Ben Macintyre | 'God, I’ve had fun writing this. It is a story that obsesses me'

Ben Macintyre | 'God, I’ve had fun writing this. It is a story that obsesses me'

“To coin a phrase, ‘nobody does it better’”, says Ben Macintyre of Kim Philby.

And indeed, his was a spectacular betrayal. A British intelligence agent whose gold-fingered career included a spell as director of the counter-Soviet department, Philby succeeded in passing state secrets to the Soviets for three decades. He was suspected of being a double-agent in the early 1950s after the defection to Moscow of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, but was later exonerated by the then-foreign secretary Harold Macmillan. He was finally unmasked in 1963, by which time he too had fled to Moscow, where he died “deeply disillusioned” 25 years later, a fan of cricket and Marmite to the end.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby, the Great Betrayal (Bloomsbury, March) is Macintyre’s portrait of this über-spy. A connoisseur of complex and shady characters, Macintyre had several compelling reasons for wanting to write about Philby. “Nobody has ever written a narrative non-fiction version of his story. And Philby is the best of the best. Nobody else has ever pulled off what he managed to pull off.”

But the main impetus for A Spy Among Friends came from John le Carré. “He’s always been incredibly kind, and helpful with all my books. I was walking with him on Hampstead Heath a few years back and I asked him, ‘What’s the great untold Cold War story?’ And without hesitating he replied, ‘the friendship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott’.”

Philby and Elliott met during the war. They were in the same section of MI6 and rose up the ranks together, becoming and remaining the closest of friends. But for over 30 years, Philby betrayed everything Elliott told him and sent it to Moscow.

The “intimate betrayal” of Elliott by Philby forms the core of the book, along with Philby’s equally cataclysmic betrayal of his other close friend, CIA intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, who was similarly hoodwinked. The exact circumstances in which Elliott discovered that his friend of 30 years had been betraying him at every turn are recounted in the dénouement of A Spy Among Friends. I can tell you no more, because the book is heavily embargoed (“Something happens in Beirut that nobody knows about”, tantalises Macintyre).

A Spy Among Friends is about espionage, international politics and ideology. But is also, says Macintyre, about psychology and emotions. “In particular it’s about a certain kind of male friendship, forged in war, and maintained through cricket and clubs and jokes and alcohol. Without ever saying what they felt about anything, Philby and Elliott’s friendship was incredibly intimate. They were as close as two upper-middle-class, heterosexual men could be in 1955”.

An inside job
The effect of Philby’s defection on both the British secret services and the CIA was catastrophic. “It punched a hole through British Intelligence imperial confidence which lasted for a generation. They still haven’t got over it. If you mention Philby to a certain sort of ex-intelligence officer, they still turn pale.” In the US, Philby’s betrayal sent Angleton “off his rocker”, says Macintyre. “Imagine it, you are the chief spy-hunter in the world. Nobody knows more secrets, nobody’s better at rooting out spies. And you have been fooled.” Angleton launched a molehunt within the CIA which not only destroyed the lives of many innocent people, but which very nearly destroyed the CIA itself.

The plot is mind-blowing. If you made it up, it would be too far-fetched. As Macintyre points out, Philby was running the anti-Soviet section of MI6; the man in charge of catching people like himself. “He wasn’t just the fox guarding the hen-house. Philby was running the hen-house, recruiting for the hen-house, and in charge of everything that went in and out of the hen-house.”

What motivated him? “He was a fanatic”. What was he fanatical about? “Winning. He was an elitist; a product of Westminster School and Cambridge, who believed that in joining the KGB he had joined the ‘elite force’. Philby is a committed communist, but he also gets off on the idea that he knows a little bit more than you do. There’s a brilliant essay by C S Lewis called “The Inner Ring”, about the very particular British male paranoia that however exclusive your club, there is an even more exclusive club somewhere that you’re being excluded from. The desire to join the inner ring, says Lewis, is the impulse that can make a not very bad man do very bad things”.

Black and white
Macintyre eschews the “evil traitor” line however. “I haven’t used the word ‘traitor’ once. It’s too simple. Philby is much more interesting than that. He was a brilliant man: clever, attractive, kind. He was a great dad, and his wives all adored him, even after he abandoned them. He sparkled, he was funny. You’d have gone to a party with Philby and thought, ‘someone’s put the lights on’. I’ve met some of the people he betrayed and they all speak about Philby with deep affection. Even in her 90s, Elliott’s widow’s eyes twinkled when she spoke about him. If I’ve achieved anything with this book, I hope it is to make the reader uncertain about whether they love or hate Philby. He had that very particular English charm which is both very attractive, and also lethal. Because when it’s misused, it’s completely terrifying what you can do with it.”

Macintyre’s enormous enthusiasm for his latest rogue subject spills over throughout our conversation. “God, I’ve had fun writing this. It is a story that obsesses me.” As well as revelations in the text, “A Spy Among Friends also contains never-before-seen photographs, including images of Philby in Beirut, taken immediately before his defection—“completely blotto at picnics in the hills; at the Acapulco beach club; in black tie and tails, dancing.” John le Carré has written an afterword, and a two-part BBC2 documentary about Philby, fronted by Macintyre, will air on publication.

I ask what it is about intelligence and spying that so fascinates him? “The world of espionage is the most wonderful backdrop for the things that affect all of us, all of the time—loyalty, betrayal, love, trust, truth, lies. As anybody who has either committed, or been the victim of an infidelity knows, people lie. But the painful thing is, you can be betrayed and still love the betrayer”. When Philby defected, he abandoned his then-wife Eleanor, and although they were later reconciled, says Macintyre, it ruined her. “In her rather touching memoir she writes: ‘What it proved to me, is that you can never really know another human being’”.

Quick CV
1963: Born in Oxford
1982 - 1990: History degree at Cambridge (1982 - 1985); then postgrad degree at Columbia University (1987 - 1990)
1991 - 1992: The SUnday Correspondent deputy foreign editor and foreign correspondent
2001 - Present: Associate editor, columnist and writer at large, the Times