Ex-spy be­hind Trump al­le­ga­tions goes into hid­ing af­ter be­ing outed

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - PAUL WALDIE EURO­PEAN COR­RE­SPON­DENT LON­DON

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.

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