Of all the unresolved cold war mysteries, arguably the most intriguing are the motives of members of the Cambridge espionage network that was foiled in 1951, forcing the notorious British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to flee to Moscow. The third man, Kim Philby, was ousted from MI6, the British intelligence service, but escaped prosecution for lack of evidence (he later escaped to Moscow). Why would members of the British upper class pass thousands of classified documents to Soviet intelligence? What was in it for them?

John le Carré, among others, has considered these questions at length. In the 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré’s spycatcher George Smiley assesses the Russian mole in British intelligence as follows: “Bill was a romantic and a snob. He wanted to join an elitist vanguard and lead the masses out of the darkness…. [Smiley] imagined Bill’s Marxism making up for his inadequacy as an artist and for his loveless childhood.” But ultimately, le Carré dismisses this explanation and settles instead “for a picture of one of those wooden Russian dolls that opens up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside of him.”

During the cold war itself, few people were interested in a serious exploration of such treason. The idea that Burgess, Philby or Maclean might have acted out of sincere belief or misplaced idealism did not seem a legitimate argument. Even friends from the Cambridge left wrote about “neurotic personalities and incipient schizophrenia” when trying to explain their spying for Moscow.

Their clandestine escape sent ripples of suspicion and visceral distrust that reverberated for years on both sides of the Atlantic. It helped fuel an upsurge of puritanism and homophobia (Burgess became a symbol of the “evils” of homosexuality: predatoriness, blackmail, betrayal, mistrust), and conveniently tied them up with Communism. Maclean was cast as a respectable but weak man brought low by Burgess’s machinations.

In a large sense, however, the 1951 flight left a lasting imprint on Western intelligence. It showed that even the best intelligence service could be compromised by a single person–which indeed was the case in the period 1949-51, when Philby was the liaison between the CIA and MI6, Britain’s external security agency, and was privy not only to everything worth knowing but also knew the intentions of the West, given his access to top people in Washington and London. This made counterintelligence, or the catching of moles, as important if not more so than the gathering of intelligence itself. Security chiefs in London, supported by the paranoid CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton in Washington, were convinced that there was a giant and incredibly successful Soviet conspiracy to penetrate Western intelligence at the highest level. For a while, everyone was under suspicion. It was rumored for a long time that Labour leader and Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a KGB plant and that Roger Hollis, the chief of Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, and CIA Director William Colby, were double agents.

While Philby, Burgess and Maclean lived out their solitary and miserable lives in dismal conditions in Russia, yearning for an England that had nothing but contempt for their perfidy, the “fourth” Cambridge spy–Anthony Blunt–not only escaped exposure but made a great career for himself in the world of art.

Blunt seemed like a quintessential part of the British establishment, a tall, gauntly handsome but shy man with aristocratic manners who seemed to leap effortlessly from success to success. A disciple of Bloomsbury, he studied first math then modern languages and found a mentor in Cambridge classicist and art collector Andrew Gow, known for his meticulous accuracy and exacting standards. (Another protégé of Gow’s was George Orwell.) During his second year, Blunt was elected to the Apostles, the secret philosophical society presided over by John Maynard Keynes. The society’s view of life was influenced by the philosopher G.E. Moore, who wrote that the greatest good was to be found in “personal affections and esthetic enjoyments”; in other words, love, friendship and the contemplation of beauty were the only things valuable in themselves and the only justifiable ends of human acts. Blunt read his first paper to the society, which was asked to vote on the question “Must art come from the heart?” Blunt voted no; he was opposed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who voted yes and vigorously argued the point.

By the onset of the 1950s, Blunt was the leading authority on seventeenth-century French painting and architecture, head of the Courtauld Institute, curator of the Queen’s collection of paintings (one of the largest private collections in the world) and a member of the royal household. In 1956 he received a knighthood and was the most powerful and influential figure in British art history.

