“It is a very, very dirty story,” Kim Philby told an audience of fellow spies in East Germany. “But after all, our work does imply getting dirty hands from time to time.”
Philby was talking about how he inveigled his way to the top of MI6’s counter-espionage unit, ostensibly leading Britain’s fight against the Soviet Union – while also leading a double-life as a committed communist who was passing top-secret papers to his handler in the KGB.
The notorious spy is the star of an archive film reel from 1981 that the BBC recently unearthed from the Stasi Records Agency (BStU) in Germany, the repository for documents from the former secret police agency. Delivering a seminar for spies, Philby explains how he got away with informing on Britain and the U.S. for the communists. It helped to be upper-class, he said.
Philby also described how he made daily handoffs of secret materials to the KGB:
“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 files 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.”
Here’s the audio from the Stasi Records Agency, via the BBC:
BBC Radio 4 will air more of Philby’s speech at 8 p.m. local time — or 3 p.m. on the East Coast in the U.S.
The footage sheds long-awaited new light on Philby: Despite making headlines around the world and inspiring books and films about his exploits, the double-agent rarely spoke publicly. The newly uncovered Stasi reel adds substantially to the public record about Philby, who died in Moscow in 1988.
Philby was the highest-ranking member of a group of former Cambridge University students who spied for the USSR from inside Britain’s intelligence services both before and during the Cold War. Recruited in the 1930s, he rose to an exalted position that let him shield his fellow double-agents and thwart the West’s attempts to poke holes in the Iron Curtain.
Despite years of suspicion about his true loyalties — including in 1955, when he was publicly accused of spying after his cohorts had fled to Moscow — Philby maintained ties to MI6 and eventually defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.
Speaking to Stasi agents in 1981, Philby affirmed the popular belief that Britain’s failure to unearth him was due in large part to his social status:
“Because I had been born into the British governing class, because I knew a lot of people of 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.”
Philby also said that perceptions about Britain’s intelligence services as a disciplined, efficient agency were overblown, stating, “in a time of war it honestly was not.”
One of the most notorious incidents of Philby’s perfidy occurred around 1950, when, working as Britain’s liaison intelligence officer in Washington, D.C., he leaked information that the CIA had recruited and trained Albanian insurgents with the intention of infiltrating them into Albania to overthrow their country’s communist regime. Warned of the plan, Soviet and Albanian authorities killed “about 300 infiltrators,” according to a U.S. government report.
Decades after his death, Philby’s story has continued to inspire books. The CIA Library’s recent review of two recent titles also includes a concise rundown of the traitor’s life in the Soviet Union:
“Philby escaped to Moscow—some believe MI6 looked the other way to avoid the embarrassment of a public trial—and lived a relatively content 25 years there. It undoubtedly stung that the Soviet authorities received him as an agent and not a KGB officer, in part because his easy escape from Beirut invited suspicion he was still working for the British government. For his first five years in Moscow, Philby had little to do and attempted suicide. Eventually the KGB came to trust him and had him lecture and train new intelligence officers. He had an affair with [fellow Cambridge Spy Ring member Donald] Maclean’s wife, remarried, wrote a memoir, lived comfortably by Soviet standards, and traveled within the Communist bloc. He seemed himself again.”
It was presumably in that period, when Philby seemed himself, that he delivered his speech to intelligence agents in East Germany.