Why had America’s intelligence agencies felt it necessary to provide a compendium of the claims to Barack Obama and Trump himself?
And the answer to that lies in the credibility of its apparent author, the ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele, the quality of the sources he has, and the quality of the people who were prepared to vouch for him. In all these respects, the 53-year-old is in credit.
On Thursday night, as the former spy was in hiding, having fled his home in the south-east of England, former colleagues rallied to defend him. One described him as “very credible” – a sober, cautious and meticulous professional with a formidable record.
The former Foreign Office official, who has known Steele for 25 years and considers him a friend, said: “The idea his work is fake or a cowboy operation is false – completely untrue. Chris is an experienced and highly regarded professional. He’s not the sort of person who will simply pass on gossip.”
The official added: “If he puts something in a report, he believes there’s sufficient credibility in it for it to be worth considering. Chris is a very straight guy. He could not have survived in the job he was in if he had been prone to flights of fancy or doing things in an ill-considered way.”
That is the way the CIA and the FBI, not to mention the British government, regarded him, too. It’s not hard to see why.
It is unlikely that Steele would have had direct contact with the unnamed Kremlin officials who allegedly gave sensitive information on the president-elect. In fact, it’s believed the former spy hasn’t been able to visit Russia for more than 20 years. Rather,
Steele would have tapped up his network of sources deep inside the country, some of them dating from his time there and others cultivated later, British officials suggested.
MI6 has been privately warning that Putin, unchallenged by the west, has grown in confidence and, of course, that the Kremlin has targeted Trump. It would be odd if it hadn’t. The consensus among British securocrats is that “Putin is a wolf … and he preys on the weakest sheep.”
But intelligence is not evidence, and Steele would have known, better than anyone, that the information he was gathering was not fact and could be wrong. In the smoke-and-mirrors world of counterespionage, there are few certainties.
Those caveats do not appear on the documents – but they are given by Steele as a warning to prospective new clients.
Whether he could have imagined that a summary of his work would be used in this way is a moot point; Steele did not go to ground in the weeks before Christmas as US media outlets tried to stand up some of the claims against Trump. He was in London, thinking about where to take Orbis next, eating his favourite tapas and pottering around Victoria, the home of his newly refurbished office.
From Moscow’s perspective, the report’s publication can hardly be counted as a success. As a former KGB agent, Putin understands the first rule of intelligence: that special operations should remain secret. “In the world in which Putin operates, if people can see the strings, you’ve failed,” the Foreign Office official said. “The Russians will be asking: ‘How the hell did it get out?’”
The spotlight is certainly not something Steele was looking for. He is mainly distrustful of the media – he chooses who to speak to, having been let down, so he has confided to friends, by reporters working for a Sunday newspaper.
After a career in MI6, anonymity is something he has prized. He once asked a journalist if he had ever heard of him. The reporter’s reply was a decisive no. Steele was relieved: “That’s the way I like it.”