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What Made Double Agent Kim Philby A Great Spy? His Friends.


If I say greatest spy ever, you probably imagine a James Bond or a Jason Borne type -gadgets, aliases, and action hero sort of adventures. But the man who's been called the greatest spy in history didn't do any of that stuff. He simply made the right friends and plied them with lots of alcohol. Kim Philby rose through the ranks of British intelligence. There was even talk of him becoming head of MI6. He was loved and admired by his colleagues, and he was a Soviet agent. Ben Macintyre tells Philby's incredible story in his new book "A Spy Among Friends." He writes for the Times of London and joins us from the BBC Studios there. Ben, welcome to the show.

BEN MACINTYRE: Thank you very much for having me.

RATH: You sort of framed this tale through Philby's friendship with Nicholas Elliott, who was another intelligence -also worked in British Intelligence. Could you describe Elliott?

MACINTYRE: Elliott, in a way, was cut from the same cloth as Philby. He'd been to Eton, you know, Britain's premier public school. He had all the privileges in life. Ad the two of them had, in fact, joined MI6 at much the same time. What Elliott never knew, of course, was that his closest friend, Kim Philby, was actually working for the other side. It's often told - the Philby stories - if it was simply a Cold War story of ideology and politics. There's actually, in a way, a much more intriguing, I think, story beneath the surface, which is a story of systematically brutal betrayal of a very close friendship. And that is the friendship with Nicholas Elliott. And yet, throughout this 20-year relationship, Philby took absolutely everything that Elliott told him including a lot of extremely damaging, high-level intelligence information and fed it all back to Moscow.

RATH: And how did these young men - this is back in the 1930s - how did they get into the intelligence services?

MACINTYRE: Well, that is one of the most extraordinary aspects of this story. It was that they simply kind of wandered in. In both cases, they simply dropped hints to people they knew had contacts with the intelligence services. And sure enough, they were invited in. The key difference, however, is that while Elliott was a man of sort of great patriotism and loyalty and rather sort of old-fashioned British values, Philby, by the time he was trying to get into MI6, had already been a Soviet agent for eight years. The reason he was trying to get into British intelligence was because his Soviet controller had told him to.

RATH: What's sort of amazing also is that he seems like he has nine lives. There was, again, towards the end of the war, there was a Soviet defector who could have easily exposed Philby. Talk about what happened.

MACINTYRE: Very soon after the end of the war, a young intelligence officer - a Russian intelligence officer - called Konstantin Volkov turned up at the British Consulate in Istanbul and announced that he wanted to defect and explained that he was a senior Soviet intelligence officer. And that he knew the names of dozens of Soviet spies in Britain and America that were operating undercover in the establishment. He also said that he would be able to reveal the name of an officer who was running a counterintelligence section in MI6. Well, that was Kim Philby because Philby, by this point, unbelievably had risen to become head of the Soviet section of British intelligence. In other words, Kim Philby was in charge of hunting people like him. So what happened was when Philby realized that this character had appeared and was about to expose him, he personally took over the case. And Konstantin Volkov and his wife were kidnapped, sedated, put on a plane to Moscow where they were interrogated and then murdered.

RATH: And after the war, Philby ends up, again, in a very high post, basically running British intelligence out of Washington D.C., but again, it looks like he's about to be exposed. How did he avoid getting thrown in prison?

MACINTYRE: It's an extraordinary story, really. I mean, to understand Philby's survival in Washington, you, in a way, have to go back to the war again because one of the people that he got to know very well during the war was a young American intelligence officer called James Angleton. Now Angleton, by the time Philby got to Washington, had risen to become a very senior officer in the CIA. And Philby rekindled his friendship with him, began to have regular lunches with him in a rather smart restaurant in Washington called Harvey's. And at those lunches, Angleton revealed to him everything he knew. It was simply unthinkable to people like Elliott and Angleton that Philby could possibly be playing for the other side. It just was beyond the bounds of credibility.

RATH: So you've spent a lot of time with Kim Philby. After all the research, the interviews, do you feel like you understand this strange man or any sympathy for him?

MACINTYRE: It's hard to have sympathy for someone as brutal as that. I mean, Philby had great charm I think one would have thoroughly enjoyed his company. I think he's one of those people that would've walked into the room and all the lights would've gone on, but he was brutal. He was really a fundamentalist. I think that is the way to understand Philby - is that he was someone so utterly wedded to a particular creed that he never questioned it - couldn't see outside of it and sort of really made all of his human relationships secondary to that one overriding ideological impulsion. But in a way, there's another aspect to Philby's ideology, which is also interesting, that he - in some ways, I think he was trapped by what he was doing. I think he found he had joined a club that you can't resign from. That he was somehow pulled along by the romance in the excitement of it, and he clearly enjoyed infidelity. And I mean that not just in terms of political infidelity, but in terms of his own marital and sort of emotional infidelity. He was a man who was kind of addicted, really, to the drug of faithlessness. And that makes him a fascinating psychological character in a way.

RATH: Journalist Ben Macintyer is the author of "A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby And The Great Betrayal." Fascinating stuff, Ben. Thank you.

MACINTYRE: Thank you very much. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.