The Philby phenomenon
PERSONAL COLUMN CHARLES STUART
The recent eruption of works on Philby and by Philby has thrown open to public discussion the subject of the secret intelligence of the recent past, and in the course of this discus- sion ill-founded allegations and prejudiced conclusions have been confidently disseminated. It therefore seems a suitable moment to try to set the record straight and to speak out . as one of those with experience of this work in the war. And it is time enough. For, if it is generally true in life that 'the soft answer turneth away bunkum,' this whole affair has proved a painful exception. Dignified silence has achieved nothing. It is time to try some sharper medicine to cure this growing irritation.
One of the allegations against both of the permanent British intelligence services, m15 and M16, and particularly the latter, is that they were recruited exclusively from the upper class without regard to. efficiency. It is further sug- geSted that whereas M15 in the course of the war turned away from this policy to recruit more liberally from the world of the law and letters, s416 remained wedded to its old ways, adding to its numbers from clubland to pre- ,serve its identity as a narrow self-perpetuating clique. Even my friend and wartime section commander, Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose bril- liant essay recently published in Encounter is a shining exception to the general run of ignorant commentary, implicitly supports this thesis when he writes of the members of si16 as 'agreeable epicureans from the bars of White's and Boodle's' and describes Philby as `the one amateur who was appreciated by the professionals.'
Yet this is surely a caricature of the truth. The section of M16 that he and I ,knew well for four years contained a large clement which could not possibly be so cate- gorised. They were dons and schoolmasters— .future professors, heads of colleges and head- masters—besides others from the museum and art world. That they returned to their chosen professions when the war ended seems to me perfectly natural. I do not believe that they did this because they were rejected for per- manent employment by the professional direc- torate of M16. Certainly I was not so rejected. Too young in 1945 to have chosen a profession to which to return, I was given every en- couragement to apply to stay in m16 if I wanted, but I preferred to go my own way. So, in my view, Philby was not so much the one amateur to be appreciated by the profes- sionals as the one wartime recruit to take ad- vantage of his opportunity to stay, albeit for ignoble and treacherous motives.
So much for the illusion of narrow recruit- ment, narrowly maintained. But a second point deserves greater emphasis because it has been widely ignored. This is that British intelligence in the war achieved overwhelming success against Germany. Between them, m15 and M16 penetrated completely all German intelligence activity, whether by the army (Abwehr), party (sc) or the unhappy service which evolved in 1944 from the swallowing of the first by the second. This important truth has been sub- merged under the copious flood of trivial per- sonalities and sociological claptrap which has flowed from many pens. And worse may yet follow. Past defeats are easily forgotten and past triumphs easily imagined. Just recently old Abwehr officers have begun to boast of the imagined successes of their notional agents and there are, no doubt, some innocents who will take them at their word. But in the last months of the war when a procession of dis- illusioned German intelligence officers, includ- ing their last chief, Walter Schellenberg, was captured and interrogated, there were few such boasts. The full extent of our success was then clear. It was not they who could tell us About their plans, their movements, their organisation and their reorganisation, but we who had to prompt them. It was as if they needed the comforting presence of our interrogators to give meaning to the chaos of their lives. But to read any of the recent work on Philby it could hardly be inferred that we won the war as decisively on this front as on the battlefield.
It is the old story of not seeing the wood for the trees. Instead of viewing the large forest of this remarkable achievement, the new generation of self-appointed intelligence experts prefers to concentrate its jaundiced and myopic gaze upon such diseased and misshapen trees as it can find within it, and in particular upon the parasitic growths around them—the poison- ivy. Philby and the toadstool Burgess. It is this approach which explains the morbid exag- geration of internal office feuds. Now, of course, the rivalry of MI5 and MI6 was a prominent feature of the wartime intelligence scene and it often hindered and delayed efficient action. This rivalry was not the creation of individuals within the two, organisations but the consequence of their different functions. M15 was a security organisation concerned with catching spies and with locking them up. For this purpose it needed information for action. M16 was an intelligence-collecting or- ganisation concerned with recruiting agents and extracting information from them. Above all, it was determined to guard its sources in order to preserve them for further use.
