The Charmed Life of a Traitor
The smooth, well-dressed British “minor” civil servant Kim Philby is known now as the most notorious spy of modern times. But he wasn’t unmasked for what he was until The Sunday Times of London penetrated the official secrecy and old boys’ network that had for years covered up his treachery and his crimes. What follows is an abridged extract from the autobiography of The Sunday Times editor, Harold Evans’ My Paper Chase, published this week by Little, Brown. [Harry Evans is married to Daily Beast founder and Editor-in-chief Tina Brown.]
Immediately when we started asking questions in 1967 we were warned off. We found it odd that senior officials who told us Philby was of no importance were alarmed when we persisted. I was told, “You must stop your inquiries. There is the most monstrous danger here. You will be helping the enemy.” With every door slammed in our face, and the ever-present threat of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, we had to engage in a frustratingly tedious process of assembling, assessing, and verifying tiny scraps of information from hundreds of interviews with denizens of a closed world whose stock-in-trade is deceit. We learned that he’d been a crack shot, regarded as the James Bond in the SOE operations of subverting the Nazis in occupied France. But of his other secret work we for quite a time learned nothing.
Take a look at the man in a press conference explaining away, in the best of British accents, how a friend of his, British diplomat Guy Burgess, had let him down by fleeing from Washington to Moscow when suspected of spying for the Soviet Union. But the man soft-soaping here in 1955 is Kim Philby, himself the greatest Soviet spy long protected by the British establishment, a cover-up exposed by the Sunday Times of London in 1967.
Most of the ink over the years had been spent not on Philby but on the mysteries of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two British diplomats in Washington. They suddenly vanished in 1951 and were not heard of again until 1956 when they turned up in Moscow. There was speculation that a “third man” had tipped off Burgess and Maclean to flee before they were brought in for interrogation and that he might be their friend, another diplomat in Washington with them, Kim Philby.
Four years later in October 1955, a Labour MP asked in Parliament whether Philby was “the third man.” The Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan (later Prime Minister) declared: “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 so-called third man, if indeed there was one.” A suave Philby, speaking with a slight stutter, disdained the accusation at a press conference he called in his mother’s London home. The press, too, duly exonerated Philby. This was the period when there was revulsion in Britain for the witch hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy. Challenged to substantiate his accusation, the MP had to withdraw, shouted down by his fellow Labour MPs.
By this time, Philby seemed to have retired from diplomatic service. He had ostensibly taken a job with a trading firm, then in 1956 he went to Beirut as a correspondent of the Economist and the Observer, the prestigious Sunday newspaper. What nobody knew at the time was the job had been fixed for him by his former colleagues in MI6, the British intelligence service. He traveled throughout the Middle East as a journalist—and fairly soon deprived Sam Pope Brewer, The New York Times correspondent, of his wife Eleanor. Seven years later, in 1963, on the way to a party with Eleanor, he got out of a taxi “to send a cable”—and vanished. Reports that he was in Moscow could not be confirmed. There was never anything about him in the Soviet press; if he was in Moscow, he had no address, no telephone number and in the city if he was glimpsed one minute, he was gone the next.
Few of the people in MI6 or MI5, the counterintelligence service, would divulge anything at all. “Sorry. Official Secrets.” And click. It was maddening. A retired MI5 officer said, “Of course you have only to look in the files to see it all.” Yes? And what did you learn? “Better leave it at that, old boy. Don’t want to get trouble with the OSA (Official Secrets Act).”
After many months of frustration, Phil Knightley, a key member of the Insight team on Philby, who bore a marked resemblance to Lenin, went again through our collection of espionage books. There was a slight one titled British Agent, written by someone named John Whitwell. There was no such person. Knightley winkled out that it was a cover name for A. L. (Leslie) Nicholson, who’d been our man in Prague and later in Riga. Knightley found him to be a drunken burnout living on a miserable pension over a seedy café in East London. It was hard to believe he had ever been an MI6 officer. Another wasted expense, thought Knightley as he treated Nicholson to a good Italian lunch and several brandies. But as Knightley gently pressed questions, inevitably revealing that we knew Philby was important and by inference that we didn’t quite know why, Nicholson’s enjoyment increased. He was aware of the seriousness of his illness (he died two years later from cancer), and over coffee and another brandy he told Knightley what Philby had really done. “The reason for the flap, old man,” he said, “is that Kim was head of our anti-Soviet section.”
As Knightley put it, “I can remember trying to clear my head of brandy fumes.” He pressed Nicholson. “Let me get this straight. The man running our secret operations against the Russians after 1944 was a Russian agent himself?”
This meant not only that any intelligence operations against the Soviets were doomed from the start but that the days of all the MI6 agents already in place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were numbered.
In the Sunday Times office we puzzled over why Philby’s crimes had remained undetected for so long. Surely any one of a number of KGB defectors could have given the game away? The sheriff of Shropshire gave us an answer. Mr. John Reed was then living in a great house in a forest, but before retiring he’d been first secretary in our embassy in Turkey in the last year of the war. He wrote to me, worried how our series might portray his role in a great blunder.
I sent Knightley to see him. He would talk only anonymously. Thus masked, he told a fascinating tale. On a hot August day in 1945, the area head of the Russian secret service (the NKVD, later the KGB), one Konstantin Volkov, had walked into the consulate in Istanbul seeking asylum. For a safe passage to Cyprus and living money, he would identify Soviet spy networks. “In return he told me he would offer the real names of three Soviet agents working in Britain, two of them in the Foreign Office, one the head of a counterespionage organization in London,” Reed said.
