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Turning the Philby Case on Its Head


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 of the unfolding of the Philby, Burgess, and Maclean investigation to turn the tables on the KGB and its servants. The aim, as Hamrick suggests in his title, was to deceive the deceivers. Furthermore, argues Hamrick, this was accomplished without the permission or knowledge of the British or American governments. Nor was this Western deception trivial stuff, involving the doublecrosses, recruitment efforts, and other games usually played between rival intelligence agencies. The plan was intended to convince Moscow that the US and Britain were ready to mount a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union that could cost the lives of millions. This was not true and would have been a gigantic bluff to conceal the fact that the West did not have the means to do any such thing.

If this deception plan did exist and was put into operation, then Hamrick’s book reveals a cold war event of major historical importance. But he himself is quick to admit that he has no proof of such a plot. He writes, “Not one shred of documentary evidence has yet been found nor is ever likely to be found to support it.” From where, then, did he ever get the idea that it happened?

Mostly by deduction. He makes a good case that ranking members of British intelligence—among them Dick White, then of MI5, and Jack Easton of MI6—knew that Philby was a traitor well before the generally accepted date on which he fell under suspicion—May 1951. But since they allowed him to continue his work for Moscow, Hamrick concludes they must have been using him in a deception operation. He then produces a source to confirm both his theory and the nature of the deception:

In 1976 an experienced and respected US army intelligence officer then in retirement disclosed that Philby had been used in Washington “to pass fictitious information about the effectiveness of the Strategic Air Command and the size of the US atomic arsenal at the time of the Korean War.” The comment was made by General Edwin L. Sibert during a series of conversations with Anthony Cave Brown, an English writer researching a book on Sir Stewart Menzies, “C,” the Chief of MI6. Cave Brown included the remark in his Menzies biography published in 1988.

General Sibert gave no further details and since he died in 1977, Hamrick has only Cave Brown’s account on which to rely. Here we have a major difficulty: Cave Brown was a notoriously unreliable journalist and author, given to mixing fact and fantasy with a skill that made untangling them impossible. Cave Brown died in July 2006, and London’s Guardian newspaper said in an obituary that he was “a buccaneering journalist who seldom let the facts get in the way of a good story, which may explain why he took a special interest in espionage and conspiracy theories when he turned to writing books.”2

Without anything more substantial to justify Hamrick’s thesis, unless something emerges from the Venona or other archives that remain unreleased—a highly unlikely event—then the central part of his book, the deception operation, however plausibly presented, will remain no more than an interesting theory.

When the Ring of Five scandal was first exposed in 1967, not much was known to the public about Burgess and Maclean and virtually nothing was known about Philby. The British government had succeeded in painting the Burgess and Maclean defection to Moscow in May 1951 as a drunken impulse of two unimportant junior diplomats who were already punished by being forced to live in the USSR. Philby’s flight from Beirut to Moscow in 1963 was similarly dismissed and received little more than a few paragraphs in the British press. Then at the suggestion of Jeremy Isaacs, head of current affairs at Thames Television, and provoked by the remarks of a former Foreign Office official, John Sackur, who was seeking a job as a foreign correspondent—“You’ll never be able to publish the Philby story—it is a scandal that goes to the highest in the land”—the then editor of the London Sunday Times, Harold Evans, assigned the paper’s investigative team, Insight, on which I was then working, to look into Philby’s flight.

The Times‘s editor in chief, Denis Hamilton, objected; publicity would help the Russians and could put SIS officers at risk. Hamilton went to see the prime minister, Harold Wilson, who arranged a meeting with the chief of SIS, Sir Dick White. Hamilton agreed that the Sunday Times would show SIS each article before it was published so as to make sure no one would be endangered. Hamilton did not inform the reporters working on the story of this deal but as I made inquiries among retired spies it became fairly clear that some sort of accommodation had been reached between the paper and SIS. Nevertheless, our findings were sensational. When we published the early results of our investigation, the British public learned for the first time of the Ring of Five’s betrayal. Philby’s attempts to undermine Western security, we found, had been constant and relentless, his access to our secrets apparently total. We homed in on two examples. The first was his job in charge of SIS’s anti-Soviet section. If the officer in charge of Britain’s anti-Soviet plans was a Soviet agent himself, how could any anti-Soviet operation succeed?

We looked particularly hard at Philby’s appointment in 1949 as liaison officer between British intelligence and the CIA/FBI. This post, we wrote, would have given him access to whatever the CIA was planning against Moscow, and names of whoever the FBI was investigating as possible KGB spies. We were soon joined by other journalists, historians, academics, and scriptwriters. I wrote so much about Philby in Washington that Hamilton chided me in his gentle manner that I had become Philby’s public relations officer. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had worked for SIS, attracted attention when he suggested that if Philby had not been uncovered, in time he could well have become chief of the SIS and thus been in a position to run the intelligence cold war against the Soviet Union to Moscow’s advantage. But what most excited readers—and Hamrick misses this—is not what secrets the Ring of Five revealed, but who had revealed them. As le Carré later put it, “The avenger stole upon the citadel and destroyed it from within.” The very class of Englishman the British people relied on to protect the nation had betrayed them, and one of them none other than a distant member of the royal family. (A West End play by Alan Bennett had a scene in which the Queen, secretly aware of Blunt’s treachery, subtly tries to get him to confess to her.)

Among Philby’s deepest secrets, the story goes, was that he had access to the Venona intercepts, the name given to decrypts of cable traffic between the Soviet consulate in New York and Moscow. These cables were being painstakingly broken by American and British cryptographers and had a major part in most postwar spy cases. In early 1951 Philby realized from Venona transcripts that the FBI was closing in on Maclean, then head of the American Department of the Foreign Office, and that MI5 was planning to investigate him soon. Fearful that Maclean would crack, Philby sent Burgess from Washington to London to oversee Maclean’s escape.

Everything went wrong—an intelligence nightmare. Philby told me about this in a week-long interview in Moscow in January 1988. Burgess was to accompany Maclean across the Channel to France in case he tried to back out at the last minute. Instead, in May 1951, Burgess went too, all the way to Moscow, both never to return. Since Burgess, contrary to KGB rules, had shared a house in Washington with Philby, Philby was immediately under suspicion. He was ordered back to London from Washington, faced an inconclusive MI5 trial, and was sacked. Eventually he got a job as a correspondent for The Observer and The Economist in Beirut. He kept contact with SIS, but his career with the KGB was over.

  1. 1

    See Nigel West, Mortal Crimes (Enigma, 2004), p. 15.

  2. 2

    Dan van der Vat, “Anthony Cave Brown,” The Guardian, October 17, 2006.

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