Saturday, September 13, 2014

The best lies

Kim Philby rose easily through the ranks of MI6, England's foreign intelligence organization.  In a group made mostly of the upper class of British society, they prided themselves on being part of an elite group - a club, actually - that traded in secrets.  And Philby was as charming as they came, easily making friends of nearly everyone, but especially those with information.  Unfortunately, he was also passing that information on to the enemy - the Soviet Union - and did so for about 30 years!

I found A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre both frustrating and infuriating, and yet I couldn't put it down.  Philby became friends with another member of MI6 who joined about the same time he did, Nicholas Elliot, and an American counterpart in the CIA, James Angleton.  And while the men drank (and drank, and drank) together, Philby listened to all the information his friends shared.  Whether it was about internal matters or operations that involved communist nations, he passed it all along to his Soviet handler, and the volume of information was such that even the KGB wondered if he was stringing them along.  And yet his information lead to the deaths of numerous people: anti-communist Catholics in Germany (and their families), Albanians sent to foment rebellion (and their families), and British and American spies in Russia.  It is estimated that thousands of people died because of Philby's friendships... and their willingness to share their knowledge over drinks.  And even when circumstantial evidence pointed to their friend, Elliot and Angleton couldn't believe that the guy they thought they knew so well could possibly be a Soviet spy.  It's said that the best lies are the ones we tell ourselves, and nowhere was that more apparent than in this case.

MacIntyre knows how to tell a good spy story, especially when the story is true.  I enjoyed Operation Mincemeat and have more by him on my to-be-read list.  This isn't exactly a biography in the traditional sense, but also profiles Elliot and Angleton, and focuses on the friendship of the three men.  And as frustrating as this one was to read (how could they not know?!?), it was a great story I just couldn't put down. (I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.)

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