It was the most curious of “calling cards” – left for a former British spy in his wife’s washbag by suspected Russian agents as the couple holidayed in the Caribbean.
Christopher Steele said he and Katherine discovered the two, mysterious wedding rings in her bag when they returned to their room at a luxury, high-security hotel after a trip out.
He believed the message the intruders had intended to send was: “We know where you are. We can get to you. Don’t think you’ll be able to hide from us.”
It happened about 18 months after his identity as the author of an unverified dossier, alleging collusion between Russia and Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, became public in January 2017 and is just one of many strange moments in a once top-secret life.
Now, for the first time, in a major interview with a British broadcaster, the MI6-officer-turned-private-spy has talked about debating with Boris Johnson as university students, meeting then Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev while serving as an intelligence officer in Moscow and – possibly – having a cup of tea poured for him by a young Vladimir Putin.
Mr Steele, 57, also revealed the impact being linked to the dossier had on him and his family, even claiming his wife, who worked at the Foreign Office, effectively lost her career in the fallout. He said that left him feeling “pretty angry and disappointed – as she does”.
Silver-haired, with an ability to remember even the smallest detail from a conversation – useful in his line of work – Mr Steele has the mystique of being a former MI6 officer but also the vulnerability of no longer operating in the shadows, yet still having to earn a living.
I first met him in 2018, having spent more than a year trying to persuade him to speak with me when I worked as defence editor at The Times.
We would chat, always off the record, over a drink at a hotel close to his London office, talking about the dossier and various other strands of work he always seemed to be juggling.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, these catch-ups shifted to online or a park bench near to Farnham Castle in the commuter town where he lives.
I was by no means unique.
Mr Steele – of average build and with an openness that is perhaps surprising for an ex-spy – forged relations with a number of reporters from various news outlets, keen to capitalise on his involuntary fame but also unsure how that would – even could – happen.
It was only after he had dealt with various, stressful, costly and time-consuming lawsuits, filed in the United States and the UK by a group of Russian oligarchs, furious at what he had alleged about them in his dossier, that he felt ready to speak out publicly on camera.
One interview with the US network ABC. Another with the British channel Sky News. An autobiography might follow, perhaps even a film.
An actor who, according to Mr Steele, would quite like to play him is James Bond star Daniel Craig, a friend.
“I would hope there’d be a whole queue of people that might want to play it, because these have been tumultuous times and quite dramatic events,” the real former spy said.
The son of a meteorologist, Mr Steele spent a lot of his childhood based overseas – an early exposure to foreign travel that he said fed an interest in world affairs.
A student of social and political sciences at the University of Cambridge, he also developed a love of debating, becoming president of the Cambridge Union at the same time as a certain Mr Johnson held the same position at the rival Oxford Union.
Mr Steele recalled a debate between the two universities that he presided over in Cambridge, with the future prime minister heading the visiting team.
Asked what his memory was of Mr Johnson from that night, he said: “Not entirely sober was my recollection. The Oxford team had come over on coaches and had been drinking on the way across and were very merry by the time they arrived here. So it was good fun.”
The motion for debate was: This House believes Oxford and Cambridge should kiss and make up.
“I do remember it was particularly rowdy that night and I had to intervene quite a lot from the chair to keep order in the chamber,” Mr Steele said.
Upon graduation, Mr Steele applied for a job as a journalist at the Western Mail in Cardiff but was turned down.
He then responded to a newspaper advert by a headhunter seeking applicants with an interest in foreign languages.
“I went for an interview, I remember it was in the Great Western Hotel in Paddington, and the headhunter took my CV, interviewed me, and then he passed my CV on to a number of potential employers, one of which turned out to be the government.”
Mr Steele declined explicitly to say which branch of Whitehall ended up hiring him.
But it is widely known that he was recruited by the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6.
Keen to start work as quickly as possible, he agreed to study Russian. At the time, it was the late 1980s, the Cold War was nearing its closing stages and the Soviet Union was creaking.
He found himself, engaged and then married, living in Moscow and working at the British embassy from 1990 to 1993 – witnessing the historic collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath.
One particularly memorable moment was in 1991 when then prime minister John Major and his foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, travelled to Moscow to meet president Gorbachev. Mr Steele was partly responsible for organising their meetings, including one at the Kremlin.
“I was waiting outside with the cars. And somehow Mr Gorbachev, who was at that point the most famous person in the world, I would say, appeared by the cars without my ministers. The whole world’s press was there and I was left to talk to him,” he said.
“He asked me what I did in the embassy, and I said that I kept a close eye on him and he thought that was funny.”
Mr Steele also thought he may have met Mr Putin when he took a delegation of senior officials to the city of St Petersburg, where the future Russian president was working, the following year.
