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.
When SIS had enough admissible evidence against Philby, it sent a senior officer to Beirut to try to get him to confess. Philby listened, procrastinated, and then, in January 1963, put into effect a KGB escape plan and went to Moscow, abandoning everyone and everything close to him: his wife, children, family, friends. After our series of articles in 1967, the subsequent books and articles produced little new information. Philby’s own book, My Silent War, was published in 1968. Heavily censored by the Soviets, often inaccurate, it was pored over by Western intelligence officers looking for clues, messages, and disinformation. They were disappointed. In 1988 Philby died in Moscow. He had said himself, a few months earlier, that he had no regrets, that he had made the right decision back in the 1930s to commit himself to communism and had looked forward to its coming triumphs.
Burgess had died in 1963 in Moscow and Maclean had died in 1983. Thus, none of the three lived to see the collapse of communism. With Philby’s book we could surely have been forgiven for thinking that the Ring of Five never faced justice. With Philby, Burgess, and Maclean dying in the USSR, and Cairncross dying in France, where he had moved as a precaution even though MI5 knew it lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute him, they got away with their treachery.
Blunt’s fate was quite different. In 1964 he accepted a deal. The government would grant him immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession and for revealing all he knew about his fellow traitors and their KGB controllers. Once he had his immunity, Blunt stalled. Years passed and despite regular interrogations MI5 considered it was getting nowhere. Meanwhile, Blunt was able to continue his successful academic career and his position as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures. He also kept his knighthood, which he had been awarded in 1956. A group of senior officers, outraged that Blunt had got away with his treachery and suspecting that his royal connections had something to do with it, embarked on a secret unauthorized campaign to “out” Blunt and destroy him. Influential journalists were briefed and one senior officer even managed to get into 10 Downing Street in June 1974 to warn the prime minister, Harold Wilson, through his Cabinet secretary, that there could be other cases of KGB penetration, possibly in the intelligence services themselves.
In 1979 Andrew Boyle, a former wartime intelligence officer turned author and broadcaster, published A Climate of Treason in which the main character, “Maurice,” is a thinly disguised Blunt. The press jumped on it and there were questions in the House of Commons. Briefed by MI5, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, decided that Blunt’s immunity from prosecution did not include a guarantee to him of secrecy and she named him as a member of the Ring of Five. He was publicly disgraced, stripped of his honors, shunned by most of his friends and colleagues, and died four years later, aged seventy-five. With Philby’s death several years later, it seemed time to consign the entire story to cold war history.
Now Hamrick has put forward a radical new version of the Philby, Burgess, and Maclean story. He argues that we got a lot of it wrong. Quite likely. Trying to reconstruct a man’s life by interviewing his friends and colleagues, many of whom were in the intelligence world themselves, was journalistically perilous and my interview in Moscow with Philby himself, which had been arranged by the KGB, left many unanswered questions. Why did Moscow allow it? Was I being used? To what end?
Hamrick’s revisionist account forces anyone who ever wrote about Philby, Burgess, and Maclean to ask: Why didn’t we think of that at the time? The most glaring example was our mistaken belief that by being liaison officer to the CIA and FBI, Philby was at the heart of Western intelligence operations against communism. Hamrick reminds us that the CIA in 1949 was an incompetent small-scale spy service scattered all over Washington desperately looking for a role for itself. When it started promoting subversion behind the iron curtain, its plans—attempting to organize, for example, a Hungarian anti-Communist army in Austria—were so ill-conceived and so optimistic as to border on fantasy. When they failed, as they were bound to do, the CIA kept quiet until, in the 1960s, the growing celebrity of Philby offered the agency the possibility of blaming some of the failures on him. It was Philby, for example, who, according to US informants, betrayed the British plan in 1949 to drop anti-Communist, expatriate Albanians back into their country to sabotage the regime and create subversion. In consequence they were all arrested and executed. But Hamrick says Philby had little or nothing to do with the betrayal. He notes that the first British landings on the Albanian coast had already taken place by the time Philby arrived in Washington, and that there is no evidence that he had been informed about them. He also lacked a good courier to the KGB at that time.
Hamrick seems to me right. By an odd coincidence, I met a former high-ranking officer of the Albanian secret police at a diplomatic party in London a few years ago. He insisted that his agents had penetrated all the Albanian émigré organizations, that they knew about the British plan early on, and that Philby was not involved. His claims, if he was willing to repeat them, could have provided the beginning of an inquiry into the truth about Philby’s espionage; but such an inquiry will probably never be made.
