Stalin also disregarded the intelligence from perhaps the most famous secret agent of all time, Kim Philby. A paragon of British high society, he was one of five Cambridge University communists who would go on to spy for the Soviet Union while serving as a high-level British official. Philby worked loyally for the Soviets from 1934 through the second World War, and later as British Intelligence Chief in Cold War Washington before defecting to Moscow in 1963.
Despite their stunning access, Philby and his Cambridge cohorts were never fully trusted because they passed along information that the paranoid Kremlin could not accept—the truth that British did not have a robust effort to spy on Moscow. The Soviets’ view was that if they could run so many spies in the capital of their wartime ally, how could it be that the vaunted British secret service was not doing the same in Russia? Philby and his comrades produced an extraordinary wealth of information on German war plans, but they could provide next to nothing to the repeated question of British penetration of Soviet intelligence—because it did not exist.
As Genrikh Borovik noted in his book “The Philby Files,” “With the Germans at the gate of Moscow, the KGB was more intent on trying to trip up its best agent, to get proof that he was [a Security Service] plant, than in exploiting his privileged access to British secrets.” Philby shared volumes of stolen information and risked capture but could only report the truth—Britain had no agents in Russia. Other spies in London reported the same, and also fell under suspicion.
Even as the Germans approached Stalingrad, Philby provided excellent reporting on Nazi intentions. But his handlers pressed him instead for tidbits on British spy operations in Russia. It was as if England was their enemy, not Germany.
More recently, senior Estonian police official Herman Simm, considered by many the most damaging spy in NATO history, fell under suspicion in Moscow since he reported that NATO was not snooping on Russia—something his superiors did not want to hear. Instead, they were looking for proof that the West was as intrusive and devious as they were.
Again and again, Russian agents who confirmed what their spymasters already believed prospered, while those who denied it—even if they were right—were ignored. In such a system, the intelligence process inevitably becomes skewed as practitioners only provide material that their consumers want to hear—or worse, hold back inconvenient truths.
Sorge and the Cambridge Five are celebrated as exceptional espionage sources. And they were. However, effective intelligence does not only entail the collection of impressive sources, but also the translation of that information into educated policy decisions. In the Soviet Union, that crucial second component fell by the wayside; in Trump’s America, we’re poised to make the same mistake.
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