Nothing, not even the spy fiction of John le Carré, Len Deighton, or Charles McCarry, compares with the real-life story of the Ring of Five. Not only was the group made up of five members of the British establishment—Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—who had signed up to serve communism as spies when they met at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1930s. But by virtue of their subsequent positions within the British government, they also succeeded in transferring thousands of the most sensitive military documents to their Russian handlers.
By the onset of the cold war, Philby was an officer in His Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) in charge of Section IX, its anti-Soviet unit. Burgess was in the BBC and then the Foreign Office. Maclean was a fast-rising British diplomat—in the Paris embassy on the eve of the German invasion, later in the Washington embassy, and a member of the Joint Policy Committee, an Anglo-American group that dealt with atomic bomb matters. Cairncross was secretary to Lord Hankey, minister without portfolio in Churchill’s War Cabinet, and had such access to British secrets that he was able to tell Moscow in September 1941 that Britain was going to build an atomic bomb, only five days after the government had made that decision.1 Blunt, the most aristocratic of the five, was a distant cousin of the Queen and a well-known scholar of seventeenth-century French art at Cambridge who later became director of the Courtauld Institute in London. As a member of MI5 during World War II, he was privy to Ultra, Britain’s top-secret code-breaking operation, and passed to Moscow what he learned from Ultra of German military plans.
By any reckoning this would make these traitors one of the most successful espionage rings in history. But now S.J. Hamrick, a former American Foreign Service officer, has plowed through practically all the books on the subject and consulted intelligence documents recently declassified in Washington, London, and Moscow and arrived at a new conclusion about them. He paid particular attention to the Venona archive, a cache of encrypted Soviet intelligence cables that were read by British and American code-breakers during the cold war. Some of the cables were released by the US National Security Agency and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1995 and 1996. Hamrick’s research has enabled him to show in a most convincing manner that the accepted accounts of the espionage of Philby, Burgess, and Maclean are at best flawed, and often plain wrong. Well, a lot of spy stories are wrong; neither spies nor intelligence services are given to writing to authors or newspapers to put the record straight. A book correcting errors and exaggerations in the accounts of the Ring of Five might interest spy buffs, but what new material does Hamrick claim to have?
In the second part of his book, Hamrick sets out to reveal a secret British deception operation which he says took advantage…
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