Files reveal spy Kim Philby’s desperate bid to avoid exposure

Published: Friday 23rd October 2015 by The News Editor

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Kim Philby’s desperate attempts to save his skin after the flight of his fellow Soviet spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean are revealed in official files made public for the first time.

The records show how Philby manoeuvred to try to keep himself out of the spotlight as Whitehall frantically sought to trace the two missing diplomats – even if it meant implicating his colleagues.

The disclosures are contained amid dozens of MI5 and Foreign Office files relating to the case released to the National Archives in Kew, west London.

The disappearance of Burgess and Maclean from the Foreign Office in May 1951 was the first inkling for the British establishment that there was a major Russian spy ring operating in their midst.

As MI5 tried to establish what had happened to the two men after they quietly slipped out of the country on a cross-Channel steamer having given their MI5 surveillance the slip, their associates immediately came under suspicion – not least Philby.

What the investigators did not know was that all three men had been recruited by the KGB while studying at Cambridge in the 1930s and spent the intervening years quietly working their ways into positions of power and influence, while betraying countless secrets.

Philby, by then a senior officer in MI6, was however doubly suspect. Prior to the flight of the two diplomats, Burgess had actually been staying at his home in Washington where Philby was stationed.

He was also among a small number of officials aware of a breakthrough by US codebreakers which had enabled them to reopen an investigation into the leak of wartime telegrams between Winston Churchill and President Rooseveldt.

By early 1951, the investigation was closing in on one clear suspect – the dangerously unstable Maclean.

In the US capital, Philby and Burgess concocted a plan for Burgess to return to London to warn their fellow agent of the impending danger and tell him the time had come for him to flee to Moscow.

What Philby had not expected was that Burgess would disappear with him – ensuring that he was immediately top of the list of suspected accomplices.

Initially Philby brushed off suggestions that the outrageous Burgess – known for his drunkenness and promiscuous homosexuality at a time when it was still illegal – could be involved in anything clandestine.

But as the investigation wore on, he appeared slowly to come round to the idea – no doubt in the hope of persuading his superiors that he was innocent.

In June 1951, he cabled MI6 chief Sir Stewart Menzies to inform him of a “few isolated facts” that he had been “piecing together” in his memory.

Burgess had, he recalled, possessed a camera and a sunlamp (presumably for use in developing film), would work late at home and made frequent trips to New York, no doubt for secret meetings with his Russian handlers (in fact he was running messages to Philby’s KGB contact). Finally, he had left behind a book by Stalin on colonialism.

“There is, I am afraid, very little doubt that Burgess had available the essential requirements of an espionage agent,” Philby wrote.

Philby even brazenly suggested that “one recruited the other” when Burgess and Maclean were at Cambridge, knowing that he had been responsible for bringing them both to the attention of the KGB.

While Philby was clearly trying to shift attention from himself he may have also wanted to make it impossible for Burgess to return Britain, knowing that he would only damage him further if he did.

When Burgess left Washington to warn Maclean, Philby’s final words to his friend were: “Don’t you go too.”

Afterwards, he never forgave Burgess for effectively ending his own espionage career – he was forced to resign from MI6 in the wake of the scandal – refusing to meet him when he eventually defected to Russia in 1963.

Burgess, however, may have had little choice. His KGB handler later admitted Moscow had concluded that he was “burnt out” as an agent and had to be extracted alongside Maclean.

Published: Friday 23rd October 2015 by The News Editor

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