The book is about Kim Philby, probably the most successful spy of modern times. Infiltrating M.I.6 before World War 2, he became a well-regarded agent, and repeatedly promoted up the ranks until he became M.I.6's liaison with the CIA in Washington, and at one point was tipped to become the head of M.I.6! His contacts and betrayal of both secret services led to internal purges and damaged the trust between M.I.6, M.I.5, the CIA, and FBI, not to mention sending multiple agents into awaiting Russian Troops and counter-intelligence officers. While doing so, Philby managed to collect the OBE.
This all in itself would make an exciting story (though one you would have mostly read about in books such as Declare, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But Ben Macintyre places everything in context accurately, and is not afraid to draw conclusions and read between the lines of various memoirs, providing accurate quotes that back up his analysis.
We get a good understanding of how Philby was undetected for so long. Fundamentally, the old boys network worked in such a way that no one thought to consider someone who was so obviously English in upbringing and background could be a mole. At every point in Philby's indoctrination into the secret service, for instance, the only background checks were: "Do you know his family?"
Even worse, when evidence that Philby was a Soviet agent emerged (after two already-known spies defected without being apprehended by M.I.6 because of being tipped off by Philby), M.I.6's "young turks" (the group of agents with World War 2 experience who had been promoted into being section chiefs) closed ranks and defended Philby, with nobody slapping surveillance on him. Sure, Philby was ejected from the service for a time, but then later re-hired into Beirut by one of his old friends, Nicholas Elliott. In fact, when Philby was finally unmasked by evidence, Elliot volunteered to interrogate him, and deliberately left the door open so that Philby could escape to the Soviet Union. Macintyre suggests that this was deliberate, in order to avoid an embarrassing public trial in the UK demonstrating the incompetence of M.I.6 and discrediting the old boy's network, and reviewing the evidence that he provides, this does appear to be the case.
More than Philby's story, however, we get several little titbits here and there that loom larger than life. That scene in James Bond where James Bond arrives in a wet suit, strips it off and has a tuxedo underneath? That's real. (Ian Fleming did work for M.I.6 at some point) The high risks, high stakes missions? Those were a product of World War 2's influence on the Young Turks, where their successes made them feel like they could do no wrong, bypass controls and checks, and launch operations (many of which were exposed by Philby to the Russians) would backfire and fail repeatedly on larger and larger scales. Unlike Bond, however, these operations were never successful because the opponents knew what M.I.6 wanted to do and could prepare for their agents to arrive.
Reading this book makes you understand several things:
- The glamorous James Bond and spy novels (even Le Carre's), have done an excellent job of white washing how incompetent M.I.6 and the CIA actually are. Repeated operational failures did not alert them to the possibility that their internal security was compromised. Until I read this book, I had no idea how badly run the agencies were, and how at every level at every agency employees resisted the idea that someone as charming as Philby could have been a double agent.
- The old boys club approach to intelligence was a massive failure. Not only did it mean that people were recruited without extensive background checks, it also meant that once you were in, you had a clique of fellow agents who were so homogeneous that they would naturally blab to each other about everything, which effectively meant that even a single mole could do a huge amount of damage to the organization.
- Not having effective oversight of intelligence agencies mean that even when mistakes are made, the spies themselves will lie or dissemble or even resort to giving high level double agents to the enemy in order to protect themselves and their organization. People who lie for a living are unlikely to give up the habit just because they've been discovered to have been wrong. That makes spying and intelligent agencies suspect. In fact, at one point Macintyre quotes an intelligence officer making the assessment that all operations in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, were in fact in the negative: M.I.6's cadre could have all sat on their collective bottoms and they would have been more effective!