Robert Littell

A Cold War Mystery:
Was the Soviet Mole Kim Philby a Double Agent...or a Triple Agent?
By Robert Littell

Robert Littell is the author of many, many books, including The Once and Future Spy and The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, both out in hardcover from The Overlook Press. The Company: A Novel of the CIA 1951-1991 is now out in paperback.

In my novel The Company, I tell at some length the story of two of the most intriguing and mysterious personalities of the Cold War period, Harold "Kim" Philby, a Soviet KGB mole inside the British intelligence service, MI6, and James Jesus Angleton, the legendary CIA counterintelligence chief. To recapitulate the bare bones of the story: Philby, a Cambridge graduate with distinct leftist sympathies, went to Austria in the early 1930s to help the Socialists riot against their government. There he met and married Litzi Friedman, a woman who turned out to be an agent of the Soviet government.

It was surely Litzi Friedman who recruited Philby and turned him into a Soviet agent. He worked as a London Times journalist in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and eventually made his way into the ranks of MI6, serving during WWII as counterintelligence chief for the Iberian Peninsula -- and, after the war, counterintelligence chief for the Soviet Union itself. It is hard to imagine that the man who was charged with keeping track of Soviet spies in England was himself a Soviet spy!

In the early 1940s, Angleton -- a brilliant student fresh out of Yale -- was recruited by America's wartime intelligence service, the OSS, and wound up in London learning the counterintelligence ropes from Kim Philby. The two became close friends.

In the early 1950s, the scene shifts to Washington, D.C. Angleton had become the CIA's counterintelligence chief and his great friend Philby was stationed in Washington serving as liaison between MI6 and the CIA. The two friends lunched once a week at a Washington watering hole; Philby had the run of theCIA buildings, often stopping by Angleton's office to chat. What fiction writer could have invented this: the CIA officer responsible for preventing the Agency from being penetrated by Soviet moles talking endlessly and intimately with a Soviet mole!

No thanks to Angleton, Philby was eventually exposed as a Soviet agent (another of the stories I tell in The Company) and expelled from the country. The effect on Angleton was devastating: with his best friend exposed, he cracked to the point where he never trusted anyone again, a state of mind that hamstrung the CIA's anti-Soviet operations until Angleton was fired in 1975.

Philby was questioned by British intelligence when he returned to London, but denied everything. As the evidence against him was circumstantial -- a great number of operations he knew about were compromised, that sort of thing -- there was no way to prosecute him without a confession. Fired nevertheless by MI6, Philby eventually went back to work as a journalist and wound up in Beirut. A few years later, MI6 came up with more evidence against Philby but, before he could be arrested he fled to Moscow. His public reception by the Soviet authorities was jubilant. His private reception was anything but.

Until the end of Philby's life, the KGB suspected that he had been "turned" by his great friend Angleton; that he had become a triple agent. The Soviets never let Philby set foot inside the KGB headquarters in Moscow, kept him under constant surveillance, and, to Philby's great bitterness, never promoted him from "KGB agent" to "KGB officer."

Was Philby turned into a triple agent by the CIA's counterintelligence chief, Angleton? After The Company was published, I had occasion to talk with the former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek in his office in Jerusalem. Kollek -- an Austrian who at one point in his career worked for Israeli intelligence -- told me the following story: he had been in Vienna in the early 1930s when the Socialists rioted against their government; had a passing acquaintanceship with the left-wing Brit who had come to lend a hand, Kim Philby; was also familiar with Litzi Friedman, whom everyone in Vienna knew to be a Soviet agent. At the time, Kollek was aware that Philby had married the Friedman woman.

Fast-forward to the early 1950s. Israeli intelligence is eager to have contacts with the CIA. The CIA hesitates, fearing that the KGB might have infiltrated the Israeli Mossad. Eventually Teddy Kollek is invited to meet a CIA officer in a Washington hotel room. The person he meets is the counterintelligence chief, James Angleton. The two hit it off and become fast friends. Kollek is invited to Angleton's home for dinner, and brings him an Israeli orchid for his famous orchid collection. One day, Kollek is heading through the CIA corridors toward Angleton's office when he sees a familiar figure in the distance: the British liaison officer Kim Philby!

Kollek rushes into the office of the CIA counterintelligence chief and says something like, "You'll never guess whom I just saw down the hall. It's Kim Philby, the leftist whom I knew in Vienna in the early 1930s who married Litzi Friedman, a woman known to be a Soviet agent." Then, referring to Philby, Kollek says he told Angleton: "Once a Communist, always a Communist." It is highly unlikely that Angleton, whose job it was to be suspicious of everyone in order to prevent Soviet moles from penetrating the CIA, would have let the matter drop. Kollek has no idea what his friend Angleton did about the revelation. But a writer of fiction can use his imagination.

So: Were Soviet intelligence chiefs correct in assuming that Angleton had turned Philby into an American agent?

Three Books I have recently read and enjoyed tremendously:

  • Across the Sabbath River by Hillel Halkin: A search for the legendary Lost Tribe of Israel that takes the reader to the Indian state of Mizoram and finishes on an astonishing note.
  • A Moral Reckoning by Daniel Johan Holdagen: It explores the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust.
  • Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman: In my opinion, one of the great, if not the greatest, historical novels of the last century; it tells the story of the epic battle for Stalingrad and much, much more.

Author photograph © 2002 Sunny Payson