Hamrick says that there were many strange anomalies in the Philby case that should have alerted all of us to the possibility that there was more going on in Washington at the time than we imagined. Maclean’s escape plan in retrospect seems silly. If the aim was to get Maclean to safety in Moscow before MI5 could interrogate him, and to have Burgess accompany him so that he would be sure to get there, why send Burgess to London by sea? Why allow him to hang around in New York enjoying a long goodbye before embarking? In allowing this delay, what could Philby have been thinking? Hamrick quotes Rebecca West as wondering why Philby did not simply hand over the problem to Moscow.
After all, in the summer of 1950, the KGB had quickly spirited Morris and Lona Cohen, an American husband-and-wife spy team, out of the US, a step ahead of the FBI. KGB agents since 1938, they had delivered stolen atomic secrets from Los Alamos to the Soviet consulate in New York. As Lona Cohen recalled in Moscow in 1990, “A comrade came to our apartment and wrote a note, in case the FBI was listening, ordering us to leave the country immediately. We were gone within the hour.”3
Much of the accepted Philby, Burgess, and Maclean story does not make sense. Hamrick’s main point is that there were people on both sides of the Atlantic in 1949 and 1950 who thought that Philby was a dubious character with a suspicious past. He had left-wing beliefs at Cambridge; in Vienna in 1934 he married Litzi Friedman, a known Communist activist; he worked for the Communist underground in Austria. Most suspicious of all, there was the case of Konstantin Volkov, a KGB officer in Turkey in 1945 who had offered to defect and bring with him the names of Soviet agents in Britain. Sent from London by SIS to handle the defection, Philby, worried that Volkov might be able to expose him, tipped off the KGB, which immediately spirited Volkov back to Moscow, never to be seen again.
As for Maclean, Hamrick says that Dick White, the chief of MI5, believed that his guilt had been established beyond question by the 1948–1950 Venona decrypts. So in 1950 we have the chief of MI5 sitting on proof that Maclean is a traitor, and several senior British intelligence officers privately convinced—but without sufficient evidence—that Philby is too. Yet they did not act on this information until a year later. It is Hamrick’s contention that some of these officers took matters into their own hands to mount a deception operation against Moscow and chose the principal traitor, Kim Philby, as their conduit to do it. Why does he believe that they would want to do this?
Hamrick recalls that in 1949 and 1950, the West was in fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The Red Army had 400,000 men at arms within striking distance of Berlin. A few senior military officers and Royal Air Force officers backed by some like-minded Americans believed that the threat of atomic retaliation was the most effective deterrent against Moscow. The US Air Force had a war plan: “Trojan,” which provided for the nuclear bombing of some two hundred Russian cities. The problem was that the West did not have the atomic bombs or the planes to carry out such an operation. Trojan and any other Anglo-US war plans were largely illusory and required a nuclear arsenal and a strategic strike force that would be inadequate for years to come. It was all a bluff.
Hamrick writes that the Western military planners failed to realize the respect that Stalin had for the US as the strongest nation on earth. But what mattered was what Washington and London thought Stalin believed. Many Western leaders were troubled by his apparent dismissal of the atomic bomb’s war-winning powers and troubled even more by Soviet doubt that the West was actually willing to use the bomb.
The British chiefs of staff, according to Hamrick, thought that the best deterrent against a Soviet attack would be “our known preparedness to defend ourselves and to hit back.” The only effective deterrent to a potential aggressor was tangible evidence of “known preparedness.” The vital word is “known.” It had to be known to Moscow. A propaganda campaign with blustering anti-Soviet speeches by politicians would not have worked. What the Anglo-American military planners needed was a way to let the Russians know about their plans for use of atomic weapons in retaliation for any Russian attack, and that they were willing to act on them.
The best possible way would be to get a message to Moscow through a Soviet agent so well placed in the West that theoretically he would have access to such secrets and be so completely trusted by the KGB that there would be no question about the authenticity of his information. He would need to have shown deep ideological commitment to communism and unswerving loyalty over a long period. Hamrick argues that Kim Philby, with his well-known left-wing background, would have been an ideal choice. Moreover, the way to plant the deceptive information on him without arousing his suspicions was already in place. MI6 in London ran a special high-security communications channel with the British embassy in Washington. The officer who handled the Washington end of this channel, encrypting and decrypting all the traffic, was Kim Philby.
Hamrick’s theory is that Philby would have read and passed on to Moscow a message or messages emphasizing the West’s determination to use the atomic bomb if need be, outlining collaboration between the RAF and then Strategic Air Command, and giving details of the Trojan war plan. The beauty of the plan was that if Philby were not a KGB agent, as the conspirators believed, and did not pass the information to Moscow, nothing would have been lost.
