Just over a week before a US Presidential Inauguration, world headlines are dominated by a former spy named Christopher Steele, a dossier alleging the newly-elected President Trump might have compromised himself with prostitutes in 2013 to the extent Russia’s leader Putin can blackmail him and the breaking news that former MI6 man Steele is now ‘terrified’ for his life and is in hiding.
I contacted an informed MI6 source who knows Mr Steele to ask about the position the former British secret agent and noted Russia-expert now finds himself in.
This is what old spies refer to as the ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’. It’s a place of rumour, innuendo, manipulation and where nothing is what it seems. Or, to put it another way, all too aptly, it’s the place where only ‘Moscow Rules‘ apply.
Of course, the uproar following the press-conference held by PEOTUS Donald J. Trump yesterday was inevitable.
He did, after all, spend more time discussing his business arrangements which would apparently divest him of any active role in his ’empire’ when he assumes office soon, than explaining any detailed policy and governance issues. The theatricality of his pile of envelopes which allegedly held the actual paperwork involved in this highly questionable arrangement (widely criticised by academics and government officials in the USA) only served to underline the muddled indignity of his presentation.
His attack on the CNN reporter Jim Acosta who covers the White House for the channel was vindictive and ridiculous. It came on the heels of a typical Trump passive/aggressive praise the ‘good’ media move moments before. He even seemed a tad confused about who Acosta was, but it might be safe to assume his vicious reaction – including a follow-up confrontation via his subordinates later – was revenge for the network running a report on the fact the President and Mr Trump had been told of the existence of the dossier by top Intel chiefs. CNN pointedly did not link to the Buzzfeed report or indeed say it was anything other than unverified. Indeed, one of its top star anchors, Anderson Cooper, characterised the Buzzfeed report as being nothing more than a ‘dump’ of documents that was anything but good journalism. Other respected outlets disagree.
The central issue though were the allegations emanating from the explosive 35 page dossier which Buzzfeed had put onto the internet the day before. Trump denied the allegations and described the reporting of it as ‘fake news’ and a ‘witch hunt’.
A day later we learn that the alleged author of the report, former MI6 man Christopher Steele, is now ‘in hiding’ with his family. Apparently he is terrified for his life. He was allegedly able to use his extensive contacts within Russia to compile his report – which is a series of memos – despite not being able to travel to the country himself. The US Intelligence Community apparently believe his report is ‘credible’ and the most common description of him is someone who is ‘reliable.’.
He is part of a thriving intelligence-based industry within the UK which sees former MI5/6 officers set themselves up for hire to the private sector in all its forms. The former bring knowledge, insight and contacts. The latter brings the cash.
It can prove to be a very lucrative business for top players. Like Steele’s Orbis Business Intelligence HQ in Belgravia, most of these players I have met tend to run outfits with vague names, be located in the most expensive quarters of London where property prices are at their most ridiculous (and, somewhat ironically, often rich pickings for Russians hoping to snap up property) and avoid media attention with a professional passion instilled in them from having worked ‘across the river’. Most of the people I met who work in this sector also know when to get out. And most do it very quietly. The last thing they want is a high public profile and the company’s website is, like all the others in this sector, rather opaque.
Having interviewed and met both MI5 and MI6 operatives down the decades, I decided to reach out to my contacts in an effort to understand what is going on. One in particular knew the man in question and agreed to answer my questions:
“I have met him [Christopher Steele]. He seems liked a nice guy, reliable, middle-ranking SIS [MI6] officer…” I was told.
I wanted to know why he was on the run? My source’s answer surprised me.
“I think he is hiding from journalists not the Russians. Spies don’t whack other nation’s spies – even retired ones. This story has been going around for a few months. I think this is an Intel rumour which has escaped into the public.”
I asked this source whether, with long experience as an MI6 operative, he believed the contents of the dossier were probably real?
“[I] believe the dossier is reliable…” came the reply
This source spent many years in the field and knows only too well what the realities of the spying game are. The source is well respected by colleagues at home and abroad. So when there’s a caveat it’s not simply a footnote:
“But if real evidence is around, SIS [MI6] or CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] would have taken firmer action.”
So, as of tonight a president-elect is under intense scrutiny and pressure in a way that none of his predecessors ever experienced. Meanwhile a bruised media searches for answers.
And a former British spy has gone into the cold.