A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

This is the interesting story of the Cambridge Five, five graduates of Cambridge University who worked for the British government from the 1930s to the 1950s while they spied for the Soviet Union. Kim Philby was the most successful of the group and is the author’s principal subject. Philby was a double agent for 20 years, working for the British security services while delivering massive amounts of information to the Russians. The secrets he passed to the Russians resulted in many operations being blown and lots of people being killed. Eventually, he fled to the Soviet Union (although it’s very possible that Britain’s MI-6 encouraged him to leave in order to save the British government a great deal of embarrassment).

Philby and his fellow spies (Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt) all became convinced at Cambridge that the Soviet Union had the best available political system. That made it relatively easy to recruit them in service of the Russians. Three of them lived out their lives in Moscow. None of them were ever prosecuted for spying.

The principal theme of the book is that the Cambridge Five were able to remain undiscovered for so long because they were comfortable members of the British ruling class. The security services and the Foreign Office were primarily run by other members of the upper class who presumed that the men they worked and drank with were gentlemen and would never betray their country.

After Philby confessed to spying for the Russians, he could have been returned to England for prosecution or even assassinated. But he was permitted to circulate freely until he defected one night, boarding a freighter bound for Odessa. Other spies weren’t treated so gently:

I mention the fate of less favored traitors who did far less than Philby but spent years in prison for it.

“Ah well, Vassall –well, he wasn’t top league, was he?”

(John Vassall, homosexual son of an Anglican parson and clerk to the naval attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow, was sentenced for eighteen years for spying for the KGB.)

Mr. Vassall had not attended Eton or Cambridge, as Mr. Philby had, and never belonged to the right gentlemen’s club.

New Developments in the Mother Russia/Motherf****r Scandal

I already had a title for a post called “The Big Picture on Health Insurance”, but that topic can wait. The T__p/Putin scandal seems to be growing. The British newspaper The Independent just made the story even more interesting:

(1) The ex-spy Christopher Steele who investigated Trump’s Russian connection eventually concluded that the FBI intentionally ignored solid evidence on the matter. In fact, Mr. Steele decided that there was a cabal in the FBI willing to cover up damaging information about T__p while the Bureau pursed a vendetta against Hillary Clinton;

(2) Back in the summer, when T__p downplayed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and simultaneously called for the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails, and when the Trump campaign later removed a plank from the Republican platform condemning the invasion, it was all done in response to a recent request from Russia. 

If any of this is true, then T__p, people close to him and members of the FBI committed treason. Ideally, they would all end up in prison. There would also be a constitutional amendment allowing for a new election. 

Even if these charges are true, however, it’s unlikely we’ll get a new election. That would require amending the Constitution, which would require cooperation from too many self-serving Republican politicians. T__p’s impeachment, however, followed by a stretch in a Federal prison, could easily happen. When they can’t avoid the truth anymore, the Republican sleazes in Congress will rush to get rid of the bastard.

Call For the Dead by John le Carré

Call For the Dead was John le Carré’s first novel. He wrote it while still an employee of MI6, the British version of the CIA. It’s an entertaining mystery story about spies and murder that introduces the character of George Smiley, the “little fat man, rather gloomy,” who is the hero of Le Carre’s later novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

We also meet other characters who will return in later novels: the younger, suave Peter Guillam; the police officer Mendel; and the high-level civil servant Maston, later known as Lacon. Unfortunately, we don’t meet Smiley’s ex-wife Ann, although her words do appear a few times.

It’s a short novel, but quite good. My only problem was wondering how Smiley survived several blows to the head with a lead pipe, and why the police weren’t immediately summoned at a climactic moment. But if Smiley had died, or the police had been called, Call For the Dead would have been even shorter.

Smiley’s People by John le Carre

This is the third entry in John le Carre’s spy trilogy that began with the great Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I tried to read the second entry in the trilogy, The Honorable Schoolboy, but found it slow-moving and uninteresting (le Carre later said that he should have reduced the role of the George Smiley character in The Honorable Schoolboy; I thought Smiley was the only interesting thing in the book.)

Smiley’s People begins with the investigation of a murder in London. This leads Smiley to come out of retirement again and attempt to get some Russians, including a very important one, to defect. Although the story held my interest throughout, the ending is anti-climactic. There could have easily been a fourth novel in the series, considering how this one ends. Unfortunately for those of us who enjoy George Smiley, that didn’t happen. (4/7/11)