This summer, we went to Bletchley Park, where in WWII a team led by Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code, and a host of others. It's an awesome feat of which the British are justly proud. (aside: the upcoming The Imitation Game (2014)
has Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and Kiera Knightley as the beautiful code-breaker he friend-zones).
I was struck by how extremely lax (by American standards) the British security system at Bletchley was, both in vetting people and in monitoring them, and yet how almost completely leak-free it was. So far as is known, not only was no information ever leaked from Bletchley park to the Germans, no attempt was ever made
. Even the existence
of the project was concealed from them through the end of the war, despite the thousands of personnel involved.
Notice how above I said "almost
completely leak-free". The one exception was that John Cairncross, a member of the Cambridge Five
, smuggled hundreds of German Army decrypts to the Soviet Union, by simply walking out with them stuffed into his pants.
This got me interested anew in The Cambridge Five, and at last to the topic of this blog post - "A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal"
, a great book by Ben Macintyre that I recommend heartily. (The one-sentence summary of Kim Philby, before I continue: a Brit who rose to great prominence in MI-6 in the 40s and 50s, while being a spy for the Soviet Union throughout).
Note the "Among Friends" part of the title - the book focuses at length on the 'Old Boy' system, which it believes was greatly responsible for Philby's success. This part was fascinating.
Under the 'Old Boy' system, if one is of a certain class, goes to a certain set of schools, knows a certain set of people, then one is 'in'. A different set of rules applies. As their patriotism was both unquestioned and unquestionable (and this was almost always the case - see above), they tended to be lax about blabbing state secrets to each other. As the book puts it, "mutual trust was so absolute and unquestioned that there was no need for elaborate security precautions". One of my favorite passages from the book is below, wherein an MI-6 higher-up (Nicholas Elliott) recounts his interview by the MI-6 head of security:
OFFICER: Does your wife know what you do?
OFFICER: How did that come about?
Elliott: She was my secretary for two years and I think the penny must have dropped
OFFICER: Quite so. What about your mother?
Elliott: She thinks I'm in something called SIS, which she believes stands for the Secret Intelligence Service
OFFICER: Good God! How did she come to know that?
Elliott: A member of the War Cabinet told her at a cocktail party
OFFICER: Then what about your father?
Elliott: He thinks I'm a spy.
OFFICER: Why should he think you're a spy?
Elliott: Because the Chief [of MI-6] told him in the Bar at White's
The book gives many examples of this. Philby exploited this to the hilt- he gave party after party, went to lunch after lunch, where he was renowned as famously charming, a cracking good guest and a jolly good listener.
The second advantage of the 'Old Boy' system, that both Philby and Burgess (another member of the Five) exploited, was that it excused virtually any type of behavior. Burgess, for example, was loudly, overtly, homosexual - yet blind eye after blind eye was turned. Compare his treatment to that of Turing!
Philby decided (for ideological reasons) to cast his allegiance with Soviet Communism in the 1930s, and stayed steadfast to it throughout. He rose steadily through the ranks of MI-6, providing the USSR with intelligence of ever-increasing importance.
Ironically "in the insanely distrustful world of Soviet espionage, the quality, quantity, and consistency of this information rendered it suspect. A misgiving began to take root in Moscow that British intelligence must be mounting an elaborate multi-layered deception through Philby and his friends; they must all be double agents". "It was surely impossible that men with communist pasts could enter the British secret service so easily and rise so fast; the British were known to be foisting an elaborate deception on the Nazis, and it stood to reason that they must be attempting to do the same thing with Moscow".
This resulted in a situation for years where "Philby was telling Moscow the truth and was disbelieved but allowed to go on thinking he was believed; he was deceiving the British in order to aid the Soviets, who suspected a deception and were in turn deceiving him".
The Communist leadership was delighted by the volume and quality of the oleaginous Philby's output, but others remained skeptical
Philby rose to hold two of the most valuable positions (from the Soviet point of view) possible. First, for years he was in charge of British MI-6 operations against the Soviet Union. After that, he was promoted to be the liason between British MI-6 and the American CIA. So now he not only knew of all British cold-war operations, but all American ones as well: "The CIA and MI6 kept each other informed of exactly where and when their [respective operations were occuring], to avoid overlap and confusion".
Almost all espionage against the USSR accordingly failed totally. No blame for this was ever imputed to Philby. As Philby himself wrote, he was protected by the "genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the Establishment could do such things"
From left to right: Kim Philby, Miles Copeland, Nicholas Elliott. Beirut, 1950s
As CIA officer Miles Copeland put it (he is best known now as the father of Stuart Copeland, the drummer for 'The Police'):
...What it comes to, is that when you look at the whole period from 1944 to 1951, the entire Western Intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage. We'd have been better off doing nothing"
What eventually ended Philby's career? To make a long story short, Philby became aware that Donald Maclean, ("the first man") was about to be arrested. He got Burgess ("the second man"), who had been his houseguest, to travel immediately to England and warn Maclean, who would then escape to Russia. It all worked - except that instead of returning, Burgess joined Maclean in going to Russia. This put Philby under a cloud of suspicion as being the "third man" . This cloud hovered over Philby for years, sometimes waxing, sometimes waning.
Philby in 1951, lying his ass off to the press after he is first accused of being "The Third Man". According to the book, "Footage of Philby's famous press conference is still used as a training tool by MI6, a master class in mendacity"
In 1961, MI-6 becomes convinced, at last, that Philby is indeed a traitor. Elliott goes to Beirut, tells Philby the jig is up, and gets a partial confession. Philby escapes (with, the author believes, a blind eye deliberately turned by Elliott) to the Soviet Union, where he lived out his days - this part of the tale ends with a whimper.
The fallout from Philby's un-masking is not a whimper, but rather a massive 'bang': decades of furious finger-pointing, ass-covering, and witch-hunting.
The book ends with a fascinating afterword by John le Carré. In 1986, Elliott contacted le Carré to be interviewed, with an eye towards an eventual memoir, book, or play. At one point, le Carré asks Elliott about the possible things they could have done with Philby in 1961, if a public trial was ruled out as too embarrassing. By this point Elliott knew that Philby was a traitor, who had done great damage to his country, and who was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of anti-communists, including British citizens. Yet we have this interchange, which sums up the 'Old Boy' attitude perfectly:
le Carré: Could you have him sandbagged, for instance, and flown to London?
Elliott: Nobody wanted him in London, old boy.
le Carré: Well, what about the ultimate sanction then - forgive me - could you have him killed, liquidated?
Elliott: My dear chap. One of us.