When he was finally unmasked in 1979, Blunt became a figure of hate and a sort of screen onto which fiction and fantasy were projected. He was “defined as a caricature of his class (privileged, therefore overindulged), his calling (academic, therefore elitist and snobbish) and his sexual orientation (homosexual, therefore predatory and wedded to secrets),” Miranda Carter writes in her fair-minded and absorbing biography, Anthony Blunt: His Lives. He was stripped of his knighthood and his Cambridge fellowship and was forced to resign from the British Academy. In the press he became a man about whom anything could be said: a “spy with no shame,” an “arrogant evil poseur,” a “treacherous communist poof,” a pedophile, a thief, a cheat, an authenticator of forgeries. The torrent of public abuse was so overwhelming that when he tried to see a movie in February 1980, he was booed out of a Notting Hill movie theater. That same month John Gaskin, his partner since 1953, threw himself from their sixth-floor balcony (but lived).

What gives Carter’s narrative its dramatic tension is the make-believe existence that Blunt led for twenty-eight years, one that must have been racked with foreboding and fear. In 1963 he was betrayed by Michael Straight, the owner and editor of The New Republic, who attended Cambridge in the 1930s, where he was sought for recruitment by Blunt. (Straight, who denies spying, returned to America, joined the State Department and pointed out to the Soviets a rising star whom he had noticed had pro-Communist views: Alger Hiss.) The Kennedy Administration had offered Straight an arts administration post, and he unburdened himself during a routine security check (in later years he served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts). The FBI sat on this information for months, then asked Straight to tell his story directly to a senior MI6 man. He did this as well, saying he was willing to testify in court.

But Blunt survived, almost unscathed. The British authorities, fearing a potentially damaging scandal, offered him immunity from prosecution and confidentiality in return for a confession and an agreement to cooperate in their investigation. He immediately accepted. That the whole thing was hushed up may have been due to Blunt’s having friends at the highest levels. Later, it was said that Blunt had blackmailed the establishment by threatening to reveal proof that the Duke of Windsor plotted with Hitler during World War II. (In August 1945 Blunt was sent by King George VI on a secret mission to occupied Germany to retrieve family papers that may have included compromising evidence against the king’s brother.) Whatever the reason, Blunt’s position was shaken only slightly. He continued occasionally to share a box with the Queen Mother at the opera and remained a leading light of English high society until his exposure in 1979. Blunt died four years later.

What made his ultimate exposure inevitable was the bitter jealousy of an old friend, the journalist Goronwy Rees. Rees felt that his own brief dalliance with Communism at Cambridge had destroyed his career prospects and consequently his life. He was obsessed with Blunt’s success, and he tried over the years to force the spotlight on him without making a direct accusation. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rees felt he no longer had anything to lose. He poured out his story to a journalist who was writing a book about the Cambridge spies. Blunt never gave his side of the story (he attempted to write an autobiography, but without success), and several writers have explored his motives, including the novelist John Banville, whose The Untouchable skillfully exploits a rebellious streak in the Blunt family (one of Anthony’s relatives, Wilfrid Blunt, was a supporter of Irish home rule and sponsored anti-imperialism in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century).

As I mentioned above, the lasting legacy of the Cambridge spy ring was a system of security constraints that changed the way Western intelligence services in general and the CIA in particular operated, and continue to operate to this day. Despite all the swashbuckling movies and spy thrillers, not to mention TV treatment, CIA operatives have learned about the outside world at long range, through technical means and by proxy–trying to recruit locals to spy. In hostile countries they function under diplomatic cover (protecting themselves from arrest), working and living inside embassy compounds. At the height of the cold war in the early 1980s, the CIA station chief I knew in Moscow hardly knew any Russian. How do you find out what’s going on in Russia if you are unwilling or unable to work the street? Even Russian-speaking operatives were disinclined to meet Soviet nationals because of the risk of “contamination.” How could one prove that instead of trying to develop his own sources or recruit Russian nationals, the recruiter had not been fed disinformation or even been “turned”? What if a polygraph determined that one could not account for fifteen minutes of one’s day? Angleton’s counterintelligence program ruined many careers and, perversely, helped the Soviet Union. By contrast, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s military attachés traveled and entertained aggressively, mingling freely and having frequent run-ins with KGB goons.

