Newly unearthed footage shows Britain’s most infamous double agent, talking about his life as a spy for the first time. In the video uncovered by the BBC, Kim Philby gives an hour-long lecture to the erstwhile East German intelligence service in 1981 on how to successfully spy on the British government. The ex-MI6 officer reveals the details of his recruitment by the Soviet intelligence service, the ease with which he passed on British intelligence secrets, and eventually, how he tricked MI6 and escaped to the Soviet Union.
Unearthed from the official Stasi archives in Berlin, the video is grainy and poorly recorded. However, unintended for public consumption, it grants access to an open and candid Philby speaking at ease despite the treacherous topic matter. Although clips of audio and film have surfaced in the past revealing Philby’s unrepentant attitude, the new footage is the first in which he describes his career as a KGB mole within British intelligence.
“Dear Comrades,” was the telling phrase Philby chose to open his “master class in betrayal” to his Stasi audience with. He then uses the beginning of the lecture to explain how, despite being born into “the ruling class of the British Empire,” he was attracted to communism during his time at Cambridge in the early 1930s, later becoming a part of the notorious Cambridge spy ring.
However, he suggests that his recruitment into the Russian intelligence agency was surprising given his lack of job prospects at the time. Tasked with infiltrating the British Secret Intelligence Service (more commonly known as MI6), Philby describes how “It was essentially a long range project. No immediate results were expected or could have been expected.”
The video then shows Philby relating how he spent years working towards getting a job inside the British Secret Service – making contacts through various journalistic jobs including a stunt at The Times.
How to steal secrets
Once in, Philby recounts how easy it was for him to steal secrets – a shocking revelation on the security within the British intelligence services. By befriending the archivist in charge of many secret files by taking him for drinks a few times a week, Philby was able to acquire documents that he would not have had access to as part of his own job. Almost bragging, he tells his audience:
“You have probably all heard stories that the Secret Intelligence Service is an organisation of mythical efficiency, a very, very dangerous thing indeed. Well in a time of war it honestly was not. Every evening I left the office with a briefcase full of reports which I had written myself full of files taken 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.”
Getting hands dirty
At another point in his lecture Philby describes how his KGB handler instructed him to remove his boss, Felix Cowgill, and take his position as head of countering Soviet espionage. Philby recalls asking if he should shoot Cowgill but he was told to use bureaucratic intrigue instead.
“It was a very dirty story, but after all our work does imply getting dirty hands from time to time but we do it for a cause that is not dirty in any way,” Philby justifies.
In his lecture Philby also references his time in Washington DC working with the CIA and FBI. Remarkably, he claims to have prevented World War Three by betraying an operation to send thousands of Albanians back into their country in a bid to overthrow the communist regime.
Whilst working as an agent in Beirut, Philby escaped from the watch of the MI6 officer tasked with watching over him as suspicions about his Soviet espionage were rising. Telling the story as part of his lecture, he mocks how his minder was an avid skier and easily distracted by the fresh snowfall on the Lebanese mountains, giving Philby the opportunity to “slip away” once he was given the signal from the KGB.
Advice: never confess
After the question and answer session with the East German spies in the audience, Philby ends his talk with some last advice: keep your nerve and never confess.
“If they confront you with a document with your own handwriting then it’s a forgery – just deny everything…They interrogated me to break my nerve and force me to confess… And all I had to do really was keep my nerve. So my advice to you is to tell all your agents that they are never to confess.”
Once Philby escaped to Moscow he discovered he was not quite the hero he had hoped to be. The chance to teach and advise the East German Stasi on espionage was a break from the virtual house arrest he was placed under by his KGB handlers who feared he might still be a double agent. Philby died in Moscow in 1988 at the age of 76.