Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Spy Among Friends

For some time Ben Macintyre has been one of my favorite history authors. With books such as Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal (excerpt here), Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, and Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (review here, excerpt here), he has written several books now on the absurdity that took place during WWII British spycraft.

His most recent book takes a step forward in history. In A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Macintyre moves on to the Cold War. As highlighted in the previous books, British counterintelligence was so strong that they were able to capture every last German spy in the country. Yet during this same period, it was a virtual sieve for the Soviets.

Many of the British intelligence officers were in the pay of the Soviet Union both during and after the war. Most famous among them was Kim Philby, the agent who for a time served as the head of the division responsible for spying on the Soviet Union.

For decades, Philby lived a double life, deceiving even his closest friends, most notably MI6's Nicholas Elliot and the CIA's James J. Angleton. And that is the angle that Macintyre takes in this book: how Philby deceived his friends and, even more broadly, how the good old boys friend network within MI6 shielded him from suspicion.

These British operatives all grew up together. They went to school together. They knew each other's parents. They were all good British stock. Many were fools, most were alcoholics. But they were fellow aristocrats, and because of this, their trust for each other, and their continued employment, was based on cultural elements deeper than job performance. It was simply unthinkable that one of them could be a spy, so for a long time it was unthought regardless of the evidence. The very people Philby was deceiving provided his strongest shield.

This is what makes this book so different from the other three Macintyre has written about the British intelligence agencies. In Zigzag, Mincemeat, and Double Cross, the British are the sharp and intelligent heroes hilariously exploiting the cracks in the strict yet bumbling German hierarchical system where no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Those stories are great fun, where the British keep pulling off greater and greater capers and the Germans keep falling for them.

A Spy Among Friends inverts that narrative. Here is an agency so welded to its aristocratic classism that it cannot see its own weaknesses. And although his writing is once again excellent, this book has a decidedly different tone. In contrast to the prior comedies, this story is a drawn out tragedy as again and again Philby escapes detection. Where the prior books exposed British culture's superiority to the German system, this one zeroes in on its weaknesses. One could almost say that the common theme through all these books is never underestimate the power of office culture. The very same loose camaraderie that helped win WWII proved to hamstring the agency during the Cold War. And that is what made Philby's betrayal so great--more than being a spy, he had been a friend.

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