Kim Philby: I got away with treachery 'because I was upper class'

Double agent’s 1981 speech to East German agents recounts how he was able to evade detection for so long by holding his nerve

Kim Philby, Britain’s most notorious cold war traitor, told an audience of East German spies after his defection that he was able to avoid being rumbled for so long because he had been “born into the British governing class”.

In a video recording of a speech given to Stasi agents in 1981, uncovered by the BBC, Philby also described how he was able to walk out of secret service headquarters every night with his briefcase stuffed with secret documents and reports.

The overall impression given by the excerpts of Philby’s speech broadcast so far by the BBC is of a British intelligence service staffed by ill-disciplined and inept upper-class twits.

In one telling anecdote, Philby recounted how he was able to escape after being rumbled as a traitor in Beirut because the agent sent to keep an eye on him could not resist going skiing after hearing that fresh snow had fallen on the Lebanese mountains.

Philby says in the video: “Because I had been born into the British governing class, because I knew a lot of people of an influential standing, I knew that they would never get too tough with me.

“They’d never try to beat me up or knock me around, because if they had been proved wrong afterwards, I could have made a tremendous scandal.”

The son of a British empire official in India, Philby was privately educated before attending Cambridge University. He was first introduced to communism by an economics lecturer and went on to travel in Austria, where he fell in love with a young communist named Litzi Friedmann, and then went to work as a journalist in civil war Spain, also filing reports to British intelligence.

During the second world war and the subsequent decades, and despite periodic suspicion over his political loyalties, Philby rose through the ranks of MI6, eventually becoming the chief of the service’s anti-Soviet department. However, throughout this time he was filing reports to KGB handlers. His treachery was only unearthed in 1963.

The BBC says it unearthed the video of Philby’s hour-long lecture in the official Stasi archives in Berlin. According to the BBC’s report, in it Philby told agents how he was first recruited by the KGB after his return from Austria and then spent years working his way into the inner sanctum of British intelligence.

He revealed how easy it was for him to double-cross his compatriots. “You have probably all heard stories that the SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] is an organisation of mythical efficiency – a very, very, dangerous thing indeed. Well, in a time of war, it honestly was not.

“Every evening I left the office with a big briefcase full of reports which I had written myself, full of files taken out of the actual documents, out of the actual archives. I was to hand them to my Soviet contact in the evening. The next morning I would get the file back, the contents having been photographed, and take them back early in the morning and put the files back in their place.

“That I did regularly, year in year out.”

One of the most remarkable things about Philby’s story was how he was able to avoid detection for so long, despite suspicions being raised that he was leaking secrets and the unmasking of elements of the Cambridge spy ring, with whom Philby was connected. In a final piece of advice to Stasi spies, he told them how he did it.

“And all I had to do really was keep my nerve. So my advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess.”

More reporting of what the BBC is calling “the Philby tape” will be broadcast on Monday at 8pm on Radio 4.

Contributor

Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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