Ex-spy behind Trump allegations goes into hiding after being outed
He did not say where he was going or when he was coming back. Mike Hopper Neighbour of Christopher Steele
Christopher Steele, veteran of Britain’s MI6 agency in Russia during the nineties, was well regarded in intelligence circles
WhenChristopher Steele left the British spy service, he wasted little time cashing in on his years of experience and set up a pair of consulting firms in 2009 that offer corporate clients “strategic advice,” “intelligencegathering operations” and “cross-border investigations.”
“It’s a hostile world out there,” says the website of one Londonbased company he runs called Walsingham Training. “Whether ‘out there’ is in the back streets of Kinshasa or negotiating around a table in New York, we understand this all too well.”
But now, Mr. Steele’s private consulting has landed him at the centre of a firestorm of controversy over salacious allegations involving Russian spies secretly taping U.S. presidentelect Donald Trump four years ago in Moscow. The ex-spy has been forced into hiding, fearing for his safety as Mr. Trump and Russian officials angrily denounce his sleuthing.
Mr. Trump called the report, made public on the eve of his first news conference as president-elect on Wednesday, phoney and accused U.S. intelligence officials of leaking the report. On Wednesday, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, called Mr. Trump to tell him that the leak of the material did not come from U.S. agencies and that the intelligence community had made no judgment on the credibility of the claims.
“James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts. Too bad!” Mr. Trump tweeted on Thursday morning.
Much of the attention has turned to Mr. Steele and whether his report is believable. Few in the intelligence community would have expected such a turnaround for Mr. Steele whose career by all accounts has been stellar.
While details of Mr. Steele’s background are sketchy, government records show he was assigned to the British embassy in Moscow in 1990 as a foreign intelligence officer with MI6 and worked at the embassy in Paris in 1998. His time in Russia coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of KGB agent Vladimir Putin who would become Russia’s president in 2000. By then, MI6 was gaining a reputation for exceptional work at keeping tabs on Russia, and Mr. Steele was among the top performers.
At some point after 2000, he
returned to MI6 headquarters in London and reportedly began working with Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who had fled to Britain in 2000 and helped MI6 uncover information on Russian mafia figures. Mr. Litvinenko had been an agent of the Federal Security Service, FSB, the successor to the KGB, but he’d had a falling out with the agency over corruption allegations and left for Britain, where he became an ardent critic of Mr. Putin. Mr. Litvinenko died in 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with polonium-210, a radioactive chemical. Last year, a public inquiry in Britain concluded that Mr. Putin “probably” sanctioned Mr. Litvinenko’s assassination by two Russian FSB agents.
By 2009, Mr. Steele had quit MI6 and teamed up with another former intelligence officer, Christopher Burrows, to launch Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. and Walsingham Training. Mr. Burrows had worked with MI6 from 1990 to 2009 in London, Brussels and Delhi. And, as with Mr. Steeles, Mr. Burrows was highly regarded in the spy world for his expertise.
One source familiar with MI6 referred to Mr. Burrows as the gold standard among Russianwatching spies. The source, who did not want to be named, added that MI6 always kept a close eye on the Russians even as allied services became fixated on jihadis in the 2000s, noting that Britain had to contend with the Litvinenko case and Russian oligarchs coming to London.
Orbis, which is run out of an office in London’s exclusive Belgravia borough, advertises itself as “a leading corporate intelligence consultancy” and it offers a variety of services, such as advice on “intelligence-based communications,” tracing fraud, exploring whistle-blower allegations and dispute resolution.
There is little information on its clients but company filings show Orbis is growing. Net assets have risen from just £5,693 in 2010 to £200,423 ($320,000) last year, according to filings.
There are reports from Reuters news service that an early client of Mr. Steele and Orbis was Brit- ain’s Football Association, the country’s governing body for soccer, which hired the firm around 2009 when it was considering bidding for the FIFA World Cup. The event was awarded to Moscow for 2018 and Qatar for 2022, but Mr. Steele’s work found its way to the FBI, which had opened a probe into corruption at FIFA. That led to criminal charges against several FIFA officials in 2015 and it forced the ouster of long-time FIFA boss Sepp Blatter.
According to several reports, Mr. Steele’s FBI contacts during the FIFA investigation led to Orbis winning work with Fusion GPS, a Washington-based research firm founded by former journalists. Fusion had been hired to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump for Republican candidates during the party’s primary. After Mr. Trump won the nomination, Democrats became clients for the same type of work.
When news broke last summer that Russian hackers had accessed Democratic Party computers, reports say Mr. Steele began contacting sources in Russia. He allegedly turned over material to Fusion including alleged compromising information about Mr. Trump’s activities in a Moscow hotel during the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant and some shady Russian business proposals. Word of Fusion’s report containing Mr. Steele’s findings had been rumored for months. In November, U.S. Senator John McCain got wind of the allegations while attending a security conference in Halifax. He sent an official to meet Mr. Steele and then passed on the information to FBI director James Comey in December. Summaries of the report were included in the classified intelligence briefings about Russian hacking to President Barack Obama, and later to Mr. Trump.
None of the allegations in the report have been verified and many have been contradicted. Security analysts, too, are skeptical of the information with some saying the work appears shoddy. However, others say the Russians have a long history of gathering information on highprofile people.
None of that matters to Mr. Steele now. After his name surfaced in U.S. media reports Wednesday, he hurriedly left his home in Surrey southwest of London with his three children (his wife died in 2009 after an illness).
One neighbour, Mike Hopper, told reporters that Mr. Steele had asked him to look after the family’s cats.
“He did not say where he was going or when he was coming back,” he added.