Cambridge Five


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If the notion of a Russian plant with three passports at the head of a major-party presidential campaign--a Republican presidential campaign, no less--strikes you as a little hard to swallow, buckle up.  Because that's what the Russians do.  And it's nothing  compared to the Cambridge Five.

At least, we think there were at least five.  At first they were just two.  Then a third.  And then a fourth was confirmed, and we're pretty sure about number five.  Some say there were a six and maybe even a seven. 

But whatever their number there's no doubt whatever that in the early 1930's the Russians--then constituted as the Soviet Union--recruited a number of disaffected upper-class undergraduates at Cambridge University to penetrate the highest reaches of British politics and pass its secrets back to Moscow.

And boy, did they.  Despite their known Communist affiliations--in the 1930's, Marxism was an accepted,  rational response to the rise of fascism, one shared by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American nuclear arsenal--the boys from Cambridge rose fast.  By the time war broke out they were deeply entrenched in the distinctly English intersecting worlds of journalism, diplomacy, and intelligence.   (Unlike the distinctly American intersecting world of money and everything else.)  Guy Burgess, despite his obvious alcoholism and open homosexuality--then a criminal offense--bounced back and forth between the BBC and the Foreign Office, as did the more discrete Donald MacleanAnthony Blunt, whose background as a preeminent historian of French Rococo art somehow qualified him as a counterintelligence agent, joined the security service, MI5 John Cairncross, who'd started out as private secretary to a member of the Cabinet, managed to get himself  assigned to nothing less than Bletchely Park--the hypercerebral, hypersecret codebreaking operation recently dramatized in "The Imitation Game."

The most prominent was  H.A. R. "Kim" Philby, so nicknamed not because he was cute or something, but because he early reminded his friends of Kipling's fictional boy-spy in the Great Game between Britain and Russia.  He parlayed his role as a correspondent for the Times into a major position with MI6, the UK's legendary Secret Intelligence Service.  Through the course of the war he and his fellow spies--and as I said while we've confirmed five there may have been more---used their incredibly sensitive positions to pass the most highly classified British and American intelligence along to the Soviets--rationalizing away manifest treason with the justification that the Russians were, after all, on our side in the war against fascism.

But then all of a sudden they weren't.  With the war over, our gallant Soviet allies became the Red Menace.  And to be fair, acted like it, seizing any opportunity to evade NATO security, especially atomic.  And though Philby and Co. were by this point no longer on the cutting edge of the penetration operation, they had been careless in the past.  So much so that Burgess and McLean--tipped off by Philby, who unbelievably had survived internal investigations into Russian collusion to rise to be head of the British intelligence station in Washington, and to be mentioned as a possible future director of the service--had to flee Britain in the dead of the night.  And even more unbelievably, after their abrupt departure, Philby was cleared of involvement with the Russians.

But there's more.  Even though the public outcry temporarily derailed Philby's intelligence career, within a few years he was using journalistic cover to act as an agent in the Middle East.  When renewed suspicions grew too hot even for him, he boarded a Soviet freighter and surfaced again in Moscow a few months later--where he died decades later, a colonel in the KGB and a decorated Soviet hero.

Cairncross evaded official attention and found his way into a career in academia in the United States.  His involvement in  the spy ring was only confirmed after his death. 

And the fifth man?  Blunt?  He went on to become the Queen's official art historian--Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures was his official title, I kid you not--in which capacity this former Soviet spy received a knighthood.  Though he confirmed his treason after he was exposed by a Soviet defector, the terms of his confession kept it secret for fifteen years and also allowed him to keep his knighthood, his academic honors, and the royal job.  He wasn't publicly outed until 1978, and is the only member of the ring to have suffered the shame of disclosure in his own lifetime and country.  

So why is any of this important?  In part because of consequences that went far beyond wartime involuntary information-sharing.  Philby was close friends with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's  chief of counterintelligence.  Angleton was so shaken by his friend's betrayal that he came to see spies everywhere, especially within his own agency.  Periodically our own intelligence apparatus was paralyzed by Philby-inspired, Angleton-ordered "molehunts" during which half our agents wre watching the other half and as a result, no one got much done.  Angleton's paranoia, collateral damage from the Russian penetration operation, crippled the agency until his retirement in the mid-seventies--a gift that just kept on giving.

But even more critically, this episode  demonstrates that the ambition of Russia's intelligence operations is exceeded only by its patience.  The Soviets recruited five young men while still undergraduates and cultivated them over more than a decade so that when the opportunity came, they would occupy sensitive roles in the highest levels of British government.  Whatever facts the Mueller investigation may uncover--and for the sake of the Republic let's all hope that our worst fears are unfounded--history teaches us that when the Russians see a chance, they take it.  And once they've taken it, they stay with it.

And most importantly, we should never forget that before he entered politics in a collapsing Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin was a high-ranking officer in the KGB--the same service that recruited and ran the Cambridge Five for thirty years.  So it is neither fantastic nor paranoid to believe that Russian reach could extend to the highest levels of our politics.  It may, however, be optimistic to believe that it stopped with one party, or with politics. 

As I said, buckle up.