Book Club – A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintre – Discussion Points

Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history, a brilliant and charming man who rose to head Britain’s counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War—while he was secretly working for the enemy.

And nobody thought he knew Philby like Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s best friend and fellow officer in MI6. The two men had gone to the same schools, belonged to the same exclusive clubs, grown close through the crucible of wartime intelligence work and long nights of drink and revelry. It was madness for one to think the other might be a communist spy, bent on subverting Western values and the power of the free world.
But Philby was secretly betraying his friend. Every word Elliott breathed to Philby was transmitted back to Moscow—and not just Elliott’s words, for in America, Philby had made another powerful friend: James Jesus Angleton, the crafty, paranoid head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton’s and Elliott’s unwitting disclosures helped Philby sink almost every important Anglo-American spy operation for twenty years, leading countless operatives to their doom.

Even as the web of suspicion closed around him, and Philby was driven to greater lies to protect his cover, his two friends never abandoned him—until it was too late. The stunning truth of his betrayal would have devastating consequences on the two men who thought they knew him best, and on the intelligence services he left crippled in his wake.

  • Did you enjoy this book?
  • The central question raised by Macintyre’s book, and by Nicholas Elliot, is how could—and why did—a man as Kim Philby, with a decidedly English upbringing and all of its privileges undertake a life of deception on such a grand scale? 
  • Why would he choose communism over capitalism?
  • MI-6’s Nicholas Elliot and the CIA’s James Angleton were two of the sharpest, most wizened spies in the West. Why do you think that they were so thoroughly duped by Philby?
  • Philby himself says, in his own mind, he did not betray Britain so much as remain intensely loyal to the USSR, an ideology he was firmly committed to. What do you think?
  • What about the Vermehrens, Erich and Elisabeth, the couple Elliot recruited in Turkey during the war? What motivated them…and how was their motivation different from Kim Philby’s?
  • One of the many ironies of the Philby’s double agentry is that the better the information was that he provided his Soviet overseers, the less they trusted him. Why did Moscow distrust Philby during the early war years?
  • Talk about the role that social class played in this story. How did it aid Philby’s ability to deceive his close friends and associates?

Ben Macintyre is a British author, historian, and columnist writing for The Times (London) newspaper. His columns range from current affairs to historical controversies.

Book Club Dates for 2021

All meetings are held at the Prince of Wales, 184 Rectory Road, Farnborough GU14 8AL at 7.30pm (currently on Zoom) The Salt Path by Raynor Winn  Wednesday, 20th January 2021 The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbrath Wednesday, 3rd March, 2021 The Marrying...