David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist and the author of “The Director,” the most recent of his nine spy novels.

By now, the story of British double agent Harold “Kim” Philby may be the most familiar spy yarn ever, fodder for whole libraries of histories, personal memoirs and novels. But Ben Macintyre manages to retell it in a way that makes Philby’s destructive genius fresh and horridly fascinating — and to me, at least, ultimately inexplicable. In an age when every puzzle is thought to have its solution, Philby’s inner motivation remains unfathomable.

Philby emerges from “A Spy Among Friends” as a supremely perverse antihero, remarkable for his sheer guts and tenacity in concealing for more than 30 years his treason against his country and class. He was arguably the most gifted liar in intelligence history, a man who, despite what sounds like almost constant drunkenness, never really cracked, even as the evidence against him became overwhelming. One of his Soviet handlers, Yuri Modin, wrote that he was “breathtaking” in publicly denying a 1955 parliamentary leak that he was a KGB spy. It’s a measure of Philby’s capacity for deception that, to the end, some Russians wondered if he was, in fact, a triple agent all along, loyal in the deepest chamber of his heart to queen and country.

This is the latest of a series of Macintyre’s superb reconstructions of classic tales about British intelligence. He is deep inside the world of MI6, understanding its class-bound rituals and loyalties. Readers (like me) who loved his previous book, “Double Cross,” about Britain’s amazing wartime deception of the Nazis, will find this volume something of an antidote. In this book, MI6, known to its initiates as “the hotel,” appears to be a collection of drunken, self-celebrating upper-class twits who get it wrong nearly every time. Where “Double Cross” showed the Brits at their devious best, this new book is a story of staggering incompetence, from beginning to end.

Macintryre has chosen to retell Philby’s story by linking it to two friends who were among the most brutally deceived: Nicholas Elliott, his closest MI6 chum, and James J. Angleton, the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence. This is not entirely satisfying, because as Macintyre concedes, neither Elliott nor Angleton left a clear record of what he thought about how Philby had tricked him so successfully. Angleton said Philby was a matter that he would “take to the grave with me.” Elliott described his friend’s “supreme talent for deception” but saw the inner man simply as “schizophrenic.” Modin, his KGB case officer, concluded that Philby “never revealed his true self.”


’A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal’ by Ben Macintyre (Crown)

Macintyre’s thesis is that Philby was shielded by the dumbly self-protective ethos of the British upper class, of which MI6 was the ultimate expression. Elliott was recruited into the intelligence service at the Ascot races. Philby was recruited despite the knowledge that he had been a communist at Cambridge in the 1930s, something that was chalked up to youthful indiscretion. The deputy chief of MI6 affirmed: “I was asked about him, and said I knew his people.” Macintyre narrates scenes in clubs, universities, country houses, cricket grounds and other places where the upper classes gather to seduce and dissemble. He speculates that Philby’s voyage of betrayal was between two arrogant elites, from upper-class Brits to Russian Leninists — with both sharing a belief in their innate right to rule.

The elitist mind-set was well-described by Elliott when he was quizzed about a botched MI6 operation: “We don’t have a chain of command. We work like a club.”

What is unforgivable is that, even as the evidence of Philby’s treachery mounted, the old boys of MI6 continued to stand by and protect one of their own. The lower-class drudges of MI5, Britain’s version of the FBI, suspected that he was a spy in 1951. But members of MI6 continued to try to clear him, almost up to his final flight to Moscow in 1963. Philby himself in his memoir credited his fellows’ “genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the Establishment could do such things.”

It cannot be accidental that drunkenness was a way of life for these errant MI6 officers. “Even by the heavy-drinking standards of wartime, the spies were spectacular boozers,” Macintyre writes. He cites a typical lunch that began with two or three Pimm’s, followed by a cocktail infused with absinthe, then red or white wine, then port . . . and then, back to “work.”

The two other celebrated Cambridge spies matched Philby’s dipsomania. Guy Burgess got so drunk in Gibraltar that an MI5 officer there said that he’d never “seen someone put away so much hard liquor in so short a time.” The third member of the trio, Donald Maclean, was so blasted while on assignment for the Foreign Office in Egypt that he “smashed up the Cairo flat of two secretaries at the U.S. Embassy, ripped up their underwear, and hurled a large mirror off the wall, breaking a large bath in two.” And still these bumblers didn’t get caught, such was the British penchant for excusing upper-class indiscretion.

Philby found in Angleton a fellow genteel alcoholic. Their lunches in Washington were “long and very, very wet,” with the inebriated Angleton sharing every secret of tradecraft.

When I met Angleton as a journalist covering intelligence in 1979, he was still having very long lunches, drinking fruity cocktails through a long straw at the Army-Navy Club in Farragut Square. If he felt remorse for having given away to Philby secrets that sent scores of brave agents to their deaths, he didn’t show it. But one had the sense with Angleton in the flesh, as with the characters in Macintyre’s book, that these were people who had been eaten from the inside out, and had very little left besides their twinned paranoia and capacity to deceive.

A SPY AMONG FRIENDS

Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre

Crown. 368 pp. $27

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.