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Perfect traitors: Robert Hanssen and Kim Philby

Premiering on History, Damian Lewis: Spy Wars sees the Homeland and Billions star draw back the curtain on the dark world of espionage. Real-life tales from the Cold War and beyond are told through riveting reconstructions, including the story of Robert Hanssen: a seemingly solid FBI agent who secretly passed on devastating amounts of information to the Soviet Union (and to Russian forces after the fall of the USSR).

Described by the US Department of Justice as 'possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history', Hanssen’s exploits echoed a similar catastrophe which befell British intelligence many years before: the treachery of MI6 operative Kim Philby.

The stories of the two men have many parallels. Both were trusted, senior agents for the nations they betrayed. Both passed on immense amounts of searingly sensitive information to the other side. But there was one glaring difference. Hanssen was an amoral mercenary who did it all for money, while Philby was a true believer: a committed, starry-eyed Communist whose impeccable 'English gentleman' persona made him the perfect traitor.

Actually, Philby was never quite as conventional as he appeared. Born in 1912, he was the offspring of St John Philby, a rebel and adventurer who was fluent in Persian and Arabic, converted to Islam and was an advisor to the founder of Saudi Arabia. The young Kim Philby even spent time living with the Bedouin in the Middle East before settling on the usual trajectory of the most privileged men of his era: private school, followed by Cambridge. It was here, in this breeding ground of the British establishment, that Philby developed the ideas that would make him notorious. 'On my very last day at Cambridge I decided that I would become a Communist,' he later wrote. 

In the early 30s, being a 'Communist' didn’t have quite the same radioactive resonance that it later would during the Cold War. It was a rather fashionable, progressive stance to take among free-thinking intellectual types, and was largely motivated by a sincere desire to beat back Fascism in Europe. After graduating in the early 30s, Philby even went to Vienna to aid refugees from Nazi Germany. Here, like the hero of some spy thriller, he had a gutsy love affair with a fierce, raven-haired young Communist woman, Litzi Friedmann. They had sex on snowy streets ('I know it sounds impossible, but it was actually quite warm once you got used to it') and fed each other’s ideological fervour. 

It was through Litzi Friedmann that, back in London, Philby met a Soviet agent called Arnold Deutsch. Posting as a student, Deutsch was in England with the express intention of recruiting spies for the Communist cause. Their rendezvous was in Regent’s Park, where Deutsch bluntly told Philby that 'a person with my family background and possibilities could do far more for Communism than the run-of-the-mill Party member'.

This was the tipping point. Philby was clearly under Deutsch’s spell, later saying he was a 'marvellous man… He looked at you as if nothing more important in life than you and talking to you existed at that moment.' 

Philby was so committed to the idea of spying for the USSR that he agreed to re-create his public persona from scratch, breaking off friendships with socialist chums, ending his relationship with Litzi Friedmann, and proclaiming Fascist views, much to his own secret disgust. It was all in order to position himself as a trustworthy, safely non-Communist candidate for working in British intelligence.

The fox was not merely guarding the hen house, but building it, running it, assessing its strengths and frailties

Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

Philby also made himself useful by referring Deutsch to two other shining young candidates for treachery: fellow Cambridge graduates Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, who along with Philby would become notorious as members of the Cambridge spy ring. In the words of Christopher Andrew, author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, these men were idealists, 'inspired by the myth-image of Stalin’s Russia as a worker-peasant state with social justice', and refused to comprehend the dark, totalitarian reality of the Soviet Union.

Guy Burgess had a flamboyant, rebellious lifestyle – he was described by historian Phillip Knightley as 'dirty, drug-taking dirty, drug-taking Guy Burgess, seducer of sailors, lorry drivers and chorus boys”. Yet it was Burgess who joined MI6 first, paving the way for his fellow traitor, Philby, in 1940. 

As the Nazi threat was slowly extinguished and the prelude to the Cold War began, Philby cunningly positioned himself as the head of anti-Soviet operations in MI6. In the words of historian Ben Macintyre, author of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, 'the fox was not merely guarding the hen house, but building it, running it, assessing its strengths and frailties.'

Philby was a high-flyer in the service, a crucial point of contact with the CIA, all the while stealing secrets for the KGB. He later boasted that he would go home every evening with a bulging briefcase of sensitive files, hand them to his Soviet contact for duplication, then return the files the next day. 'That I did regularly,' Philby said. 'Year in, year out.'

Among other things, Philby helped wreck a plan by British and US intelligence agents to subvert the Communist regime in Albania by sending in pro-Western Albanian guerrilla fighters. Philby gave the Soviets advance notice of the plan and the plot was crushed, with hundreds of Albanians killed. Philby later said, 'To the extent that I helped defeat them, even if it caused their deaths, I have no regrets.'

Over his long career in subterfuge, Philby escaped detection through a mixture of luck and shameless stubbornness. When Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were unmasked in 1951, and fled to Russia, Philby came under suspicion because of his friendship with Burgess. His tactic was to simply deny everything, and it worked. Even Harold Macmillan, the future prime minister, came to Philby’s defence.

It was not until many years later, in 1963, that the net finally closed in and Philby was forced to escape to Moscow, escaping justice in one of the most humiliating moments in the history of British intelligence (though there are many who believe Philby was deliberately given time to flee, so MI6 would be saved the media fallout of a length trial). 

Philby’s new existence in his adopted motherland was bittersweet. While he was given a comfortable place to stay, and enjoyed romances (including an affair with the wife of Donald Maclean, his old partner in treachery), he also drank heavily and clearly missed the trappings of English life, maintaining a wistful fondness for Colman’s mustard and PG Wodehouse novels.
 
Yet, while his young Russian wife Rufina later claimed Philby was disenchanted by the ugly reality of life in the Soviet bloc, his own writings reveal an unflagging admiration for the ideology he sold his country out for. In one letter to the KGB in 1977, he wrote of his abiding desire 'to see the red flag flying on Buckingham Palace and the White House'. 

He died in 1988, a Soviet hero and a despised English traitor.
 

Damian Lewis: Spy Wars starts Monday 7 October at 9pm.