The ambassador, Sir Maurice Peterson, wanted nothing to do with the nasty business of spies. He told Reed to let London handle it. Reed sent the information to London in a secure diplomatic bag and waited for a response. It took two weeks for an agent to arrive to debrief Volkov. That agent was none other than Kim Philby.
Volkov was not found; he was never seen again. Philby, who must have had a fright that he was so nearly outed, had taken time with his Soviet masters to organize a safe passage for Volkov—but not to Cyprus. A Soviet military aircraft made an irregular landing at Istanbul airport and within minutes took off again after a heavily bandaged figure on a stretcher was carried to the plane. “The incident convinced me,” said Reed, “that Philby was either a Soviet agent or unbelievably incompetent. I took what seemed to me at the time the appropriate action.” Nothing happened. Knightley reported, “The memory of the betrayal made Reed’s voice shake.”
If Philby was that important in 1945, what was he doing in Washington from 1949 under the cover of being first secretary in the embassy? Any public attention had been on his possible role in tipping off Burgess and Maclean. I sent two reporters to Washington.
Knightley called the CIA which helpfully—such a contrast with Britain—suggested he talk to a Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, who had been with the CIA since it was set up in 1947. This was a few years before Ian Fleming created the Bond fantasies—but in the early post war years the Americans had been in awe of MI6 for its legendary history and the dazzling code-breaking achievements that had won the Battle of the Atlantic.
Kirkpatrick knew Philby. When Knightley found him, he’d just retired as executive director of the agency. He had contracted polio in Asia on CIA business and was teaching politics from a wheelchair at Brown University. He combined secret knowledge with an intellectual zest for freedom. He wouldn’t go into detail, but on the main point he didn’t equivocate: “Philby was your liaison officer with the CIA and FBI.”
This was as astounding as Whitwell’s revelation. It meant that for three years of the Cold War, Philby had been at the heart of Western intelligence operations. Put another way, having penetrated the SIS, he was then able to penetrate the CIA. The CIA director, General Walter Bedell Smith, gave Philby clearance at all levels, which meant that in a secret service’s typically compartmentalized operations, Philby would have known as much as anyone except the director himself and perhaps one or two assistant directors, like Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick would not say much more than “have a look at Albania.”
Back in London, we traced a bunch of Albanians working as lumbermen for the Forestry Commission, among whom were a survivor of an ill-fated joint MI6-CIA operation. The two agencies had armed, trained, and funded a small army of guerrillas and put them into Albania by boat and parachute in the spring of 1950. The Communist rebels in Greece were faltering, Yugoslavia’s Tito had broken with Stalin, and it was hoped that a Communist collapse in Albania would ripple throughout the Balkans. They were doomed from the start. One of the few who escaped alive told us, “They always knew we were coming.” At least 300 died. The disaster was put down to leaks from the infiltrators and the extraordinary efficiency of the Albanian frontier guards and police. Super-clever those Albanian cops, you know; they must have worked out the radio code by which the first infiltrators would signal back that it was safe to send in more men — then sent that signal when it wasn’t safe at all. The Albanian cops hadn’t worked out anything. The operation was jointly commanded by a CIA man and the British liaison officer Kim Philby.
On September 1, 1967, when we were about to publish what we had found out, I received an injunction saying it would be against national-security interests to publish anything “About identities, whereabouts, and tasks of persons of whatever status or rank, who are or have been employed by either Service (MI5 or MI6).” This was a direct attempt to wipe out our entire investigation.
I decided to ignore it.
We published “The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation” on October 1. Disturbing as our findings of Philby’s betrayals were, to me the most sobering revelation was how long Philby had been able to exploit the class-conscious and social attitudes of the club and old-school echelons of MI6. When we published our revelations, I naively expected a demand for reform. Instead there was outrage, directed not at Philby or those who protected him, but at us. Several newspapers ran stories—not discouraged by official sources—that our life story of Philby was a Soviet plant. The accusations that we were handmaidens of the KGB seemed to me the product of minds incapable of confronting a real spy story without constructing an ersatz conspiracy around its origins.
Even the rumbustious Foreign Secretary and Deputy Leader George Brown got into the act. The first I knew of it was a late-night phone call from the company chairman to my home to say: “The foreign secretary has just denounced you as a traitor at a business dinner and in front of Roy [Thomson, the owner of the paper]. You’d better be in the House of Commons tomorrow, when the foreign secretary will speak.”
I opened the next morning’s Times for the report with some trepidation. “Ebullient Mr. Brown Hits Out” was the euphemistic headline on an account of Brown’s denunciation at the dinner, “ebullient” being a press parlance adjective to get round the libel risk of saying he was drunk.
Hours later, I sat in the House of Commons gallery waiting to be dragged out by the sergeant at arms. The victim turned out to be the foreign secretary himself. That morning, he had been carpeted by the prime minister, Harold Wilson, for once again showing undue ebullience in a public place. He sat on the front benches with his head bent.
Our Philby investigation was my first prolonged experience as a new national editor dealing with central government and what, for want of a better name, I have to call the political establishment: those overlapping “charmed circles” of influence and power whose strands of DNA were the elite public schools, Oxbridge, the aristocracy, the City and the blue-chip boardrooms, the civil service, the legal profession, and the conservative press. British society had become more solvent, more meritocratic, and less deferential than it had been in the 1930s, when the Soviets saw very well how it was run by their recruitment of Burgess, Philby, Maclean, and the fourth Soviet spy, Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures.
A secret service is a secret service; I accept that. But the well-tried administrative precept that efficiency improves with accountability is not irrelevant even to the secret service.
Abridged extract from My Paper Chase by Harold Evans published this week by Little, Brown.
Evans is a former editor of both The Sunday Times of London (1967-81) and The Times (1981-2), editorial director of US News and World Report and president of Random House.