Somewhere in the middle of my tandem read and re-read of A Spy Among Friends and Tinker Tailor, I began to smell odors emitting from our immediate Russian spy situation in the United States. Which often reads more like fiction than does Tinker Tailor.
Plus ça change, plus la même chose, really?
But, while there are elements in A Spy Among Friends that do track with our situation today, there is one major exception: for a combination of reasons–naked stupidity, for one–things are developing so much faster here in the Trump-Russia investigations than they did in 1950s England.
What shocked me most about the real Philby story was that in 1950–hold that date in mind–when Philby was operating as MI6’s Washington, DC guy, and becoming close to one large-scale CIA figure, James Angleton, he used his high security clearance to sneak into CIA intel where he confirmed a Soviet defector had identified his fellow spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, and that both British and American intelligence operatives were closing in on them. Philby warned both Burgess and Maclean; they escaped to Moscow.
Of course, Philby immediately fell under suspicion as the “third man.” But he did not then take the Soviet escape route. Instead, after a long hiatus from espionage work, Philby, via a fervent PR campaign engineered by his powerful British and American friends, brazened it out and even started working for MI6 again.
That was the part of this story I knew nothing about.
The British negligence in pursuing Philby, a direct result of the British class system, was mind-blowing to me. While the proles in MI5 (FBI equivalent) and the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI itself were driving hard against him, Philby was, to his friends in high intelligence places (MI6 and the CIA), an English gentleman, a gracious alcoholic, above reproach. He belonged to what (the fictional) Ann Smiley refers to as The Set: upper class, Cambridge educated, “one of us.” Ergo, he couldn’t be a Soviet spy.
As I said, Philby did not initially avail himself of the Soviet escape route to Moscow until another Russian defector spilled the beans on him. And still he resisted leaving until he was directly accosted by his closest friend and long-time defender. It was over, Philby was told; they knew he was a Soviet spy.
But, but, big but: from 1950 until 1963, Kim Philby, known to many Brits and Americans as treasonous, stuck around and even continued his career in MI6 and the KGB.
Here are three quotes from A Spy Among Friends that caused me to sit up and gasp. Change the names and they could be statements produced in the United States today, from all sides of media coverage and Congressional investigations.
The first is from an 1955 accusatory speech made in Parliament by a Labor MP named Marcus Lipton. (Note that Lipton was both Labor, i.e., not traditional upper class Tory, and a Jew.) Lipton had seen enough evidence to know Philby was a spy:
Has the Prime Minister made up his mind to cover up at all costs the dubious third man activities of Mr Harold Philby who was first secretary at the Washington embassy a little time ago, and is he determined to stifle all discussions on the very great matters which were evaded in the White paper, which is an insult to the intelligence of the country?
A month or so later then-Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan, soon to be Prime Minister, made an answering speech in Parliament:
Mr. Philby had Communist associates during and after his university days [but] no evidence has been found to show that he was responsible for warning Burgess or Maclean. While in Government service he carried out his duties ably and conscientiously. I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of this country, or to identify him with the co-called “third man” if, indeed, there was one.
And another MP, Richard Brooman-White, who had himself worked for MI6, defended his close friend Philby by attacking Marcus Lipton “as a McCarthyite witch-hunter”:
He…is in favour of acting on suspicion, of smearing on suspicion, by directing public suspicion on to an individual against whom nothing at all has been proved. We must leave it to his own conscience to straighten out what that may cost in personal suffering to his wife, children and friends of the person involved. The only thing that has been proved aganst Mr. Philby is that he had Burgess staying with him and he had certain Communist friends. He may not have been very wise in his choice of friends, but what honourable member of this House could say that all his friends were people against whom no shadow of suspicion could ever be cast?
I think of our own blooming cast of dubious characters –Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, a gaggle of Russian oligarchs, and, of course, the man who tweets his defense in the form of obvious lies and attacks upon his enemies.
I’m immensely grateful for those “enemies” in the media, in Congress, in the courts and at government agencies who will not permit the investigation into unseemly bonds with Russia to linger and poison our communality for thirteen more years.
In a nation of laws, due process takes time, but it does not take thirteen years.