Friendship And Spies

Walter Isaacson never fails me.  He makes me aware of new ideas and always presents them in thoughtful ways and with powerful writing.  Such is the case of his book review for A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre.

Isaacson reviews the book that shows how friendship was central to the often-told story of Kim Philby, the famed spymaster and Russian mole.  The whole article is worth your time, with the intersection of friendship and espionage making for a most compelling case to pick this book up for a read.

The story of Philby and his fellow Cambridge University double agents has been told many times, most notably by Phillip Knightley and Anthony Cave Brown, as well as by Philby himself and two of his four wives. Macintyre, who draws on these and other published sources, was not able to pry open any archives or uncover startling new revelations. Instead, he came up with a captivating framing device: telling the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow Cambridge-educated spy who was, or thought he was, Philby’s trusted friend. In doing so Macintyre has produced more than just a spy story. He has written a narrative about that most complex of topics, friendship: Why does it exist, what causes people to seek it and how do we know when it’s real?

Elliott not only became Philby’s friend, he began to worship him “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated.” He even bought the same expensive umbrella that Philby liked to sport. What he did not know was that Philby was a double agent working for Russia. That meant he had a different angle on their friendship. “Nicholas Elliott was a rising star in the service and a valued friend,” Macintyre writes, “and no one understood the value of friendship better than Kim Philby.”

There he became friends, in the Philbyesque sense of that word, with another excessively fascinating character in this book, James Jesus Angleton, who was rising in the ranks of the C.I.A. “Angleton was a little like one of the rare orchids he would later cultivate,” Macintyre writes, “alluring to some but faintly sinister to those who preferred simpler flora.” He was obsessed with rooting out spies and moles, but he missed the biggest one in his midst, indeed became enamored of him. Just as Elliott took to carrying around the same umbrella as Philby, Angleton wore the same homburg hat.

Like almost every character in this book, Philby and Angleton were ferocious and competitive drinkers. They would meet at a clublike Washington saloon and oyster bar, Harvey’s, and match each other drink for drink. As they exchanged confidences, Angleton was at a deadly disadvantage: He didn’t know that Philby wasn’t on his team.

Macintyre’s book climaxes with a psychological duel over tea, cloaked by a veneer of gentility, which led to some subsequent meetings and a partial confession from Philby. But instead of arranging an arrest or abduction or assassination, Elliott told his erstwhile friend that he was going to Africa for a few days before the process of interrogation resumed. On his own in Beirut, Philby immediately contacted his Russian handlers, who whisked him on a freighter to Moscow, where he lived the rest of his life in exile.

Why did Elliott let Philby escape? At first it seemed as if he and the British intelligence service were bumbling fools. But Macintyre offers a different theory, one made plausible by his book’s narrative. After extracting Philby’s confession, Elliott may have intentionally left the door open for him to flee. Perhaps he even nudged him to do so. The old boys’ network had nothing to gain from further revelations or a public trial. It also probably had no stomach for punishing one of its own.

At first Philby reveled in the fact that he had escaped. It was only after a few months in Moscow that it dawned on him that he may have been pushed. He smuggled Elliott a letter suggesting that they secretly meet in a place like Helsinki to clear things up. “Our last transactions were so strange that I cannot help thinking that perhaps you wanted me to do a fade.” Elliott rejected him with a cold, blunt response.

One new piece of evidence comes from the former spy John le Carré, who tackled the Philby case in his novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Le Carré interviewed Elliott in 1986 and resurrected his notes to write an afterword for this book.

He asked Elliott whether he and his MI6 colleagues ever considered having Philby dragooned back to London. “Nobody wanted him in London, old boy,” Elliott replied.

Le Carré followed up: “Could you have him killed?”

To that Elliott gave a disapproving response. “My dear chap,” he said. “One of us.”

That neatly encapsulates the underlying theme of this book, one Macintyre explores with both insight and humor. What does it really mean to be “one of us”?

The Nixon Tapes: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Great read about what promises to be great reads.

But Nixon’s emotional neediness shows through, and not just once or twice. He is obsessed with John F. Kennedy, or more specifically, Kennedy’s image in history, which Nixon feels (not without justification) was inflated. On April 15, 1971, Nixon complains to Kissinger and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, “Kennedy was cold, impersonal, he treated his staff like dogs.” (Nixon was more considerate to his staff.) “His staff created the impression of warm, sweet and nice to people, reads lot of books, a philosopher, and all that sort of thing. That was pure creation of mythology .…”

As he often did, Nixon then complains he’s not getting credit for his virtues and blames his staff. “For Christ’s sake, can’t we get across the courage more? Courage, boldness, guts? Goddamn it! That is the thing!” He rants on, fishing for reassurance:

NIXON: What is the most important single factor that should come across out of the first two years? Guts! Absolutely. Guts! Don’t you agree, Henry?


Nixon tried to control his feelings, pretending he did not resent the press, but from time to time his anger surged up, occasionally in rash ways. Remarkably, we still do not know who ordered the June 1972 Watergate break-in that led to Nixon’s downfall. There are lots of theories, including CIA plots and convoluted conspiracies about sex rings, but no conclusive evidence. There is, however, recorded proof of Nixon ordering a different break-in—at the Brookings Institution in 1971.

40 Years Ago Today

N.Y. Times 5-col. lead (out of 8 cols.), “HOUSE [Judiciary] COMMITTEE, 28-10, VOTES SECOND IMPEACHMENT ARTICLE … Nixon Is Charged With Failure to Uphold Nation’s Laws,” by James M. Naughton.

Wisconsin And Mississippi Both Fighting Over Same Abortion Tactic

The morning papers reported that a federal appeals panel has blocked a Mississippi law that would have shut the sole abortion clinic in that state by requiring its doctors to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals.

The tactic is not a novel one as it has been used in eleven states, including Wisconsin.  But wherever it is attempted a legal fight ensues.  One thing is clear no matter where this law is placed on the books and that is  those who are opposed to abortion are trying to shut down clinics  with this maneuver.

One has to wonder how men would feel if they were asked to travel across state lines to find a doctor for a medical procedure.  But if you can believe it that is exactly what Mississippi officials were telling women to do when it came to reproductive medical procedures.  Let them travel to  Louisiana or Tennessee was the argument that the federal court ruled against.

The federal appeals court did not take kindly to that idea, and in so ruling 2-1 has most likely set up a fight over this issue for the Supreme Court to take up in the near future.  The reason the high court will get another crack at abortion is that this same appeals court gave a contradictory ruling when it came to a similar case from Texas.  In that case the court ruled that the closing of some but not all clinics within a state did not present an undue burden to women seeking abortion.

In Mississippi the sole clinic remains open.  In Wisconsin a ruling is expected later this summer to clarify the matter.

There is no justification, be it women in Wisconsin or in some southern state, that they should be burdened with politicians–most of them men–trying to dictate the terms of how they deal with personal medical matters.

Enough already!