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Contemptuous Philby Laid a Fool's Trail

February 22, 2001|VERNE W. NEWTON | Verne W. Newton is the author of "The Cambridge Spies: the American Side of the Philby, Burgess, MacLean Story" (Madison Books, 1991)

"I decided on this course when I was 14 years old. I'd read Philby's book. Now that is insane, eh!"

--Robert Philip Hanssen


If you're 14 and you picked Kim Philby for a role model, you lose. But according to information filed by the FBI, that is just what Robert Philip Hanssen, the agent arrested Tuesday, claims he did after reading Philby's "My Silent War."

Philby, like Hanssen a highly trusted senior intelligence official, was recruited as a spy by the Soviet Union even before he entered MI6, Britain's CIA. He had climbed to nearly the pinnacle of MI6 before being brought down by the defections to Moscow of Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, both of whom he knew well at Cambridge University, both of whom worked for the Foreign Office, and both of whom were also Soviet spies.

That was in 1951. Philby was forced out of MI6 and lived a shadowy life as a journalist and probably as a retainer to his loyal MI6 friends. But in 1963 the walls were about to close on him, and Philby too escaped to Moscow.

His book, written under the supervision of his Soviet paymasters, was largely a work of propaganda in which he glamorized the life of a man whose every waking moment was a lie. He had to manage his lies not only to his professional colleagues but to his friends and his family.

Philby insisted he did all this because he was an anti-fascist or because he believed in the redistribution of wealth. But these defenses fall flat. Between the lines, and drawing on his well-documented life, it is clear that ideology had nothing to do with his choice. The question, after all, was never why Philby spied for the Soviets, but why they chose him over the many alienated Cambridge students in the 1930s who were eager to serve their idealized notion of the U.S.S.R., rather than the decadent British society.

What Soviet recruiters saw in Philby was not an ideologue, because he wasn't one. Nor was he a passionate advocate for social justice, nor did he recite the Marxist catechism. Rather, they saw a weak man of few convictions who needed to become a robot in a rigid system with none of the responsibilities of a pluralistic society.

They also saw in Philby a man who was drawn to conspiratorial relationships. Cambridge University was well-known for its secret societies, and a number of Soviet spies were Apostles, the most elite of the secret societies (almost none came from Oxford, a more open school that thought Cambridge's secret societies were infantile).

Philby's hunger for conspiratorial relationships was sated by the Soviet Union, an entity that someone once described as an organized system of paranoia. Betrayal of his friends and colleagues was an opiate. In his book he ridicules those who trusted him for being too stupid and naive to know that he could not be trusted. And his own feelings of inadequacy disappeared beneath the gush of superiority that came from having secrets that even those in his super-secret agency never remotely suspected--that his true loyalty was not to England but to the Soviet dictatorship.

There can be no doubt that Philby's book was calculated to appeal to the young Hanssens of the West. In his breezy style he posited the notion that if you believed in world peace and social justice in the 1930s (and beyond), the logical next step was to transfer your loyalty to the U.S.S.R. (no one imagined that one day it would crumble).

We have nothing from Hanssen yet. But the FBI claims he wrote the letters and messages they released. The quoted passages certainly contain familiar themes. The anger at his government and his agency as a defense mechanism for justifying his alleged betrayal. The desperate cry of a man who feels he has been abandoned by his Russian spymasters to whom he declared his "insane loyalty."

Whoever wrote those messages sounds as if he experienced the bitter lesson of Philby and so many others: The Soviets had only contempt for those who served them as spies. Philby, Burgess and MacLean were all isolated, given no jobs, treated with suspicion. All three died alcoholics.

These are the things Philby did not reveal to his admiring 14-year-old reader.

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