For MI5 the emphasis had to be on finding and closing any leak of information, even if this involved the risk of 'blowing' a source; for M16 the reverse was the case—the preservation of a source was worth the price of a leak. This opposition of function was exacerbated by the mutual mistrust and suspicion which existed be- tween certain of the career officers. Many of the wartime recruits in each department deplored
this rivalry and did their best to get round it. For them, the immediate needs of the war came first. This tended to place them, whatever their department, on 1415's side- of the fence favour- ing 'free trade' in information, and accepting
the risks of action upon it. The counter- espionage section of m16 (Section V) was in the middle of all this. Its directors naturally took an intelligence, as opposed to a security, view of its function. They favoured 'protectionism'
in respect of information and feared the risks of using it. And because they adopted this defensive and negative position, they were probably the more to blame for inter-depart- mental friction.
What was needed in this situation, and what has since been long achieved, was a super- vising authority to balance these two essential .functions. Yet, although this need was not filled during the war, great successes were achieved by the joint, if sometimes competing, labours of both services. It is as pointless as it is vain to look back now after a quarter of a century and to dig up old rivalries with the purpose of giving marks to one section or another in this victory. The Zoroastrian complex which
casts m16 as Ahriman, the force of evil, and mt5 as Ahura-Mazda, the shining light of good, is historically unjust and politically unwise.
Why play this game for Philby and his Russian employers? The important point is that in the war against Germany British counter-espionage was completely successful. • If, in this success, M16 and Section V in par- ticular, received more credit than was their due;
if m15 was denied proper recognition; if intelli-
gence officers exploited the -work of crypto- graphers, and cryptographers that of their wire- less technicians; if all of these deviations from
ideal justice can be substantiated, of what pos- sible significance are they today? It is natural for Philby to want to revive these stale quarrels as part of the Russian attempt to discredit our present intelligence service. But it makes no sense for us; and but for the present fashion of denigration of ourselves and our achievements, to which the world of half'-letters enthusiastic-
ally panders, it would have no market among us. Mr Brown may have been unmannerly when he rebuked Lord Thomson, but in substance he was right. In vino, veritas.
Still, it is not enough to emphasise the suc- cesses of British intelligence in the war, or the
hostile motives of Philby in trying to discredit these, or even the folly of those who use the story of his career to argue his case for him.
It is also important to see the consequences of Philby's treachery in their true proportions. First as to time. It is my belief that, whatever he may say now, Philby was active as a Rus- sian agent until early in 1945 when he became head of m16's newly created anti-Russian sec- tion. Before that he was surely working under general Russian direction to insert himself per- manently inside M16, in which task he suc- ceeded; but this success was the consequence of his able and efficient work at a compara- tively junior level as head of the sub-section
dealing with Spain and Portugal in the war against Germany. During 1944, it is true, he received that transitional promotion which was to lead to the fall of his immediate superior
at the end of the year. But only in 1945 did he rest his viper's head where it could strike with deadly effect. However great the evil that he was able to do in the six years that fol- lowed, this does not justify the creation for ourselves of insubstantial- bogies about his achievements in his earlier years. This is equally true of the years following his dis- missal as an officer of M16 in 1951, even though he was restored to the payroll in 1955 as an agent and slipped into a soft job in Beirut where his boozy philandering kept him busy.
It seems unlikely, 'then, that Philby can have done much harm as a half-pay agent in Beirut. But what of the war years? Here the nature of his duties and his knowledge, which con- cerned the activities of the Germans in an area of marginal interest to Russia, meant that he was in no position to do positive harm. His influence on behalf of our Russian allies, if exerted at all, would of necessity have been negative. I recall two possible occasions when this may have been the case, when it would appear, looking back, that he was trying to suppress information in the interests of Russia. Both incidents have been touched on by Hugh Trevor-Roper, but as each- depends ultimately upon my recollection it is worth stating them as I remember them.
