Then and Now

Legal Insurrection has an article up about Kim Philby.  This gives me the excuse to discuss two related topics, both relics of the cold war, both made relevant by current events.  

Kim Philby was one of five British undergraduates recruited by Russia as spies in the 1930’s.  Each went on to have, what the British characterized as a “very good war.”  This means that each distinguished himself during the war and as a result was positioned perfectly to continue during the peace that followed.

Philby, in particular, was considered a rising star in the British Special Intelligence Service (SIS) and had things turned out differently may have become the Director. During the cold war of the late forties and throughout the fifties. Philby gutted SIS of its secrets sending everything he could get his hands on to the Russians. 

In the early fifties Philby was stationed in Washington DC as liaison CIA Counter Intelligence. He worked and drank with James Jesus Angleton. Angleton began his intelligence career with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII.  He made the transition to the CIA and eventually became head of Counter Intelligence for the CIA.  

Angelton became convinced that the CIA had a high level traitor operating with the organization. He spent years searching for the “mole” without success.  This search affected CIA operations and assessments, during Angleton’s tenure.  

In 1961 Philby defected to the Soviet Union and lived openly as a Soviet citizen and “hero”. 

A low level British spy named variously David John Moore, aka David Cornwall, aka John Le Carre had one of his operations disrupted by Philby. With his cover blown and the British service in tatters, Moore left the service and reemerged as John Le Carre, novelist.

Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsythe, Ian MacLean and a host of others of that generation, give or take, can and do tell great stories about spies, spying and duplicity. 

Then there’s John Le Carre. Le Carre over the years of his writing has invented terms, (tradecraft, the Circus, lamplighters, headhunters, double, as in Jesus had twelve disciples and one of them was a double (agent)) that have found their way into other books.  Le Carre paints a picture with his words in such a way that almost becomes poetic. Three of his books cover the Philby story, they are sometimes referred to as the “Karla Trilogy”.  More properly they are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,  The Honorable Schoolboy,  and Smiley’s People. 

I have read and reread these books and most of his others several times over the years.  There was a quality about them that I could not pin down.  I recognized it but couldn’t quite categorize it.  The Legal Insurrection article helped me to identify that quality.

I was a cop for thirty years. Cops have been known to tell stories.  They have also been known to drink. Every once and a while when cops get together, somebody will pull the cork on a new bottle and throw the cork away.  You know then it is going to be a long night and nobody is going home without assistance. Wives and brother-in-laws are not invited.

There are two types of cop stories that typically get told.  One type is loud and raucous it can be a funny story, a story involving derring do, or screw ups. It is usually profane, testosterone infused and loud so the listeners can hear the narrative over the sound of brass balls clanging like church bells. If you are a brother in law, you might even hear one these stories. But not on this night.

The second type of story is quieter.  It never begins like a typical cop story, “This is no shit!” There usually isn’t a whole lot of banter or comments from the peanut gallery.  It is a straight forward recital of an event.  Much like that of a witness to a bus accident who explains how they went into the burning wreckage, repeatedly to rescue victims.  Somebody had to do it doesn’t seem like much of an explanation, but it is all you will ever get. If one is alert, the speaker is probably gazing over the assembled listeners.  Is he really speaking to them?  The listeners aren’t watching the speaker, they aren’t watching each other either.  Their gaze is averted and their expressions seem to say, a little more concentration and I will be able to see through that three inch plank.  

The difference between the stories is that the first is a way of keeping track of time.  Rookie, to veteran, to detective, to various assignments.  The second marks for all time an event that causes the participant to judge everything against that mark.

That, to me, is the difference between Le Carre and everybody else.

At the outset, I stated that the Philby experience is made relevant in light of recent events.  Here goes:

  • Philby was exposed in the early fifties but did not defect until the early sixties.  He passed as a journalist for a while, but still had access to SIS. Connections and a willingness to suspend disbelief gave Philby access that he should not have had.
  • Le Carre and Philby, for that matter, explain that security protocols were routinely ignored.  The rules did not apply to certain people.
  • Laughing off the resolve or capabilities of your enemy will ultimately come back on you.