“It’s possible he even served me a cup of tea, although hopefully not with poison in it,” he said, with a smile – a reference to a poisoned cup of green tea Russia is accused of using to kill a former Russian spy called Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Mr Steele was limited in what he could say about his time in government service, but it is where he developed his Russia expertise, rising to become MI6’s top Kremlin expert.
He recalled a shift in focus by the security and intelligence agencies following the end of the Cold War and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with attention switched from Russia to countering Islamist terrorism.
“We definitely took – us as a government, as a country – our eye off what was happening in Russia and in China,” he said.
“There was a lot of complacency about the end of history, about the triumph of democracy. And I think one of the things that is really concerning is that we’d come to believe that all things being equal, people chose democracy and the rule of law and human rights. And I think that’s now very much in question.”
In 2009, aged 45, he decided to leave MI6 and set up a private intelligence company with a fellow intelligence officer, Christopher Burrows, in the hope they would be able to make more money, selling their spying skills to corporate clients.
“I’m a risk taker by nature… and it was a challenge that we wanted to grasp,” he said.
At the time, Mr Steele’s personal life was also going through a period of significant change.
His first wife had died after falling ill, leaving him to look after their three young children – two boys and a girl – on his own. He re-married Katherine, who worked for the Foreign Office and has a daughter from a previous marriage.
The two Christophers set up Orbis Business Intelligence at a rented office in a former legal chamber off the high street in Farnham, before moving their headquarters to London.
One of their first big investigations was in 2010, looking into suspected corruption around Russia’s bid to host the 2018 football World Cup.
Moscow “wasn’t playing by the rules, which is no great surprise”, Mr Steele said.
“This had become really a state sponsored operation and an attempt to win the award of the tournament in 2018 by fair means and foul, and that it was essentially an intelligence operation.”
Orbis decided to share the information they gleaned with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States.
Mr Steele still had connections with the FBI from his time in government.
It was the start of a relationship that ran for the next six years, including while he was compiling the Trump dossier, with Mr Steele receiving payment for his work, or sharing his information voluntarily when he thought national security was a stake. “The way they treated us was as they had in government as a colleague and a trusted ally,” he said.
Investigating issues linked to Russia was, Mr Steele said, his “unique selling point”.
On one occasion, spanning 2015 into 2016, he was hired by what he described as a “blue chip client” to look at the effect of Russian interference and corruption in the political processes of the UK, France, Germany, Italy and other EU member states.
The project, dubbed Charlemagne, coincided with the run-up to the Brexit referendum.
“There was some evidence that Russia had funnelled money into the Brexit campaign,” he said, without showing the specific details.
He said he found Russian influence trying to sew division across the European Union.
“It was like a virus that had moved westwards, started off in places like Ukraine and Georgia and so on, had come into Eastern Europe, then Western Europe, and then obviously made the leap to across the Atlantic, to the US in 2016,” he said.
In May-June 2016, Mr Steele said a contact of his, Glenn Simpson, a former journalist, who runs a corporate intelligence company called Fusion GPS, first spoke to him about becoming involved in investigating any Russia links to the Trump campaign.
He agreed to use his network to gather information from inside Russia to give to Fusion GPS, which in turn had been hired by a law firm representing rival Democrats.
“We were excited, but we weren’t sort of expecting to uncover a ticking nuclear weapon, which is what we did effectively,” he said.
Over the next seven months, Orbis compiled a total of 18 reports. They tracked what Mr Steele described as four pillars of research: An alleged large-scale Russian interference operation in the US election, sanctioned by President Vladimir Putin. That the goal was to stop Hillary Clinton from winning and – most explosively – that there was alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
He became so concerned with the information his sources were telling him, that Mr Steele decided to share the details with his main contact at the FBI.
He revealed that the FBI had not been keen for him to give the reports to the UK government as well.
“They [the FBI] thought they had it covered,” the former intelligence officer said.
“They didn’t want people knowing about the sources. They didn’t want people interfering in it and so on.”
He only alerted British officials after Mr Trump was elected president in November 2016.
The so-called Steele dossier, which by the end of that year had started circulating around news organisations in Washington DC, suddenly exploded into the public domain after 17 of the 18 reports were posted online by the news website Buzzfeed on 10 January 2017.
The following day, the Wall Street Journal chose to name Mr Steele as the author of the reports, blowing apart his life in the shadows forever.
“It was nauseating. It was confusing,” he said of the moment his name started to be splashed across news channels and newspaper front pages.
“It was difficult to focus on what the real priorities were in terms of my family and my friends and my colleagues in the business. It was just insane.”
Pre-empting his name would emerge, he had his family had already gone into hiding but he did not rule out the possibility that Russia might try to do him harm.
“I thought that was probably unlikely. Still is. But the worry with Russia is that it has become this sort of rogue state, which doesn’t seem to care anymore, even if they get caught”, he said.
Then president-elect Donald Trump reacted with fury to the allegations, dismissing the former MI6 officer as a “failed spy” and saying the dossier was a hoax.