The first concerned a paper written towards the end of 1942 (not 1943) by a close colleague. It was based on information about the activities of the Nazi intelligence service (SD) in Italy. Skilfully untangled, this material was used to illustrate the growing rivalry and mistrust in the intelligence field between the army and the party and, far more important, to suggest the wider political significance of this division. This was-within a month or two of the dismissal•of Halder and of the first signs of dissension be- tween Hitler and his generals over Stalingrad. The circulation of the paper required the approval of the head of Section V. He delegated this decision to Philby, not as Spanish expert— it had nothing to do with Spain—but as the officer thought to be expert in the kind of material on which it was based. My colleague -and I presented ourselves and sat at Philby's desk 'while he went through the text. I had gone as Abwehr expert to back up my colleague whose territory was the so.
But I was not needed. Philby was not interested in the evidence (he did not know it as we did), but only in its suppression. I sat back while my colleague argued. It was like that early'scene in Erewhon where the narrator argues with the native Chowbok . 'For more than two hours he had tried to put me off with lies, but carried no conviction; during the whole time we had been morally wrestling and neither of us apparently gained the least advantage.' But, alas, whereas Chowbok finally yielded to the lure of grog, Philby was adamant. Perhaps we should have taken a bottle of whisky. The Paper was not circulated until May 1943, when our section was detached from Section V, and then in a watered-down version.
The second incident came nearly two years later. Early in July 1944 the Mt6 station in Lisbon learned from the subsequently notorious Otto John that an attempt to assassinate Hitler was impending. I doubt if he had any special mission from Canaris, who, dismissed as head of the Abwehr in the previous February, had nothing to offer. His report was neverthe- less of interest and importance. But, Philby, as Practically his last act of Iberian specialism, dismissed it. as unreliable. These incidents are
of interest now simply as early and unrecog- nised indications of Philby's treachery. At the time, however, it seemed as if he was adjusting his judgments to the opinions of those in com- mand of M16. In the first, he appeared to be following the departmental line of suppressing the circulation of information to protect its source. In the second, he seemed to be taking the position of 'professional' caution. That he was also acting in Russia's interests by sup- pressing indications of divisions within Ger- many did not occur to any of us.
It remains to ask whether either of these actions had- any serious consequence in the deflection of high policy. I am sure they did not. It is true that the first incident came early enough in the war to have made possible, in theory, a reconsideration of the doctrine later enunciated as_ 'unconditional• surrender.' But this would have required the point to be taken at Cabinet level and at that time we had no route to such high quarters. Six months earlier, while Lord Swinton was still in charge of security, this might have happened. Lord Swin- ton had shown a remarkable insight into the nature• of our work and what was significant in it. He spoke with junior officers; he listened; he understood. It is a pleasure to be able. to pay tribute to -him even at this long interval of time. But by the end of 1942 Lord Swinton was in West Africa; his security tasks had been entrusted to Duff Cooper. Where Lord Swinton saw much and understood all, Duff Cooper was bored by the subject and disapproved its existence. No application to him would have made any impression. By 1944, when the second incident occurred, the possibility of Otto John's report—even if vouched for—mak- ing much impression in high quarters scarcely arose., -•
What. conclusions can be drawn from peer- ing into this muddy backwater of the past? First, that , the British intelligence services of the war defeated their German counterparts completely. Secondly, that Philby's power for evil was concentrated in the six years that fol- lowed the defeat of Germany; before and after
. . and go and jump in the Tiber!' those years the practical results of his treachery were small whatever the scandalous enormity of its fact. The British public should therefore be careful not to follow him and his naive journalistic troubadours into giving to the trivia of secret intelligence a significance they do not possess. It is time to say, as Campbell- Bannerman once said to Balfour, 'enough of this foolery.' Finally, let us not forget the old truth that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. The scandals of the past do not remove the needs of the future. The Government's decision to cut the secret service vote by nearly 10 per cent in the coming year is a bad one. We should, then, look to the future and stop puddling in the past. As Miss Millicent Martin was accustomed to wail when keening over the events of the preceding week—'It is over —let it go.'