Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.
One of their specialities is breaking into Moscow apartments. The owners are always away, of course. The KGB leave a series of clues – stolen shoes, women’s tights knotted together, cigarette butts stomped out and left demonstratively on the floor. Or a surprise turd in the toilet, waiting in grim ambush. The message, crudely put, is this: we are the masters here! We can do what the fuck we please!
Back then, the KGB kept watch on all foreigners, especially American and British ones. The UK mission in Moscow was under close observation. . . . One of those the KGB routinely surveilled was a 27-year-old diplomat, newly married to his wife, Laura, on his first foreign posting, and working as a second secretary in the chancery division. In this case, their suspicions were right.
The “diplomat” was a British intelligence officer. His workplace was a grand affair: chandeliers, mahogany-panelled reception rooms, gilt-framed portraits of the Queen and other royals hanging from the walls. His desk was in the embassy library, surrounded by ancient books. The young officer’s true employer was an invisible entity back in London – SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
His name was Christopher Steele. Years later, he would be commissioned to undertake an astonishing secret investigation. It was an explosive assignment: to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to Donald Trump. Steele’s findings, and the resulting dossier, would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.
It’s unclear who recruited Steele. Traditionally, certain Cambridge tutors were rumoured to identify promising MI6 candidates. Whatever the route, Steele’s timing was good. After three years at MI6, he was sent to the Soviet Union in April 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist bloc across eastern Europe.
It was a tumultuous time. Seventy years after the Bolshevik revolution, the red empire was crumbling. The Baltic states had revolted against Soviet power; their own national authorities were governing in parallel with Moscow. In June 1991, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic elected a democratic president, Boris Yeltsin. Food shortages were not uncommon.
The atmosphere was optimistic. It seemed to Steele that the country was shifting markedly in the right direction. Citizens once terrified of interacting with outsiders were ready to talk. The KGB, however, found nothing to celebrate in the USSR’s tilt towards freedom and reform. In August 1991, seven apparatchiks staged a coup while Gorbachev was vacationing in Crimea. Most of the British embassy was away.
The coup failed, and a weakened Gorbachev survived. The putschists – the leading group in all the main Soviet state and party institutions – were arrested. In the west, and in the US in particular, many concluded that Washington had won the cold war, and that, after decades of ideological struggle, liberal democracy had triumphed.
Steele knew better. Three days after the coup, surveillance on him resumed. His MI6 colleagues in Hungary and Czechoslovakia reported that after revolutions there the secret police vanished, never to come back. But here were the same KGB guys, with the same familiar faces. They went back to their old routines of bugging, break-ins and harassment.
The regime changed. The system didn’t.
One mid-ranking former KGB spy who was unhappy about this state of affairs was Vladimir Putin. Putin had been posted to Dresden in provincial East Germany in the mid-80s, and had missed perestroika and glasnost, Gorbachev’s reformist ideas. He had now returned to the newly renamed St Petersburg and was carving out a political career. He mourned the end of the USSR, and once called its disappearance “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
A post-communist spy agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, had taken over the KGB’s main functions.
In 1999, a list of MI6 officers was leaked online. Steele was one of them. He appeared as “Christopher David Steele, 90 Moscow; dob 1964”. The breach wasn’t Steele’s fault, but it had unfortunate consequences. As an exposed British officer, he couldn’t go back to Russia.
In Moscow, the spies were staging a comeback. In 1998 Putin became FSB chief, then prime minister, and in 2000, president. By 2002, when Steele left Paris, Putin had consolidated his grip. Most of Russia’s genuine political opposition had been wiped out, from parliament as well as from public life and the evening news. The idea that Russia might slowly turn into a democracy had proved a late-century fantasy. Rather, the US’s traditional nuclear-armed adversary was moving in an authoritarian direction.
By 2006, Steele held a senior post at MI6’s Russia desk in London. There were ominous signs that Putin was taking Russia in an aggressive direction. The number of hostile Russian agents in the UK grew, surpassing cold war levels. Steele tracked a new campaign of subversion and covert influence.
And then two FSB assassins put a radioactive poison into the tea of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned London-based dissident. It was an audacious operation, and a sign of things to come. MI6 picked Steele to investigate. . . . . He quickly concluded the Russian state had staged the execution.
Steele didn’t quite rise to the top, in what was a highly competitive service. Espionage might sound exciting, but the salary of a civil servant was ordinary. And in 2009 he had faced a personal tragedy, when his wife died at the age of 43 after a period of illness.