Dramatic advancements in technology eventually became a counterintelligence nightmare. They made spying easier. Computer diskettes could be sent through the mail. Few skills were required apart from computer literacy. Spies became more difficult to discover. Witness Aldrich Ames, who began downloading secret documents in early 1985 and continued delivering them to Moscow until his arrest in 1994. Ditto Robert Hanssen of the FBI, who is the subject of two biographies by three first-rate reporters–David A. Vise, and Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman–who covered his demise in 2001. Ironically, Hanssen, whose treachery dates back to 1979, was one of Ames’s principal debriefers, and like Ames, he betrayed precious national secrets.

Hanssen’s biographers faced some significant obstacles. First, they were at the mercy of their FBI and CIA sources while researching. Both agencies are tainted by a series of recent events, quite apart from September 11, and are not in a self-critical mode. Perhaps there’s little more to be said about Hanssen than they have in fact revealed. But we can never know what the FBI or CIA know about his work, because it’s a secret. We do know as well, however, that secrecy is frequently used to hide mistakes and incompetence as much as to protect sources of information.

But the biggest obstacle to understanding the case is named Robert Hanssen. He was not a leading light in high society or an art connoisseur. He has no privileged pedigree. He is a Chicago policeman’s son who graduated from Knox College, then studied dentistry before switching to accounting. (He has an MA from Northwestern’s School of Business.) As with Ames, Hanssen’s primary motive was money: When he first approached the Soviets to offer them classified material, we are told, he was “close to bankruptcy.” Why? FBI wages were better than, say, those of journalists at the time. We don’t know. Perhaps one thing that set Hanssen apart from other American traitors was his cunning–it took the FBI and CIA more than twenty years to catch him, and they did so only after a CIA mole in Moscow stole Hanssen’s entire file (including a wrapper with his fingerprints) as part of a deal to gain asylum in America. Otherwise, he comes across as just as boring and banal a personality as Ames: warped, self-absorbed and lacking a moral compass.

In the immediate aftermath of his arrest, Hanssen’s former friends and colleagues were playing by Washington’s cardinal rule–don’t kick the man until he is down–and the portrait that emerges makes one wonder how Hanssen could have held any FBI job at all. “I always thought he was an arrogant, narrow-minded asshole,” one agent commented. Another, Ed Curran, said Hanssen “didn’t get his hands dirty…he was never out on the street nights, weekends, holidays.” (This particular comment is at odds with Hanssen’s own protestations to Col. Jack Hoschouer, a childhood friend, who said that Hanssen confided in him that he was disappointed in his fellow agents. “He figured that Russians were doing illegal stuff when [FBI] people were home in bed…. He said that guys had to get out on Sunday morning, but they didn’t want to do it.”) Other pithy comments by colleagues ranged from “He reminded you of Ichabod Crane” to “He was just creepy.” Even the three priests at a Vienna, Virginia, Roman Catholic church where Hanssen had been one of the thirty-five to forty regulars at the daily 6:30 am mass for at least a decade said they did not know him personally. Only a former Washington stripper on whom Hanssen had lavished money and attention ignored the rule: She insisted their relationship was purely Platonic, presumably to protect his wife.

By contrast, Blunt’s friends, while trying to distance themselves from the famous traitor, offered more forthright assessments. Consider Victor Rothschild, who conceded in 1983 that he was always impressed by Blunt’s “outstanding” abilities “and by what, for want of a better phrase, I must call his high moral and ethical principles.” Even the hard-line MI5 spycatcher Peter Wright–a man obsessed with conspiracies who first hounded Blunt and subsequently interrogated him–stood in awe before his prey. Blunt was, he wrote,

one of the most elegant, charming and cultivated men I have met…the most striking thing about Blunt was the contradiction between his evident strength of character and his curious vulnerability. It was this contradiction which caused the people of both sexes to fall in love with him…. [He] was capable of slipping from art historian and scholar one minute, to intelligence bureaucrat the next, to spy, to waspish homosexual, to languid establishmentarian. But the roles took their toll on him as a man.

Blunt’s lifeline, quite apart from his espionage activities, also reads like a summary of art scholarship in Britain since the 1930s, coupled with occasional forays into the homosexual worlds of London and Cambridge. He did not hide his homosexuality, nor did he allow it or his espionage to interfere with his life as an art historian, which was of paramount importance to him. He would not betray his friends; for his generation of homosexual men, friends in innumerable ways provided a support network in a hostile world. Carter also concludes that no one on the Allied side died as a direct result of Blunt’s actions. This cannot be said of Hanssen, who betrayed American agents in Russia in full knowledge that he was sending them to their death. Hanssen also betrayed his closest friends: his wife, Bonnie, mother of their six children, and his childhood friend Hoschouer.