I have said earlier that the only hint that Hamrick can muster that any such deception operation occurred came to him via the work of Anthony Cave Brown, an author notorious for his cavalier attitude toward facts. And there is another difficulty with his story. Hamrick says Philby was the ideal Soviet agent on whom to plant the deceptive material because he was so well trusted by the KGB. But he was not. He had fallen prey to a paradoxical phenomenon in the intelligence game: often, the better the information a spy provides his masters, the less likely he is to be believed. Throughout Philby’s career with the KGB some new, ambitious case officer in Moscow would look at Philby’s file and wonder about the volume and apparent value of his material.
We know that in 1942 the KGB did what all intelligence services do when doubtful about an agent—it handed Philby’s entire file to a trusted desk officer who had previously had nothing to do with him and was therefore impartial, and asked for an evaluation. In Philby’s case, the officer was a woman, Elena Modrzhinskaya. According to Russian author Genrikh Borovik in his book The Philby Files,4 the first point Elena Modrzhinskaya raised was: Could the British Secret Intelligence Service really be run by such fools that no one had noticed that precious information was leaking to Moscow? Steadily she developed the case against Philby. She noted that, without exception, his Soviet controllers had been shot for being German or Polish spies, or had defected to the West.
Then came the piece of evidence that Modrzhinskaya thought clinched matters. The British had intercepted and decoded a telegram from the Japanese ambassador in Berlin to his foreign minister in Tokyo. Philby copied it and passed it on to the KGB. But Moscow already had a copy from another source and when it compared the two, the final paragraph was missing from Philby’s version. In it the Japanese ambassador suggested that Hitler might soon try to make a separate peace with Stalin, a vital piece of information.
Philby’s controller demanded an explanation from Philby. The answer, Philby said, was simple—at the time the British intercepted the message, radio reception was very poor, so the last part was garbled and could not be decoded. The KGB refused to believe him and accepted Modrzhinskaya’s conclusion—Philby was an SIS plant and so too were Burgess, Blunt, and Cairncross. Maclean was a genuine recruit but he was being secretly manipulated by the others.
Her conclusion was, of course, totally wrong. But according to Borovik, who had access to Philby’s personal KGB file, having made this decision the KGB bosses now displayed the twisted logic that distinguishes spying from other human activities. The reasoning in Moscow went: Elena Modrzhinskaya has made out such a powerful case against Philby and his colleagues that we will have to act on it. But what if in the end she turns out to be wrong? We could be blamed for having got rid of four devoted penetration agents. We might be shot. So let’s not cut off contact with these English agents altogether. If they are working for the British they will have to give us some genuine material to maintain their credibility and that material will be valuable to us. We will pretend that nothing has happened and do our best to reinforce Philby’s conviction that we trust him and his Cambridge colleagues completely.
Hamrick is aware of this background and therefore that the deceptive operation, if it did indeed exist, could have failed because the KGB did not entirely trust Philby. (Hamrick quotes Borovik extensively, lists his book in his notes, and describes him as “a valuable source.”) But he is dismissive of the Modrzhinskaya affair: “During the 1940s,” he writes, “Moscow Center suspected [Philby] of being a disinformation agent under British control,” but he adds that those doubts had passed, a claim which, in view of the KGB’s cultivation and use of agents over decades, seems highly unlikely.
Hamrick has written a valuable book because it challenges many of our assumptions about the most-discussed espionage events of the cold war. But it fails when it tries to show that an anonymous group of Anglo-American military intelligence officers turned these events around and deceived the deceivers. Hamrick prudently excuses in advance his lack of evidence for this: “Military and intelligence operations that leave no paper behind don’t exist except in memory. And after the memories have perished, nothing is left.”
April 26, 2007
See Nigel West, Mortal Crimes (Enigma, 2004), p. 15. ↩
Dan van der Vat, “Anthony Cave Brown,” The Guardian, October 17, 2006. ↩
They later turned up in London as Peter and Helen Kroger, ostensibly antiquarian book dealers, but actually communications officers for Conon Molody, who ran the Portland Naval Base spy ring. Exposed by Molody’s sloppy spycraft, they were sentenced to twenty years in jail, only to be exchanged after eight years for Gerald Brooke, a British lecturer, held in the USSR for distributing anti-Soviet pamphlets in Moscow. This was a deal so favorable to the KGB that it has remained inexplicable to this day. Lona died in Moscow in 1992 and Morris died a year later. ↩
Little, Brown, 1994. ↩