That same year, Steele left MI6 and set up his own business intelligence firm, Orbis, in partnership with another former British spy, Christopher Burrows. The transition from government to the private sector wasn’t easy. Steele and Burrows were pursuing the same intelligence matters as before, but without the support and peer review they had in their previous jobs. . . . . Steele and Burrows, by contrast, were out on their own, where success depended more on one’s own wits. There was no more internal challenge. The people they had to please were corporate clients. The pay was considerably better.
So how did Steele come to be commissioned to research Donald J Trump and produce his devastating dossier? . . . . His name was Glenn Simpson.
Simpson had been an illustrious Wall Street Journal correspondent. Based in Washington and Brussels, he had specialised in post-Soviet murk. He didn’t speak Russian or visit the Russian Federation. This was deemed too dangerous. Instead, from outside the country, he examined the dark intersection between organised crime and the Russian state.
By 2009, Simpson decided to quit journalism, at a time when the media industry was in all sorts of financial trouble. He co-founded his own commercial research and political intelligence firm, based in Washington DC. Its name was Fusion GPS.
Later that year, Steele embarked on a separate, sensitive new assignment that drew on his knowledge of covert Russian techniques – and of football. . . . Steele discovered that Fifa corruption was global. It was a stunning conspiracy. He took the unusual step of briefing an American contact in Rome, the head of the FBI’s Eurasian serious crime division. This “lit the fuse”, as one friend put it, and led to a probe by US federal prosecutors. And to the arrest in 2015 of seven Fifa officials, allegedly connected to $150m (£114m) in kickbacks, paid on TV deals stretching from Latin America to the Caribbean. The US indicted 14 individuals.
The episode burnished Steele’s reputation inside the US intelligence community and the FBI. Here was a pro, a well-connected Brit, who understood Russian espionage and its subterranean tricks. Steele was regarded as credible. Between 2014 and 2016, Steele authored more than 100 reports on Russia and Ukraine. These were written for a private client but shared widely within the US state department, and sent up to secretary of state John Kerry and assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, who was in charge of the US response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of eastern Ukraine. Many of Steele’s secret sources were the same people who would later supply information on Trump.
Trump’s political rise in the autumn of 2015 and the early months of 2016 was swift and irresistible. The candidate was a human wrecking ball who flattened everything in his path, including the Republican party’s aghast, frozen-to-the-spot establishment. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz – all were batted aside, taunted, crushed. . . . . During the primaries, a website funded by one of Trump’s wealthy Republican critics, [billionaire] Paul Singer, commissioned Fusion to investigate Trump.
After Trump became the presumptive nominee in May 2016, Singer’s involvement ended and senior Democrats seeking to elect Hillary Clinton took over the Trump contract.
Information on Trump was of no further use to Republicans, but it could be of value to Democrats, Trump’s next set of opponents.
Before this, in early spring 2016, Simpson approached Steele, his friend and colleague. Steele began to scrutinise Paul Manafort, who would soon become Trump’s new campaign manager. From April, Steele investigated Trump on behalf of the DNC, Fusion’s anonymous client. All Steele knew at first was that the client was a law firm. He had no idea what he would find. He later told David Corn, Washington editor of the magazine Mother Jones: “It started off as a fairly general inquiry.” Trump’s organisation owned luxury hotels around the world. Trump had, as far back as 1987, sought to do real estate deals in Moscow. One obvious question for him, Steele said, was: “Are there business ties to Russia?
Steele put out his Trump-Russia query and waited for answers. His sources started reporting back. The information was astonishing; “hair-raising”. As he told friends: “For anyone who reads it, this is a life-changing experience.”
Steele had stumbled upon a well-advanced conspiracy that went beyond anything he had discovered with Litvinenko or Fifa. It was the boldest plot yet. It involved the Kremlin and Trump. Their relationship, Steele’s sources claimed, went back a long way. For at least the past five years, Russian intelligence had been secretly cultivating Trump. This operation had succeeded beyond Moscow’s wildest expectations. Not only had Trump upended political debate in the US – raining chaos wherever he went and winning the nomination – but it was just possible that he might become the next president. This opened all sorts of intriguing options for Putin.
In June 2016, Steele typed up his first memo. He sent it to Fusion. It arrived via enciphered mail. The headline read: US Presidential Election: Republican Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin. Its text began: “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in the western alliance.”
