A Spy Among Friends

A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre

I had never heard of Kim Philby. After reading this book, I wonder how he’s not more famous. Philby was one of the top British intelligence officers throughout WWII and the Cold War up until his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963. He essentially pretended to spy on the communists, led top level operations, and passed all the information he got to the communists. And he did this while befriending other top officers including James Angleton, who was chief of the intelligence staff at the CIA. Every chapter is fascinating and fast paced. I just found out they are going to make a TV series based on his life. I have to say I’m not surprised.

1) General Noel Mason-MacFarlane made a formal request to assassinate Hitler from his balcony.

The general is not really part of the story, but his point is noteworthy. I have always wondered why so few leaders are assassinated, given that any leader is likely to be unpopular amongst a sizable group of the population. How did Hitler survive for so long? There certainly were assassination attempts, but none of them succeeded. Is this a win for his security team or a win for humanity (ex Hitler)?

2) MI5 is focused on domestic threats to security while MI6 is more for gathering intelligence outside of the UK.

The dichotomy is broadly analogous to FBI vs CIA, although of course these comparisons aren’t that accurate.

3) Kim Philby hated fascism and saw communism as the only defense against fascism.

I do remember learning something about this in high school history class. More memorable is the horseshoe imagery of the political spectrum, with communism and fascism at opposite ends of the horseshoe.

4) The Cicero Affair was considered one of the most serious diplomatic security leaks in British history.

Elyesa Bazna, the valet of the British ambassador in Turkey, which I learned to be a hotbed of spying and intelligence gathering, was an Albanian who gave away secret information to the Germans during the war. The impact of the leaks would have been worse had the Germans fullheartedly trusted Bazna. Interestingly, the Soviets were also wary of Philby, thinking that he might be a triple agent. It must be tough to have neither side trust you.

5) Vermehren’s defection brought about the downfall of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence gathering organization.

How often does a double agent ponder over whether or when to defect? How do you gauge how close you are to being exposed? How do you guarantee that the country you’re working for will treat you well?

6) The Americans and the British collaborated on Operation Valuable, which was an epic failure.

The Western forces tried to sneak insurgents into Albania to push back communism. Many of these Albanians were killed immediately. It’s unclear but likely that Philby tipped off the communists.

7) The defections of Burgess and Maclean brought suspicion on Philby.

Some people, especially the FBI and MI5 were starting to piece the puzzle together and suspected Philby of being a Soviet spy. However, Philby had enough powerful friends from MI6 and the CIA to support him. These two groups were looking at the same evidence, but came to totally opposite conclusions. Goes to show how powerful biases are.

8) One of the most interesting episodes in the book was the death of Lionel Crabb.

Crabb was known as one of the best frogmen in the world and was sent on a mission to investigate the Soviet cruiseship that Khrushchev travelled on during his diplomatic trip to the UK. Crabb died. MI6, led by Elliot, authorized the mission despite no top level approval. It was a diplomatic disaster.

9) Flora Solomon reignited the suspicion against Philby after he had spent many years in Beirut as a spy-journalist.

No book on 20th century history and politics is complete without some connection to Israel, and this book is no different. Solomon, a Zionist, got upset that Philby was writing pro-Arab articles in the papers and linked this to a conversation back in the 1930s in which Philby had tried to recruit her to be a Soviet spy. How Israel thwarts the best laid plans.

10) The final question in Philby’s story is whether Elliot let him run away to the Soviet Union.

The book offers no conclusion, but suggests that Elliot made no effort to keep a close watch on his friend, effectively giving him the go-ahead to defect to the Soviet Union. It’s certainly possible given their friendship and the fact that the Brits had no appetite for an embarrassing case over a Soviet spy who had dominated the British intelligence scene for years and had been cleared once before.


This book starts off a little slow but really picks up pace and is a thriller all the way to the end. I particularly liked the chapter titles, which are all cleverly thought out. Ultimately, the friendship between Elliot and Philby really drove the story and made the narrative much more personal and lively.

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