Book Review

'A Spy Among Friends': Kim Philby's fantastic Cold War deception

With his usual eye for detail, Ben Macintyre describes how the well-born British spy was a Soviet agent for years, at the highest levels

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Finish reading “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” and you are likely to wonder how Britannia ever managed to rule the waves.

By Ben Macintyre (author),
John le Carre (afterword)
Crown Publishers ($27)

Ben Macintyre, who previously has written wonderful books about Allied intelligence triumphs in “Operation Mincemeat” and “Agent Zigzag,” this time describes the greatest screw-up in the history of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA.

Kim Philby, a rising star in MI6, turned out to be one of several British-born double agents who had been spying for Moscow for decades. “A Spy Among Friends” reads like a novel, but the unlikely story is tragically all true.

In describing the life of Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, Mr. Macintyre lays out a tale reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.” “A Spy Among Friends” operates in part as a double biography of both Philby and his hero-worshipping younger colleague, Nicholas Elliott.

The two intelligence operatives were good friends who came from similar social backgrounds, who went to similar schools and the same university, and who belonged to the same clubs.

Like many of their contemporaries, both men were prodigious drinkers. Mr. Macintyre speculates that alcohol may be a necessary ingredient for sanity in spycraft. It is a business where the players have to pretend to be something they are not and to do things they know to be dishonorable.

At first glance it appeared that both men stumbled into the world of espionage for lack of something better to do. Philby, however, had not ended up in espionage by accident. His choice of jobs and much of his personal life had been directed by his Soviet handlers.

While a student at Cambridge in the early 1930s, Philby had cultivated ties to communist groups. After graduation he appeared to have shifted to the right in his politics, and he went on to have a brief successful career as a special correspondent for The Times of London.

Working simultaneously as a reporter and Soviet agent with the code name “Sonny,” Philby sent military intelligence about Gen. Francisco Franco’s troops to his communist handlers while feigning sympathy for the Nationalists. After Philby was wounded by an artillery shell, Franco personally gave him a medal.

When Philby sought to join MI6, his family background was much more important than his academic record or his journalism experience. MI5, the British equivalent of the FBI, did only a cursory security check. More telling was the opinion of the Valentine Vivian, the deputy head of MI6: “I was asked about him and said I knew his people.” Vivian’s endorsement, Mr. Macintyre writes, was “the quintessential definition of Britain’s Old Boys’ network.”

Philby was a charmer, marrying four times and easily attracting both men and women into his personal orbit. As was written about the fictional British spy, James Bond, men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him.

Mr. Macintyre is clear in describing how much damage Philby did to Anglo-American intelligence. He alerted his handlers about efforts by Soviet spies to defect and passed on details of CIA and MI6 plans to send anti-Communist guerillas into Eastern Europe. Philby was responsible for hundreds of deaths.

While Philby came close to being exposed on several occasions, his winning personality, his connections, his ruthlessness and his good luck protected him. That situation lasted until his close friend Donald Maclean was unmasked as a Soviet agent.

Maclean and Guy Burgess, another Cambridge friend who had been living in Philby’s home in Washington, both defected to Moscow. Even then, many of the Old Boys, including his longtime friend Elliott, rallied around him. While forced out of higher echelons in MI6, Philby ultimately was brought back into the intelligence fold as a field agent.

Although many readers are likely to know how the story ends, “A Spy Among Friends” remains something of a “how-dunit.” It would be a spoiler to reveal exactly when and by what means Philby was unmasked.

Decades after the events Mr. Macintyre describes, it seems impossible that someone like Philby could have betrayed his comrades and his country for so long. Didn’t anybody in MI6 wonder why so many agents connected to Philby were ending up dead?

No doubt that couldn’t happen today. Now intelligence services make use of sophisticated and secure computer systems to keep track of their enemies’ communications and their own employees’ activities.

Where the British in the last century had misplaced confidence in family connections and breeding, 21st-century American intelligence networks can place their faith in reliable technology. Kim Philby, meet Edward Snowden.

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?