Within days of their wedding Bonnie received a phone call from one of Hanssen’s old girlfriends, who informed her she had just had sex with her husband; he promptly admitted his sin and she forgave him. Bonnie later caught him in the basement of their home in New York with the first $20,000 he received from the Soviets; he told her the truth, but the thought of confessing to the FBI frightened them both. Instead, he assured her he’d never do it again and agreed to confess his sins to a priest. Bonnie was oblivious to thousands of dollars hidden in their home after this, and she didn’t notice that he was spending too much money for someone on an FBI salary, as was all too obvious to her brother, Mark Wauck. Wauck, an FBI agent in Chicago, reported this to the FBI, saying he suspected his brother-in-law was spying for the Russians.

Then there are other intimate betrayals, which reflected Hanssen’s sexual fantasies. He took photographs of Bonnie and sent them to his best friend, Jack (“he got to see all sides, crevices and cracks of Bonnie”). He told Jack that it would give him a great joy if Jack fathered a child with Bonnie. “Since Bonnie would not have allowed herself to be swapped between friends,” Bob had Jack “on numerous occasions” secretly watch from a deck outside the bedroom as husband and wife made love. Later, Bob had a secret videocamera installed in the bedroom so Jack could watch them on a monitor in another part of the house. He posted on an Internet bulletin board a story of sex fantasies about his early marriage, and did so using his and his wife’s real names and e-mail address.

The lack of personal restraint shows up Hanssen, to me at least, as an immature hustler who needed money. Having asked the KGB for diamonds as payments, he would return the stones he determined to be flawed and request cash instead. His consummate hypocrisy provided protective coloration for criminal activity. He was a fervent superpatriot who insisted that “communism was the incarnation of Satan in the world.” He thought that the convicted Soviet spy John Walker should be shot. He lectured on the evils of Communism to civic groups. Moreover, he had embraced Opus Dei, an elitist, conservative order that enjoys greater power in the Catholic Church than its relatively small membership–80,000 worldwide–would suggest. On Sundays the Hanssens attended the St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, Virginia, where Opus Dei members gathered to celebrate the traditional Latin mass. (Some high-ranking officials attended the church as well, among them FBI Director Louis Freeh and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.) It was after a Sunday mass in February 2001 that Hanssen made his last drop, leaving a black garbage bag filled with classified material at the base of a bridge in a park near his Vienna home. In exchange, the Russians had left $50,000 for him nearby. At the moment of Hanssen’s arrest, Freeh was back in his office managing Hanssen’s downfall.

Reading the Hanssen biographies felt like watching one of those mindless Hollywood action movies that titillate the senses without taxing the mind. There’s nothing mysterious or intriguing about Hanssen, no hint of intellectual depth, no set of beliefs or values that he held dear. The authors pose the right question–why did he do it?–but no amount of skillful writing can make you pant for an answer. The Russian traitors appearing in these accounts are far more interesting. We do know why so many of them were tempted to betray their country, and a few did. Sent abroad to spy, they could make rational comparisons. (A system based on organized lying is fundamentally flawed because it is virtually impossible for the rulers to deceive their followers without ultimately deceiving themselves.)

The first man Hanssen betrayed, Gen. Dmitri Polyakov, was perhaps the most valuable American agent inside the Soviet military intelligence apparatus. When the general was prematurely recalled from New Delhi to Moscow in early 1980, his CIA handlers proposed asylum in the United States. “‘Don’t wait for me,’ the general replied. ‘I am never going to the United States. I am not doing this for you. I am doing this for my country.’ But what would happen if he were found out?… ‘An unmarked grave,'” the general replied.