Theresa May, then Britain’s prime minister, appeared to try to distance the UK from the furore, saying: “It is absolutely clear that the individual who produced this dossier has not worked for the UK government for years.”
Mr Steele said he found that difficult to stomach given that he had briefed Mrs May personally on the Russia threat when she became home secretary in 2010.
He had also been reviewing some sensitive files on Russia for the government in the days before the dossier leaked.
As well as turning Mr Steele’s life upside down, the dossier’s publication and the storm it created also generated problems for his wife, who was still working for the Foreign Office, he claimed.
“She was profoundly affected by it,” Mr Steele said.
“I think initially she said: In one day she felt she lost her husband, her career, her house, etc. And the way it played out in the end is that she was indeed in government service… and basically that didn’t play out at all well.”
Asked if he thought it was because of her connection to him, he said: “I’m sure they didn’t like the fact that she was married to me, but I think it was more this fear that Trump and his acolytes would come after us and would claim all sorts of things that weren’t true, that she might have been involved in, or known about it. We kept our work completely separate. In fact, she’d been working abroad for most of the period leading up to the to the dossier.”
As for how he felt about the way she was treated, Mr Steele said: “Pretty angry and disappointed as she does.”
He claimed no “credible explanation” had ever given by her employers to explain what happened to her career options.
“She decided at a certain point that, yes, she would have to take early retirement, which is what she did.”
A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “The UK government has been clear that it had no involvement in the production of the dossier.
“We do not comment on individual staffing matters.”
What about the credibility of the dossier?
Many of the claims are unverified. Mr Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Russia and stringently rejected the claim about sex tapes.
It means Mr Steele’s credibility has taken a beating over the past five years but he remained confident in his work.
“I think the vast majority of it’s real and in fact, if you look at the blowtorch that’s been put on it over the last five years, actually as things stand, there’s only one thing in there that’s been comprehensively proven to be untrue.”
He’s referring to an incorrect date on one of the files.
Official investigations, including an expansive Russia inquiry by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI, have concluded that Moscow did interfere in the 2016 US election, including by hacking and leaking emails to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances.
However, they did not corroborate the most explosive claims of collusion in the dossier or an allegation that the Kremlin holds compromising material over Mr Trump involving prostitutes from when he stayed at a hotel in Moscow in 2013.
Asked what level of confidence he had that the Kremlin holds sex tapes of Mr Trump, he said: “Pretty high.”
As to why no one has ever uncovered evidence they exist, despite countless attempts by journalists to substantiate the claim, he said: “I think it’s entirely understandable. If you had such a tape, you would lock it up and no one would ever get near it.”
He believed that US intelligence organisations knew more about Russia’s activities during the 2016 election than they shared with investigators.
Asked why, if that is the case, they kept it quiet, he said: “One reason may be source protection if you got particularly exposed sources. Secondly, I think during the Trump administration, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence became very politicised. There would have been a real premium on not releasing intelligence.”
But another inquiry, this one by Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the Justice Department, which looked at how the FBI conducted its own Russia investigation – which was separate to Mr Steele’s but relied on some of his reports – called into question the value of Mr Steele’s prior work for the bureau and the information provided by his sources.
Again, the former British spy defended his record.
“I think you have to look at all these investigations in America, unfortunately, through a political prism and I think that applies equally to the inspector general’s report,” he said.
“It’s very carping. It doesn’t, I think, give us credit for what we had done. We had worked with the FBI on a whole range of investigations, very high-level ones, important targets. And we had had superb feedback from them all along. And then to sort of pull a rabbit out of the bag and say, actually, none of this was worth anything when we were paid large amounts of money apart from anything else by the FBI, doesn’t add up.”
He also defended his sources for the dossier.
He said: “We were professionals. We had done this throughout our careers and our lives, and we were pretty confident that the majority of the sources were highly reliable and others were certainly moderately to highly reliable, which is a good position to be in when you’re doing intelligence work.”
Mr Steele dismissed suggestions that emerged following the leaking of his dossier that he had been the target of a Russian disinformation campaign.
He said: “Going back to absolutely basic principles here: What were the Russians trying to achieve in America in 2016?
“The idea that the dossier being produced during that campaign, with all the stuff about Donald Trump in it, the criticisms and everything else with the risk that that would have become public was completely opposite of what Russia was trying to achieve.”
Mr Trump repeatedly attacked Mr Steele over Twitter when he was president – something the former MI6 officer described as being like “an out of body experience”.
He said: “I remember sitting in restaurants with people and I’d get a text saying: Have you seen Trump’s Twitter feed today? I’m thinking this isn’t going to be pleasant. But it’s like everything else in life. You get used to it. It became so absurd. There was one tweet in which he said that I was a liar, spelt L-I-E-R. And I just thought, where can you go from that?”
But he did not believe President Putin held the same disdain for him.
“I suspect he’s probably grudgingly kind of admiring of me, perhaps,” he said.
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