Former MI6 officer Christopher Steele was still in hiding on Friday night, as the storm over his dossier about Donald Trump's alleged links to Russia continued to rage on both sides of the Atlantic. While Trump fumed about what he called "fake news", former colleagues portrayed Steele (53) as a serious, diligent intelligence analyst who would not invent material for a client.
Andrew Wood, Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, where Steele served as an intelligence officer under diplomatic cover in the 1990s, said he knew the former spy as "a very competent, professional" operator.
“I do not think he would make things up. I don’t think he would necessarily always draw the correct judgment but that’s not the same thing at all,” he told the BBC.
Steele's 35-page report details compromising material Russian intelligence services are alleged to have on the American president-elect, including a recording of an encounter with two prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. It also outlines alleged contacts during the election campaign between members of Trump's team and Russian intelligence operatives, including the exchange of information about the hacking of Democratic Party emails.
Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute, believes that, regardless of the veracity of the claims in Steele's dossier, it is almost certain that Russian intelligence targeted Trump.
“The allegations against president-elect Trump are not merely unproven but they are unprovable. There is really no way one can recreate some of the allegations. It would be inconceivable that the Russian intelligence services would not have shown an interest in Mr Trump and that’s not because anyone predicted that Mr Trump would become America’s president, but rather because men of money and influence are always interesting for Russia’s intelligence services, especially since Mr Trump has admitted to having had some dealings with some of the oligarchs,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily that Trump would have been followed for the purposes of interference with American elections but he would have been followed because of his association with Russian oligarchs. Whether that amounts ultimately to the availability of material which allegedly could be used to blackmail the president-elect remains to be seen.”
Steele in Moscow
A Cambridge graduate who was known while a student as a "confirmed socialist", Steele joined MI6 when he left the university. He was posted to Moscow in late 1990, just ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin's election as the first president of the Russian Federation.
After three years in Moscow and stints in London and Paris, Steele returned to MI6 headquarters in 2002, becoming head of the service's Russian desk. He was reported to be the first British intelligence officer to conclude that Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy who died in 2006, was assassinated by poison in a Russian state-sponsored killing.
Steele left MI6 in 2009 and set up Orbis Business Intelligence, a "corporate intelligence consultancy" based in Belgravia, just a few blocks from the Irish Embassy in London. Britain has a substantial corporate intelligence industry, much of which is based in Mayfair and staffed by former intelligence officers like Steele.
In a global industry which made an estimated $19 billion last year, where the biggest British names are Control Risks, Hakluyt, Kroll and GPW, Orbis is a small player.
“We provide senior decision-makers with strategic insight, intelligence and investigative services. We then work with clients to develop and implement strategies which protect their interests worldwide,” it says on its website.
In 2010, Britain's Football Association hired Orbis to find out what rival countries such as Russia were doing to secure the World Cup in 2018. Steele's discoveries about corruption within Fifa brought him into contact with the FBI, burnishing his reputation in the US as a reliable operator.
Both MI6 and Downing Street have declined to comment on Steele’s dossier this week, not least because of its potential damage to relations with the incoming administration in Washington. The Russian embassy in London was quick to blame British intelligence for the report, tweeting: “MI6 officers are never ex”.
The incident highlights a potential diplomatic dilemma for Britain, which has been hawkish towards Russia, blaming Vladimir Putin for Litvinenko's murder and backing sanctions against Moscow after its annexation of Crimea. London is determined to maintain its "special relationship" with Washington under Trump but will struggle to align itself with the president-elect's conciliatory approach to Moscow.
Steele’s dossier has done nothing to improve London’s relationship with either Washington or Moscow but Wood, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow , on Friday played down the extent of the likely damage.
“I don’t think an effort to get at the truth can ever be damaging,” he said.
“It is much better to know things and to be open about them than to pretend they don’t exist.”