In intelligence work, one-upping the opposition is what it’s all about. And for any spy, the trick is to not be discovered for as long as possible.
Novelist John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about just that. The novel, which focuses on ferreting out a mole in MI6 working for the Soviets, is really about not being discovered. And for the culprit, it’s the ultimate one-upmanship.
However, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has its historical precedents, one of the most notable being Kim Philby, an MI6 intelligence officer working as a double agent for the Soviet Union during the 1950s and early 1960s. He also served as British liaison to American intelligence services in Washington.
His ties to the Soviets were confirmed in 1963, but not before he ended the British Secret Service career of David Cornwell by revealing his cover as an intelligence officer affiliated with MI5 and MI6.
Philby then defected to the Soviet Union, leaving Cornwell to fashion a flourishing career as a novelist under the nom de plume John le Carre.
The mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is somewhat shaped by Philby, who died in 1988, and readers familiar with the real-life double agent’s history should spot a resemblance.
But le Carre also directly reflected on Philby in a 2014 essay, “His Brother’s Keeper,” in which he offers a candid appraisal of his once fellow spy. “The scale of Philby’s betrayal is barely imaginable to anyone who has not been in the business,” he writes. “In Eastern Europe alone, dozens and perhaps hundreds of British agents were imprisoned, tortured and shot.”
The author admitted he was unaware of any diminishment in his animosity toward Philby after 50 years, explaining how he viewed the defector: “There is a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny.” In 1987, while in Russia conducting research for the novel Russia House, the author declined to meet with Philby.
Not surprisingly, Philby had also worked as a journalist. And he may have exercised his role as double agent in an alleged MI6 operation that has only recently come to light. In 2013, the BBC opened an examination of possible MI6 involvement with major U.K. newspapers, including the Sunday Times, Observer, Daily Mail as well as the BBC itself, beginning in the late 1950s. Allegations of such collusion surfaced in 1968 when a Soviet newspaper published the names and codenames of MI6 operatives working in British media.
Once the MI6 memos were examined by the BBC Radio 4 program Document, “a clear consensus emerged among espionage historians and former correspondents contacted by the program: despite all the denials, the memos were genuine,” the BBC reported in 2013.
Philby, one theory has it, might have been consulted by the Soviets on how the names and codenames obtained from the intelligence offices could be used. The BBC noted that he “had been working part-time as a journalist for the Observer and the Economist in Beirut. Philby had been employed at the Observer by the paper’s editor, David Astor – who was one of those named by the Soviet press as an MI6 asset.”
In the end, there’s a certain irony to the le Carre-Philby relationship. According to one of the notes in A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carre, a television crew from the Russia Today show interviewed the defector’s wife, Rufina, in 2012 in Philby’s apartment. “All le Carre’s novels were on Philby’s shelves, they reported to le Carre’s agent Curtis Brown, and Rufina said, ‘He used to read all these novels before he went to sleep.”
Next Week: In Pursuit of the Truth