Polyakov appears to us as a noble character, as a patriot who believed his government was in the wrong and who spied against it for almost twenty years out of a sincere conviction that he should prevent the Communists from winning the cold war. As one CIA official put it, “He had served honorably.” He was also incredibly cheap: He never took more than $3,000 a year. But here we have a double standard. The Cambridge spies repeatedly turned down Russian offers of money, pensions and other benefits. They occasionally received small sums as gifts; the Russian Intelligence Archives show that on two occasions Blunt received a gift of £100, which, as Carter was quick to point out, “destroyed any claims that he was acting out of pure principle.”

Yet Carter’s authorized biography of Blunt breaks new ground precisely in its rejection of simple explanations based on the cold war double standard. She instead provides the evidence that readers need to reach their own conclusions. We do come to understand why Blunt, who was never interested in politics, turned to Marxism and eventually became a Russian spy. But then, most everyone around him had a brush with Marxism, which hit Cambridge in 1933. In January of that year unemployment reached 23 percent of all insured workers, and the press was full of stories about the suffering of the poor, the hunger marches, childhood malnutrition, tuberculosis and diphtheria. The specter of another war loomed abroad. Japan had invaded Manchuria. Mussolini was running Italy. Also that January, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. To the poet Stephen Spender, who felt “hounded by external events,” Communism offered answers and comfort. Carter notes that poet W.H. Auden also came to believe that “Marxism offered both an analysis of, and an answer to, mass unemployment and the rise of fascism.” He seemed to have come to this conclusion after reading Marx and Edmund Wilson’s Devil Take the Hindmost, an account of the Great Depression and its human cost in America. The appeal of Marxism at Cambridge had nothing to do with Moscow. Young people turned to it, or even joined the Communist Party, since such action “offered absolution from the guilt many of them felt about being part of the privileged ruling class.”

Blunt himself traveled in early 1934 to Italy, then proceeded north to Germany. “Events which took place in Germany had begun to penetrate even my intellectual isolation,” he wrote later in a memoir requested by the NKVD (as the KGB was known at the time). He witnessed firsthand the persecution of Walter Friedländer, his former teacher and mentor, who had initiated him into the mysteries of Poussin and other seventeenth-century painters. Friedländer was dismissed from his job as professor at Freiburg University because he was a Jew. By 1935, according to Tess Rothschild, “you felt that if you were approached to join the Party you’d have to say yes. One felt slightly ashamed if one refused.”

Blunt’s writing assumed a Marxist tinge, which led him to severely criticize Picasso’s Guernica–which he would subsequently tout as “the last great painting in the European tradition.” The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War had a profound impact on the Cambridge left, and on Blunt in particular. It was at this time that Guy Burgess approached Blunt for the first time, urging him to work clandestinely for “peace and antifascism”–that is, for Soviet intelligence. “We did not think of ourselves as working for Russia,” he explained much later. “We were working for the Comintern.”

Ultimately, it was Blunt’s affection for the charismatic Burgess that led him to spy. No doubt the Spanish Civil War may have provided suitable background for this move. For most liberals, Spain was a clear-cut issue of democracy versus fascism. But while Germany and Italy were sending planes and tanks to Franco, the Western democracies failed to support the elected government. In 1937 the British government made it illegal for volunteers to fight in Spain or to arrange passage to Spain. This was seen as an effort to appease Hitler. When he tried to explain himself in 1979, Blunt invoked E.M. Forster’s statement that if he ever had to choose between betraying his friend and his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. This resonated with the spirit of the Apostles that love, friendship and contemplation of beauty were the only justifiable ends of human acts. Peter Wright recalled that he realized as soon he began debriefing him in the mid-1960s that Blunt, “far from being liberated by the immunity offer, continued to carry a heavy burden. It was not a burden of guilt, for he felt none…. His burden was the weight of obligation placed on him by those friends, accomplices, and lovers whose secrets he knew, and which he felt himself bound to keep.”

With the end of the cold war, an avalanche of new material has become available. Another factor has been a gradual evolution in attitudes toward homosexuality, which has caused friends and lovers of Blunt to speak more openly than would have once been possible. Finally, his friends and colleagues–“for the most part,” Carter says–“came to forgive or to comprehend or to put in context his spying and became willing to talk about their memories of him.”

