Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kim Philby

Cindy is really into British TV. I think I've seen more Britcoms in the last two years than American sitcoms. Come to think of it, maybe that's not so bad. Every time I see a new American sitcom these days, it either came from a Britcom or sucks. Except 30 Rock. That's amazing. Someone squeezed the finest juices out of their mind grapes to make that show.

The bad part is that she's started branching out into British drama series, usually movie miniseries, with names like, "Love in a Cold Climate" and "Acting Cross with Tea," and "Looking Like Wet Gray Asshole." B/C I'd never heard of John le Carre, I groaned when I opened up the Netflix and found out she'd gotten, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

I admit it. I'm an idiot.

If you guys haven't seen it, rent it. It's amazing. Alec Guinness stars as George Smiley. He's the anti-Bond and 10x more authentic. He's this rumpled older spy who's trying to figure out who the mole is in British Intelligence. His boss, Control, has died or left the service (you REALLY have to pay attention in this series, b/c important info can come quietly and out of nowhere, and they really don't repeat it. It's also about 6 hours long and builds slowly, but believe me it's worth it), but Control knew there was a mole. Now a key defector and an agent have been shot.

Smiley has to piece it together. No guns (except a little at the end), no car chases. Just walking, talking, reading, listening. It's the classic chess game.

What's amazing is, it's real. Most of the story of TTSP comes from the story of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five.

Now I don't know if any brits will wind up reading this, so sorry if you're reading it and saying, "WELL, DUH," but it's not like they teach British Intelligence History in high school over here. If they find intelligence in high school, someone drives it out with great force. Using them brain bits is, like the british would say, just not done. Same goes for gum chewing.

From 1941 to 1963, Kim Philby was probably the most important counter-espionage agent in Britain's MI6. He was a big swinging dick in a field where they say, "Your dick, do not let it swing. It draws attention. Put that away for crissakes. I said- oh, god. CHECK, please. I don't even care if that's your big beef and you're makin the cheddar- you, sir, have disgraced Arby's for the last time."

He not only handled their double agents within Russia and tried to find Russian double agents within Britain and other NATO nations, he also trained most of the counter-espionage personnel in Britain. He even trained James Jesus Angleton (should have changed his name officially to "James - JESUS! - Angleton"), who went on to become the CIA's chief counter-espionage agent for something like three decades. Angleton wrote the book on CIA counterintelligence and is probably the most legendary CIA agent ever.

The trouble is, Kim Philby had been a Russian agent since 1933, a member of a group of 5 Cambridge students recruited by the Russians in the 1920s and 30s.

So stop and think about this for a second. The guy in charge of rooting out Russian spies in Britain was a Russian spy himself. Instead of working to root them out, he worked to cover them up. He also worked to cover them up within the United States. It was probably Philby who worked with his pals Burgess and Maclean to pass American nuclear secrets to Moscow. And not only that, but he was in charge of turning Russian agents into double-agents for the West. Only he probably pretended to do this, creating fake agents and then passing on useless information while sending USEFUL information about the west to Moscow. On top of ALL this, he trained America's best counterintelligence agent.

When he defected in 1963, it's putting it mildly to say the shit hit the fan. It's like someone took all the manure runoff from every Tyson chicken farm in Arkansas and dumped it onto the spinning blade of 20 Apache helicopters while someone inside them played the old Circle Jerks song and screamed, "I love the smell of WAAAUUUUUUGHGHHHHHHH."

Angleton basically turned into a paranoid nutball. His mentor betrayed him, America and Britain. Angleton saw spies everywhere, double agents in the shadows and meaning where there wasn't any. The Americans became convinced that everything in MI6 was rotten. Angleton acted like he was trying to cut a tumor out of himself. He hacked the careers of other CIA agents to bits and basically destroyed british intelligence for about a decade by making their bosses throw out agents AND intel. He destroyed people. Philby proved he didn't have ANY perspective on counterespionage, and it's like he went so far in the opposite direction that he lost all perspective that way too.

I can guess what you're gooing to say. "Where are you going with this?" Well, think about it. Philby told one lie, but one lie was enough for the CIA and MI6 to almost destroy themselves, with their own hands.

What's amazing about Philby is that he could have done almost nothing for Russia. He could have just BEEN there and talked to other people, and he still would have torn the CIA/MI6 apart. He could have been rating playmate of the month. B/C if you have a bunch of people who believe themselves and their own judgment, then make them totally question everything about it, they'll implode.

They'll tear themselves apart just out of fear and anger at being wrong even once. If they find other double agents, that just proves they were right to start worrying, and they keep looking. If they don't find any other double agents, they must not be looking hard enough. They're still out there. They could be everywhere. As a matter of fact, the guy in charge of finding double agents hasn't found any. Maybe he's just like Philby. Maybe he doesn't find any b/c he doesn't WANT to find any. Maybe it's HIM. Let's get him.

What's totally amazing about Philby is that it's like playing the Kevin Bacon game. He's connected to everything, b/c intelligence is connected to everything. Our countries make decisions based on it every day. They trust the intelligence they get, and they talk to the people in intelligence. So once you start doubting one part of it, the doubt never stops. It spreads to everything.

I don't want to seem insensitive or anything, but when you look at Philby and then look at Angleton's paranoia about it after the fact, the really mindblowing thing is that the paranoia ever stopped. There's no reason to stop questioning, except at some point you have to.


George F.K. said...

Philby's such an amazing character in intelligence history. He never really sunk in over here, but the English made him into a kind of notorious folk anti-hero. He winds up in a bunch of songs, and he gets alluded to in "A Dance to the Music of Time." (I'm guessing you're going to wind up having to watch that sooner or later.)

Another really interesting thing about him though is that his and Burgess and Maclain's passing secrets on to the Russians may have caused the Berlin blockade. The Russians had overestimated our nuclear capability, believing there was a massive gap between us. (Sort of like Kennedy in '60, in reverse.) Consequently, discovering that we didn't have enough nukes to destroy the Soviet Untion without a massive and costly land invasion spurred Stalin to tighten control on the Eastern Bloc. Also you can't count out how that would have changed Soviet military and technological development. If they thought they were, or could somehow confirm, that they were hopelessly out of the nuclear arms race, who knows what alternative means they might have turned to. Maybe they look at asymmetric means. More conventional forces? Bio warfare? It's a giant "who knows?"

L-Scott said...

Oh God, I just wiki'd "Dance," and it looks like it's 2,000 pages to read and hours and hours to watch. I really hope I don't want to kill Cindy at the end of it.

Although I'm noticing a GIS with safe search off shows that images #9 and #10 show a nude redhead.

George F.K. said...

I don't remember it too well, but I remember a lot of nude hotness in the first episode and then nothing for hours until one of the later episodes. The movie's pretty good but I don't know if it's worth the length and effort. It's probably a better book. Maybe you should just buy the books for Cindy and see whether you can get her to read them and spare you. Also Miranda Richardson is smokin'.