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Harold 'Kim' Philby and the Cambridge Three
  Intro | Maugham | Hari | Smedley | Berg | Hiss | Bentley | Fleming | Philby | Ames | Pollard

In the 1930s the Soviet Union recruited almost 40 Cambridge University students as spies during a time when many British and American intellectuals were challenging the politics and economics of the West. Many disillusioned students joined the so-called Communist International, or Comintern, an organization that billed itself as a means to unite Communists of all stripes from around the world but was actually a mechanism to promote a purely Soviet brand of Communism.

Though many of the Cambridge recruitees engaged extensively in espionage for years after they left Cambridge, only Harold "Kim" Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess—the so-called "Cambridge Three"—succeeded in securing both British and American secrets at the highest levels of government. They gained access to information about U.S. counterespionage efforts, plans for atomic bomb production, and military strategies during the Korean War and were able to pass this information on to the Soviets.

Of the tales of the Cambridge Three, that of Kim Philby is the most shocking, perhaps because Philby rose higher than the other two professionally, lasted longer wihout being discovered, and seemed to take more seriously the specific aim of betraying his country, the U.S., their secrets, and their operations.

Philby, nicknamed "Kim" after a spy character in a Kipling story, attended Cambridge University from 1929 to 1933, majoring first in history and then switching to economics. At Cambridge, Philby became friends with Maclean and Burgess, and the three of them shared a mutual interest in Marxism. After all three were recruited into espionage for the Soviets, their handlers directed them to discover all they could about counterespionage practices in the U.S. and Britain.

After graduation, Philby married Alice "Litzi" Friedman, a communist, in her native Vienna. The newlyweds traveled to Spain, where Philby took a reporting job covering the Spanish Civil War for the London Times. He posed as a Fascist there, and by 1939 he was forced to separate from Litzi lest her communist reputation be discovered. (Philby later divorced Litzi, was widowed by his second wife, divorced by his third wife, and remarried a fourth time.)

At the end of the Spanish Civil War Philby took a job in the British Secret Intelligence Service's counterintelligence division, "the heart of the secret world," as he called it in his memoir. Philby swiftly rose through the ranks of the SIS, becoming one of its most trusted agents, and for almost eight years acted as a mole for the Soviets. Though twice during his SIS career in Britain Philby came dangerously close to being discovered—on both occasions, Soviet intelligence officers defecting to Britain hinted that a high-ranking Foreign Office official had been a Soviet agent since the 1930s—he managed to avoid detection for more than 30 years. In 1945 he received the Order of the British Empire for his intelligence work during the war.

In 1949 Philby was given a position in Washington, D.C. as the British intelligence liaison to the CIA and FBI, a highly sensitive position in which he would have access to information about most U.S. intelligence operations. Burgess and Maclean also held top positions in the U.S., both of them at the British Embassy.

Not long after Philby was installed in his new post, a Washington codebreaker briefed him on the results emerging from his work decrypting a collection of cables, the so-called Venona decrypt operation. One decrypt, Philby learned, mentioned Homer, a Soviet agent who worked in the British Embassy in Washington from 1944 to 1945.

Philby knew that his crony Maclean was Homer. He warned the KGB that Maclean would probably soon be exposed. He also warned Burgess and Maclean and urged them to defect. Then, in a move to protect himself, Philby cabled the SIS in London, reminding officials that two Soviet defectors had described a mole in the Foreign Office who had been working for the Soviets since the 1930s. This reminder, he thought, would almost certainly intensify suspicions about Maclean and deflect them from himself, especially once SIS and U.S. officials learned that Maclean had recently fled.

Philby was wrong. Though Burgess and Maclean did escape successfully to the Soviet Union in May of 1951, Philby immediately came under suspicion by the SIS and U.S. intelligence. Amazingly, however, for ten more years he evaded full-scale incrimination, largely because many officials, both in the Foreign Office and in the British Parliament, simply refused to believe the spiraling evidence against him. If the evidence were true, they reasoned, it would prove an outrageous embarrassment to both the United States and British governments.

Finally, in January 1962, more than 30 years after his recruitment by the Soviets, British agents confronted Philby with enough evidence to convict him of espionage. He was offered immunity from prosecution if he would cooperate and divulge what he knew about the Soviet spy network. Philby agreed and allowed SIS officials to record his admissions for three long days, though he was never taken into custody. After the third day, Philby escaped to Russia aboard a Soviet ship arranged by the KGB.

Philby became a Russian citizen, married a Russian woman 20 years younger, and after his death on May 11, 1988, was buried with the honors of a KGB general.

Intro | Maugham | Hari | Smedley | Berg | Hiss | Bentley | Fleming | Philby | Ames | Pollard

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