And as frustrating as this one was to read (how could they not know?!?), it was a great story I just couldn't put down. ( )
  J.Green | Nov 22, 2016 |
This is labelled as a bestseller but I struggled to really get into it. The first half of the book is so full of names and details about each person mentioned that it was hard to keep track of what was going on. It felt disjointed and it wasn't easy to see how all the facts and people hung together. There was too much information about some seemingly irrelevant figures that confused the main story. In short, it wasn't especially readable and I nearly gave up.

I'm glad I finished it as the second half was much more coherent and focused more on the two or three main characters and honed in on Philby, the master spy who committed the great betrayal.

I believe this is a bestseller primarily due to the subject matter as I can see why this story would appeal to readers all across the genres. It is really an unbelievable and unique account of the worldwide spy and intelligence network during and after the second world war.

I found it especially hard to believe that so many seemingly intelligent educated British men were so easily recruited by the KGB to serve the evil purposes of communism and that some of them continued to serve this purpose even after some of these evils had been widely exposed.

It is tragic but in some ways fitting that those spies that sought refuge in Moscow rather than face trial in Britain, ended their days as loners trusted by neither country and no doubt hounded by their collective conscience....or maybe not.

The language wasn't as bad as I have read in other books recently but there is enough swearing for me to comment on it. There is no graphic violence although numerous deaths. There are a few sexual jokes/references but nothing graphic.

Some readers might enjoy this if you can make it past the boring first chapters to get more of a grip on the story and characters for the latter ones. ( )
  sparkleandchico | Aug 31, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 101 (next | show all)
When devouring this thriller about Kim Philby, the high-level British spymaster who turned out to be a Russian mole, I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel. It reads like a story by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming or John le Carré

» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ben Macintyreprimary authorall editionscalculated
Barnes, Michael TudorNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haggar, DarrenCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Le Carré, JohnAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Friends: noun, general slang for members of an intelligence service; specifically British slang for members of the Secret Intelligence Service [or MI6] -International Spy Museum

If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome. -E.M. Forster, 1938
In memory of Rick Beeston
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Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
Kim's a mole, hiding
In plain sight at MI6. 
Such a charming rat!
Number one traitor
The 'third man' in Brit's spy ring
Too bad he escapes.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0804194491, Paperback)

Master storyteller Ben Macintyre's most ambitious work to date presents the definitive telling of the most legendary spy story of the 20th century.
     Philby's People, Ben Macintyre's thrillingly ambitious new book, tackles the greatest spy story of all: the rise and fall of Kim Philby, MI6's Cambridge-bred golden boy who used his perch high in the intelligence world to betray friend and country to the Soviet Union for over two decades. In Macintyre's telling, Philby's story is not a tale of one spy, but of three: the story of his complex friendships with fellow Englishman operative Nicholas Elliott and with the American James Jesus Angleton, who became one of the most powerful men in the CIA. These men came up together, shared the same background, went to the same schools and clubs, and served the same cause--or so Elliott and Angleton thought. In reality, Philby was channeling all of their confidences directly to his Soviet handlers, sinking almost every great Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years. Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies and obfuscations to protect his secret, Angleton and Elliott never abandoned him. When Philby's true master was finally revealed with his defection to Moscow in 1963, it would have profound and devastating consequences on these men who thought they knew him best, and the intelligence services they helped to build.

     This remarkable story, told with heart-pounding suspense and keen psychological insight, and based on personal papers and never-before-seen British intelligence files, is Ben Macintyre's best book yet, and a high-water mark in Cold War history telling.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:30 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britain's counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War - while he was secretly working for the enemy. And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philby's best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world. But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscow - and not just Elliott's words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton's and Elliott's unwitting disclosures helped Philby sink almost every important Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years, leading countless operatives to their doom. Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies to protect his cover, his two friends never abandoned him - until it was too late. The stunning truth of his betrayal would have devastating consequences on the two men who thought they knew him best, and on the intelligence services he left crippled in his wake."--book jacket.… (more)

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