April 24, 2012

Book: Treason in the Blood by Anthony Cave Brown

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:33 pm

This book has one of the most uninspiring cover design, in my mind, and does not do justice to its contents.

The book has a very large canvas, though it follows the life of just a father and son. It tracks the life of H. St. John Philby and his son Kim Philby. Why are they important? Because, though they both grew out of the prewar British establishment that produced a large contingent of Oxford, Cambridge and Eton educated people who took over the reins of the British Empire, the duo stepped so far out of the ordinary, each in his own way, that they were the cause of sensations.

I picked up the book just to read about the spy case that rocked the British Empire but got much more in the bargain: The entire history of Saudi Arabia in its formative years (explosive in some respects, and so different from the `official‘ history being touted in the country and also in many books even today), the extent of exposure of not only the British but the full US intelligence agencies to the enemy, the controversy surrounding the death of JFK (Yes, really), and a view  inside the Soviet Union and its intelligence agency operations. Fascinating.

Some of the nuggets you get: Did you know that King Saud, with the help of the fiercely religious Wahabbi band of tribal warriors, exiled and killed the family of King Hussain of Riyadh, the (so claimed) direct descendents of Prophet Mohammed,  to establish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Or that the official British policy was to support King Hussain and oppose King Saud? Or that the British `gave‘ the newly carved kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq to two of the sons of the same king (King Hussain) ?

To take one thing at a time, the father entered the British Civil Service and was posted to the Middle East. He was a great Arabic scholar and knew the intricacies of the Middle Eastern politics, but was nearly out of control as far as serving the British interests is concerned. First, he went against the official policy of his own government and supported King Saud, going to the extent of supplying intelligence that enabled Saud to develop successful strategies that resulted  in the capture of the Riyadh region. He wanted to be the first European to cross the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, in order to `exceed the fame bestowed upon Lawrence of Arabia‘ and then betrayed British interests by inviting and supporting the American bid for Oil Exploration from Standard Oil, giving the US a foothold into Saudi Arabia, an influence that still is going strong. When chastised, he rebelled and went to Saudi and converted himself to Wahabbi Islam. He seems to have been habitually unfaithful to his wife, a trait shared by his son later, and even took in a Saudi wife. He was a bitter man to the end, complaining about how England never recognized his talents! (I wonder why! Does his record above not speak for itself? )

His son Kim Philby was a rebel in a different, and arguably a far more dangerous, fashion. Having come under the sway of communist ideals while in college, he was recruited by the Soviet Intelligence and commanded to find his way into SIS (MI5) services of England. He succeeded brilliantly and was one of the `Cambridge Five‘ and possibly the kingpin of the five. He rose to become the number three in the organization, with all Soviet Intelligence files passing through his hands! Even all the files of the fledgling intelligence services (OSS) set up in the UK. Thus, every file produced by UK and US on USSR was exposed to Russian scrutiny. The devastation this caused is told in chilling detail and has damaged not only the lives of countless undercover agents in Soviet countries, the careers of potential rivals to Kim Philby but also the entire outcome of the Korean War that created North Korea as a country due to Chinese army overrunning the northern part of the country!

The story is told is great, absorbing detail. It may be `too much‘ information if you prefer the Readers Digest version of things – the book is a door stopper at 622 pages! ! But the facts brought to life (some of which have been given above but some others include the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was a known communist, was in touch with KGB and visited Moscow before the assassination; the fact that Kim Philby was investigated for possible Soviet Spy but exonerated and reinstated into the position of power much before he wreaked such havoc; when it was established that he was indeed a top spy, he was tipped off by British intelligence `so that he may escape and avoid the embarrassment caused if he were arrested and the details of the level of exposure were splashed for all to see’; how fragile Saudi government was, and what a powderkeg it was for a long time; how intellectuals like Graham Greene were defending Kim Philby’s treason on grounds of conviction to ideology, despite the enormous devastation it wrought on resources of their own country)

A well told story, if you are into the sort of things that are described, and the irony brought out. It is meticulously researched and explained.

I would definitely give it a 7/10


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