You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Spy Who Flew Into His Cage

"I wonder if you could add one small item to your shopping list?" Kim Philby wrote from Moscow to his wife Eleanor who was visiting in California. "I was thinking of some song-restorer for the canary. There was one feeble effort to sing the other night, but since then silence again. On all other counts, he seems perfectly fit, good appetite, bright eyes, and he gives his usual warning cheeps .when I go near his cage. Perhaps he has just forgotten how. . . ."

Or perhaps being in a cage does not fill one's heart with gladness. Philby may know; he slipped through the exceedingly large holes of the net that M.I.6, the British secret service, politely and languidly threw around him in Beirut in January of 1963 (is it possible that London wanted him to escape?) and flew safely into Moscow, where he has remained ever since, under the care of the K.G.B. He has become a dissipated, aging real version of John le Carre's Alec Leamas. Four books about him are now in print, including one under his byline. His story has become an industry.

Harold A. R. Philby was born to a family with roots running deep in England's imperial past. His father, Harry St. John Bridger Philby, was a member of the British raj in India, where Kim, nicknamed for Kipling's hero, was born on New Year's Day 1912. As his son was to do in another context, St. John Philby defected from both England and Establishment to Islam and Arabia, becoming a courtier of Ibn Saud, taking a Muslem name and a slave-girl wife (in addition to his English spouse) and all but abandoning Pall Mall for the Wahabis.

Kim first met Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean at Cambridge during the early 1930's. Maclean, six foot six and outwardly a perfect Whitehall civil servant, quickly became the rising star of the Foreign Office. Burgess, brilliant, obnoxious and wildly homosexual, drifted in and out of both M.I.6 and the F.O. Philby, after covering the Franco side of the Spanish Civil War for the Times of London, was recruited into M.L6 in 1940. He was posted to Washington in 1949 as M.I.6's liaison man with the CIA and the FBI. All the while, Philby-who now claims he was a cormnunist from Cambridge on-secretly served Soviet intelligence.

When Donald Maclean was about to be unmasked in 1951 as a spy who had passed atomic information to the Russians, Philby sent Burgess from Washington to London to warn Maclean of the danger. Together, Burgess and Maclean escaped from England on the night channel steamer for France and vanished, surfacing in Moscow five years later. Philby was summoned home, but Harold Macmillan personally and publicly cleared him of charges, raised in the House of Commons, that Philby was the "third man" who had warned the missing diplomats. Then in 1956, M.I.6 approached the London Observer and got Philby--who was ostensibly no longer a British agent--a job as Middle East correspondent. Seven years later, Philby fled Beirut for Moscow; the British government conceded that he was, after all, what he now says he was, and that he had warned Burgess and Maclean.

All of this was known and had been published when the Sunday Times of London set its talented Insight team to work on the story last year. Group journalism turned up a wealth of new detail, and one very important new fact: that Philby had headed M.L6's counterespionage operations against the Soviet Union. Thus, from within the citadel of British intelligence, Philby was not only revealing its secrets to Moscow, he could also give the Soviets a choice of what M.L6 operations might harmlessly be mounted against them. The furor touched off by the Sunday Times series was rather a pseudo-event. Lord Thomson's paper had focused international attention on a case, the main points of which were already well known, and in which the most recent major development - Philby's defection--had taken place five years earlier. Newspaper accounts and books that followed do not fill in the crucial gaps. What made him do what he did is as much a mystery as ever.

In The Philby Conspiracy, however, Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley of the Sunday Times team have produced a superbly readable account. The book is far better than the newspaper series, which had been written under pressure of the Fleet Street circulation war. The authors underline the central fact that Philby was able to rise high within the M.I.6 citadel, and nearly destroy it, because he was born to the Establishment, which could not accept the idea that one of its members would sell his old school tie. In a perceptive introduction, John le Carre draws an apt parallel with that other British scandal, the Profumo case: "'This Club does not elect liars, therefore Profumo is not a liar; this Club does not elect traitors, therefore Kim is not a traitor.' This Establishment is a self-proving proposition."

The weak spots in The Philby Conspiracy arise from an unfortunate attempt to paper over the missing pieces and ambiguities. For example, the moment Burgess set foot on the night boat to St. Malo in 1951, Philby was in deep trouble; he had, after all, been Burgess' landlord in Washington. Why then was he publicly cleared by Macmillan in 1955? Why did M.L6 place Philby with the Observer a year later?

Above all, what was Philby's status in Beirut? Was he an M.L6 agent in any real sense, or, as is much more likely, was he live bait in the trap that M.I.6 hoped to set for the Russians? And if so, did he know he was the mouse in the trap?

The answers are not to be found in Philby's own disappointing book, which must be viewed as part of the continuing battle of the spy memoirs of the K.G.B., the CIA and M.I.6. The introduction, especially, is heavyhanded. In discussing his defection in 1963, for example, Philby says: "Only then was I able to emerge in my true colours, the colours of a Soviet intelligence officer." This and numerous other sentences must have been written by someone on the K.G.B. United Kingdom desk, not: by a graduate of Westminster and Trinity. Philby denies he was a "double agent," declaring: "I have been a straight penetration agent working in the Soviet interest."

The body of the book, however, probably was written by Philby, and much of it, particularly his description of his early career, reads plausibly enough. Yet each sentence must be examined

through the prism of "the Soviet interest." As might be expected, Philby sheds no light on his work in Beirut during those intriguing last seven years. E. H. Cookridge, author of an interesting book on George Blake, another M.I.6 man who went from Beirut to Moscow (with a brief stopover at Wormwood Scrubs) covers much the same ground as The Philby Conspiracy, adding little that is relevant and much that is highly speculative. The Spy I Married, by Philby's American wife Eleanor, a native of Seattle, is somewhat revealing of his character and possible motivation. Although heavily ghosted and written in an appalling woman's magazine style ("My agony had begun eight months earlier in Beirut when a perfect marriage was brutally shattered"), there are some nuggets. This man who sent Albanian exiles to certain death with no qualms--and how many British agents?--could plunge in his hand to save a mouse from danger of drowning in a Moscow toilet. ("He could not bear to see anything killed. . . . He was also very good with children. He loved going upstairs at other people's parties and saying goodnight to their children.")

Philby travelled far on his Establishment credentials, charm and intelligence. He had a gently forlorn side to his nature that women, in particular, found attractive. But he betrayed his class, the British secret service, his country, his friends, his fellow British agents, his wife Eleanor (whom he had taken from an American newspaperman). Finally, he even betrayed Donald Maclean by stealing his wife, Melinda, in Moscow.

A poor track record. In the half-lit world of espionage, small wonder that loyalties are dimmed. Where deceit is a way of life, is it surprising that some men deceive their masters and possibly themselves? Espionage distorts the values of all who play the game; after awhile one's image looks grotesquely like that of his adversaries'. The deep pouches under the eyes, the compulsion to drink to insensibility, the ludricrous plea that his old colleagues in Queen Anne's Gate not think of him as a totally bad fellow, all tell something of Philby's inner conflicts.

There he is, sitting in Moscow, the last stop on the line, pleading by letter to Eleanor for more Scotch, ball point pens, drip-dry shirts, news from England and a bit of song-restorer for the helpless bird in the cage.

By David Wise