Betrayal Happens in the Mind

Kim Philby was the most destructive Soviet spy of the 20th century.  He was recruited to be a spy in 1934, when he had just graduated from Cambridge and was casting about for a career.  He was appalled at the British system and was a devoted atheist.  He was convinced to join the Diplomatic Service and work his way up the ranks.

For 20 years, Philby passed classified material to Russia from the highest levels of both British and American government.  He worked with the NSA and CIA and had access to the highest levels of classified material.  In 1963, just as the authorities were closing in on him, Philby finally defected to Russia, jumping on a Soviet freighter while it was in port in Turkey.

My newly published novel, What Happens to Us,, has an espionage element, which has been a lifelong passion of mine.  Currently, I’m reading Kim Philby: The Private Life of Kim Philby and The Sword and the Shield, which covers the Philby story, as well.

What has always fascinated me is the moment of his conversion.  When one makes the decision to betray everyone and everything one has grown up with, how does one feel?  What bargains are made in one’s mind?  The fact is that Philby seemed to yearn for a higher noble cause, as many young people do.  He had a disdain for the arrogant British class system in which he had grown up.  And he had been deprived of his parents during his youth, being raised primarily by his grandmother and, more closely, by servants and nannies, in this way attaining a type of solidarity with the working classes and against the cold, hard evildoers, in his mind.

Little did Philby know how difficult betrayal would be in his later years.  Little did he know that communism would transform from a noble experiment emanating from the Revolution to a blood-stained joke under Stalin to a bumbling bureaucracy under Khruschev, Brezhnev, and Andropov.

It occurs to me that much the same things go through the minds of those who have recently betrayed the American people over government surveillance.  Senators Dianne Feinstein, Lindsay Graham, and Saxby Chambliss, as well as former NSA Director Michael Hayden, have all lied to the American people within the past month, saying that the government doesn’t collect phone calls, emails, texts, and other correspondence, only metadata, such as times, dates, and locations attached to such data.  In addition, they have said, it must have a court order to access it.

On Saturday, an investigative article in The Guardian newspaper revealed that the NSA’s xkeycode program collects all available information, including the content of phone calls, emails, texts, and other correspondence, and that it needs no court clearance to obtain it.

What goes through the mind of a person who betrays their country in such a blatant manner?  I’m thinking of Dianne Feinstein in particular, because she’s the one who in interviews seems the most earnest, trustworthy, and unassailable.  Whenever I look at her, I think, “Oh God, she had to go through the assassination of a mayor.  She was so brave.”

And then it occurred to me that these people must have gone through the same things that Kim Philby went through.  They believed in their cause.  They rationalized their lies.  They convinced themselves it was for the greater good.  And I’m sure, in carrying out their lies, they must have discovered that it’s much harder to carry out a series of lies than they originally thought.  I feel sorry for them.


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