We know that Blunt, having found himself at the heart of British military intelligence during World War II, provided Russia with details about its personnel and operations, about the work of code-breakers in Bletchley Park, about German strategy before the crucial battle of Kursk, about the date and place of the allied landings in Normandy. While he may have justified these actions to himself on grounds of assisting the fight against evil, his continued spying was indefensible on moral and rational grounds. Yet he continued. As le Carré put it, “Treason is very much a matter of habit.”

In Hanssen’s case, we are told that one of our most trusted counterintelligence agents gave away the country’s most precious secrets–its “crown jewels”–over the past twenty years with grave consequences for the country’s national security. But it is more likely that Hanssen’s value to the Russians lay in his betrayal of tradecraft and people working against them. As a former recipient of position papers with similar titles–“National Intelligence Program [19]90-91″ or “Soviet Armed Forces and Capabilities for Conducting Strategic Nuclear War Until the End of the 1990s” or “The Soviet Counterintelligence Offensive: KGB Recruitment Operations Against CIA” or “The Soviet System in Crisis: Prospects for the Next Two Years”–I suspect we’re talking about hefty volumes that nobody in Washington except their authors and their friends would consider reading. This is not easily proved. And yet–here is a comforting thought–we have endured this treachery while our former enemy has imploded.

Outsiders assume that intelligence services are run in more intelligent and more rational ways than the rest of government bureaucracy. But given their preoccupation with secrecy, the opposite is true. Russian intelligence could not cope with the extraordinary material lavished on it by Philby, Blunt and others. Much of it was not even read. The analysts were told to make a priority of finding confirmation of Stalin’s “Main Issue” (his paranoid preoccupation with Western conspiracies against him). But was Stalin’s paranoia completely misplaced? Why did the Western allies not provide him with vital information on German strategy, given the fact that Moscow was sacrificing millions in the fight against Hitler? The Russians claim that the Cambridge spies provided them with information showing that Churchill and Roosevelt deliberately put off the opening of a second front in order to bleed the Soviet Union; as evidence they said that “the British were rationing information on German strategy in 1943 [which was true].” The Russian Intelligence Archives suggest that during this period the Russians were convinced that Blunt and others were in fact British double agents. Pressed for evidence of British conspiracy and espionage against Moscow, Blunt and Philby told their controller that there were no secret operations of that nature and that the Soviet Embassy was not being watched. Unhappy with this situation, the Soviets ordered an investigation in the summer of 1942.

Even by the convoluted, self-deceiving standards of the spy world, this was a masterpiece of irrational thinking. “Over the next eighteen months,” Carter writes, “Blunt and Philby were set a series of tasks, including writing detailed memoirs about themselves and their colleagues, so that Moscow could examine their stories for inconsistencies.” By November, the head of the Third Department of the Foreign Directorate, where the British material was assessed, wrote a report charging that the Cambridge spies were “disinformation agents.” An eight-man surveillance team was dispatched to London to catch them “meeting with their English controllers.” The group was laughably bad at its job, ostentatiously Russian and not equipped with even the most basic English.

Moscow considered getting rid of the Cambridge spies but ruled against it to avoid alerting British intelligence. The bizarre investigation was halted. Since some of their information was rather useful, the risk-averse Moscow center decided they should be sidetracked from the “Main Issue” and concentrate instead on German intelligence. The group was rehabilitated in late 1944, perhaps because Philby was tapped to become the head of the anti-Soviet department of MI6. When Maclean and Burgess defected to Moscow in 1951, they were given months of harsh debriefings in what was virtually a labor camp. As late as 1992, Philby’s biographer, Anthony Cave Brown, came across a KGB officer who referred to the Cambridge spies as “ideological shit.”

Years later, Blunt’s debriefing by Peter Wright was in a sense similar to his dealings with the Russians. Just as he was unable to provide the Russians with evidence of Western plots against them (of which they were convinced a priori), so he would not–almost certainly could not–give Wright his giant Russian conspiracy in the West.

A friend asked Blunt after his exposure to explain to her one thing. He lived and socialized with people of a class that he wanted to destroy. He was an art historian writing books, teaching and cataloguing the great collections. “‘How did you live through all that?’… Blunt lifted the glass of whisky in his hand and said, ‘With this, and more work and more work.'”