He’s a former British spy, a man used to operating in the shadows. Now, however, he is dramatically, and uncomfortably, in the spotlight.
Christopher Steele, whom some confidants describe as a real-life Agent 007, has been identified in news reports as the author of a controversial dossier suggesting that Russian officials had gathered compromising information about President-elect Donald Trump that could be used to blackmail him.
The dossier’s existence was widely known among journalists and politicians in Washington since the fall, but the allegations about the incoming president’s activities in Russia and his personal life were unverified and remained unknown to the general public. But this month the 35-page file, salacious allegations and all, was published by BuzzFeed News.
Trump has castigated the dossier as “fake news,” and blamed U.S. intelligence agencies for leaking it — an accusation that heightened the already-testy relationship between the president-elect and intelligence community. Later, the Wall Street Journal identified the dossier’s author as Steele.
Without naming Steele, Trump alluded to him on social media as a “failed spy afraid of being sued.”
But that’s not accurate — at least to some.
“I know him as a very competent, professional operator who left the secret service and is now operating his own private company,” Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia, told the BBC last week. “I do not think he would make things up. I don't think he would, necessarily, always draw correct judgment, but that's not the same thing.”
Toward the end of the Cold War, Steele, 52, served in the MI6, Britain’s version of the CIA, an agency created in the early 1900s so secretive that the British government didn’t officially acknowledge its existence until the 1990s. Steele began working for MI6 that same decade, with postings in in Moscow and then Paris.
According to British news reports, he was a Russia specialist and worked on the investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210, which was slipped into his green tea during a meeting in London with two Russian agents.
Litvinenko, who sought asylum in Britain in 2000, was a harsh critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and last year a British inquiry found that Putin “probably approved” the scheme to poison him.
Steele left the intelligence agency in 2009 and founded Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. The London-based firm, housed in a handsome headquarters with elaborate stonework on the balconies, specializes in investigations and intelligence-gathering, noting on its website “real-time source reporting on business and politics at all levels.”
Some of Steele’s work included gathering information for the U.S. Department of Justice into a 2015 corruption inquiry of FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, according to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. Several members of FIFA’s ruling executive committee were indicted on bribery charges as part of a widening corruption investigation headed by the FBI and Department of Justice.
John Sipher, a former CIA official who spent 28 years at the agency — including stints in Russia — did not work specifically with Steele, but said that within the intelligence community, Steele was a “credible guy.”
“He knows his stuff,” said Sipher, who retired from the CIA in 2014 and now works at a Washington-based technology firm. “That was widely known.”
Sipher credited much of the uproar over Steele’s dossier to the fact that “no one truly knows his sources.”
Others, like Nigel West, an intelligence historian who worked with Steele, described his work glowingly as if he were out of the movies.
“He’s James Bond,” West told NBC News, alluding to the fictional British spy. “I actually introduced him to my wife as James Bond.”
The veracity of the memo has come under intense scrutiny, and journalists, as well as government officials, have called the allegations unverified. Moreover, misspellings are dotted throughout. For example, it refers to Alfa Group, a privately owned Russian-based financial investment firm, as “Alpha Group.” Such errors seem at odds with comments from intelligence professionals who have described Steele as meticulous.
Russian officials have dismissed the memo as false.
“This is an absolute canard, an absolute fabrication, and it’s complete nonsense,” said Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin.
He added, “The Kremlin does not engage in collecting kompromat,” using the Russian term for compromising material.
State-run Russian media chimed in too. “Its content was like a parody of poorly constructed kompromat,” said the television station Russia 24.
Sean Spicer, who is set serve as Trump’s White House press secretary, offered a forceful condemnation of the report at a news conference last week.
“The report is not an intelligence report, plain and simple,” Spicer said, adding that it’s “flat-out false.”
Steele has not commented publicly about the dossier, and reporters who’ve staked out his company’s headquarters haven’t been rewarded much for their efforts.
The company website does not include a biography on him, or anyone else, but it does note that it still welcomes resumes from job applicants who “possess excellent research, analytical and writing skills, and thrive on unraveling complex issues in a diverse range of industries and regions.”
In recent days, details have emerged about Steele’s personal life. His wife, Laura, died in 2009, as a result of cirrhosis of the liver, according to the Telegraph. They lived in Surrey, a suburb of London, where Steele still resides.
While Steele has reportedly gone into hiding — at least for now — West is hoping for the best for his former colleague.
"If it is validated, Chris will be confirmed as one of the great intelligence officers of the decade,” West told the British TV station ITV News in an interview about the dossier. “If not, I fear the worst.”