“So far TRUMP has declined various sweetener real estate business deals, offered him in Russia to further the Kremlin’s cultivation of him. However he and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.
“Former top Russian intelligence officer claims FSB has compromised TRUMP through his activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him. According to several knowledgeable sources, his conduct in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB.“A dossier of compromising material on Hillary CLINTON has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct. The dossier is controlled by Kremlin spokesman, PESKOV, directly on Putin’s orders. However, it has not yet been distributed abroad, including to TRUMP. Russian intentions for its deployment still unclear.”
The memo was sensational. There would be others, 16 in all, sent to Fusion between June and early November 2016.
It got harder from late July, as Trump’s ties to Russia came under scrutiny. Finally, the lights went out. Amid a Kremlin cover-up, the sources went silent and information channels shut down.
If Steele’s reporting was to be believed, Trump had been colluding with Russia. This arrangement was transactional, with both sides trading favours. The report said Trump had turned down “various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia”, especially in connection with the 2018 World Cup, hosted by Moscow. But he had been happy to accept a flow of Kremlin-sourced intelligence material, apparently delivered to him by his inner circle. That didn’t necessarily mean the candidate was a Russian agent. But it did signify that Russia’s leading spy agency had expended considerable effort in getting close to Trump – and, by extension, to his family, friends, close associates and business partners, not to mention his campaign manager and personal lawyer.
Steele’s collaborators offered salacious details. The memo said that Russian intelligence had sought to exploit “TRUMP’s personal obsessions and sexual perversion” during his 2013 stay at Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel for the Miss Universe beauty pageant. The operation had allegedly worked. The tycoon had booked the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton hotel “where he knew President and Mrs OBAMA (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia”.
There, the memo said, Trump had deliberately “defiled” the Obamas’ bed. A number of prostitutes “had performed a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him”. The memo also alleged: “The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.”
Steele’s sources offered one final devastating piece of information. They alleged that Trump’s team had co-ordinated with Russia on the hacking operation against Clinton. And that the Americans had secretly co-paid for it.
Steele wrote up his findings in MI6 house style. The memos read like CX reports – classified MI6 intelligence documents. They were marked “confidential/sensitive source”. The names of prominent individuals were in caps – TRUMP, PUTIN, CLINTON. The reports began with a summary. They offered supporting detail.
In late 2015 the British eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, was carrying out standard “collection” against Moscow targets. These were known Kremlin operatives already on the grid. Nothing unusual here – except that the Russians were talking to people associated with Trump. The precise nature of these exchanges has not been made public, but according to sources in the US and the UK, they formed a suspicious pattern. They continued through the first half of 2016. The intelligence was handed to the US as part of a routine sharing of information.
The FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of these contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow. This was in part due to institutional squeamishness – the law prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of US citizens without a warrant.
But the electronic intelligence suggested Steele was right. According to one account, the US agencies looked as if they were asleep. “‘Wake up! There’s something not right here!’ – the BND [German intelligence], the Dutch, the French and SIS were all saying this,” one Washington-based source told me.
One of those who was aware of the dossier’s broad allegations was the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, a Democrat. In August Reid, had written to Comey and asked for an inquiry into the “connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign”. In October, Reid wrote to Comey again. This time he framed his inquiry in scathing terms. In a clear reference to Steele, Reid wrote: “In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors and the Russian government … The public has a right to know this information.”
But all this frantic activity came to nought. . . . In November, his dossier began circulating in the top national security echelons of the Obama administration. But it was too late.
On the margins of the Halifax conference, Wood briefed [John] McCain about Steele’s dossier – its contents, if true, had profound and obvious implications for the incoming Trump administration, for the Republican party, and for US democracy. The implications were alarming enough to lead McCain to dispatch a former senior US official to meet Steele and find out more.
McCain believed it was impossible to verify Steele’s claims without a proper investigation. He made a call and arranged a meeting with Comey. Their encounter on 8 December 2016 lasted five minutes. Not much was said. McCain gave Comey the dossier.
McCain’s intervention now made some kind of bureaucratic response inevitable. This was no longer just an FBI affair; it required co-ordination across the top levels of US intelligence. . . . The US’s most senior intelligence chiefs mulled what to do.
The dossier was on its way to the desk of the man who was still, for now, the world’s most powerful person: President Barack Obama.
It was also going to his successor, the next guy in the Oval Office. He wasn’t going to like it much.