March 11, 2018

FOLLOW THE YELLOW ROAD:

Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier (Jane Meyer, Jan. 30th, 2018, The New Yorker)

Steele worked out of the British Embassy for M.I.6, under diplomatic cover. His years in Moscow, 1990 to 1993, were among the most dramatic in Russian history, a period that included the collapse of the Communist Party; nationalist uprisings in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltic states; and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin gained ultimate power in Russia, and a moment of democratic promise faded as the K.G.B.--now called the F.S.B.--reasserted its influence, oligarchs snapped up state assets, and nationalist political forces began to emerge. Vladimir Putin, a K.G.B. operative returning from East Germany, reinvented himself in the shadowy world of St. Petersburg politics. By the time Steele left the country, optimism was souring, and a politics of resentment--against the oligarchs, against an increasing gap between rich and poor, and against the West--was taking hold.

After leaving Moscow, Steele was assigned an undercover posting with the British Embassy in Paris, but he and a hundred and sixteen other British spies had their cover blown by an anonymously published list. Steele came in from the cold and returned to London, and in 2006 he began running its Russia desk, growing increasingly pessimistic about the direction of the Russian Federation.

Steele's already dim view of the Kremlin darkened in November, 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian K.G.B. officer and a Putin critic who had been recruited by M.I.6, suffered an agonizing death in a London hospital, after drinking a cup of tea poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. Moscow had evidently sanctioned a brazen murder in his own country. Steele was put in charge of M.I.6's investigation. Authorities initially planned to indict one suspect in the murder, but Steele's investigative work persuaded them to indict a second suspect as well. Nine years later, the U.K.'s official inquiry report was finally released, and it confirmed Steele's view: the murder was an operation by the F.S.B., and it was "probably approved" by Vladimir Putin.

Steele has never commented on the case, or on any other aspect of his intelligence work, but Richard Dearlove, who led M.I.6 from 1999 to 2004, has described his reputation as "superb." A former senior officer recalls him as "a Russia-area expert whose knowledge I and others respected--he was very careful, and very savvy." Another former M.I.6 officer described him as having a "Marmite" personality--a reference to the salty British spread, which people either love or hate. He suggested that Steele didn't appear to be "going places in the service," noting that, after the Cold War, Russia had become a backwater at M.I.6. But he acknowledged that Steele "knew Russia well," and that running the Russia desk was "a proper job that you don't give to an idiot."

The British Secret Intelligence Service is highly regarded by the United States, particularly for its ability to harvest information from face-to-face sources, rather than from signals intelligence, such as electronic surveillance, as the U.S. often does. British and American intelligence services work closely together, and, while Steele was at M.I.6, British intelligence was often included in the U.S. President's daily-briefing reports. In 2008, Michael Hayden, the C.I.A. director, visited the U.K., and Steele briefed him on Russian developments. The following year, President Obama visited the U.K., and was briefed on a report that Steele had written about Russia. Steve Hall, a former chief of the C.I.A.'s Central Eurasia Division, which includes Russia, the former Soviet states, and the Balkans, told me, "M.I.6 is second only perhaps to the U.S. in its ability to collect intelligence from Russia." He added, "We've always coördinated closely with them because they did such a great job. We're playing in the Yankee Stadium of espionage here. This isn't Guatemala."

In 2008, Steele informed M.I.6 that he planned to leave the service and open a commercial intelligence firm with Burrows. He left in good standing, but his exit was hastened, because M.I.6 regarded his plans as a potential conflict of interest. Launching the business was a risky move: London was filled with companies run by former intelligence officers selling their contacts and inside knowledge. To differentiate itself, Orbis, which opened its office in Mayfair, attempted to exploit Steele's Russian expertise. The strategy appears to have paid off. According to people with knowledge of the company, Orbis grossed approximately twenty million dollars in its first nine years. Steele now drives a Land Rover Discovery Sport, and belongs to a golf club. He also runs a bit, but the feats that kept him in shape while he was a spy--he ran six marathons and twenty-five half-marathons, and competed in a dozen Olympic-length triathlon events--have been replaced by the carrying of a briefcase. His free time is devoted largely to his family, which includes three cats, one of whom not long ago replicated the most infamous allegation in the Steele dossier by peeing on a family member's bed.

Orbis's clients are mostly businesses or law firms representing corporations. Burrows said that although the company has fewer than ten full-time employees, "we're a bit like the bridge on the Starship Enterprise--we're a small group but we manage an enormous ship." To serve its clients, Orbis employs dozens of confidential "collectors" around the world, whom it pays as contract associates. Some of the collectors are private investigators at smaller firms; others are investigative reporters or highly placed experts in strategically useful jobs. Depending on the task and the length of engagement, the fee for collectors can be as much as two thousand dollars a day. The collectors harvest intelligence from a much larger network of unpaid sources, some of whom don't even realize they are being treated as informants. These sources occasionally receive favors--such as help in getting their children into Western schools--but money doesn't change hands, because it could risk violating laws against, say, bribing government officials or insider trading. Paying sources might also encourage them to embellish.

Steele has not been to Russia, or visited any former Soviet states, since 2009. Unlike some of his former M.I.6 colleagues, he has not been declared persona non grata by Putin's regime, but, in 2012, an Orbis informant quoted an F.S.B. agent describing him as "an enemy of Mother Russia." Steele concluded that it would be difficult for him to work in the country unnoticed. The firm guards the identities of its sources, but it's clear that many Russian contacts can be interviewed elsewhere, and London is the center of the post-Soviet Russian diaspora.

Orbis often performs anti-corruption investigations for clients attempting internal reviews, and helps hedge funds and other financial companies perform due diligence or obtain strategic information. One Orbis client who agreed to talk to me, a Western businessman with interests in Russia and Ukraine, described Steele to me as "very efficient, very professional, and very credible." He said that his company had successfully cross-checked Steele's research with other people, adding, "I don't know anyone who's been critical of his work. His reports are very good. It's an absolute no-brainer that he's just a political target. They're trying to shoot the messenger."

Orbis promises confidentiality, and releases no information on its clientele. Some of its purported clients, such as a major Western oil company, are conventional corporations. Others are controversial, including a London law firm representing the interests of Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire victor of Russia's aluminum wars, a notoriously violent battle. He has been described as Putin's favorite oligarch. Steele's possible financial ties to Deripaska recently prompted Senator Grassley to demand more information from the London law firm. If a financial trail between Deripaska and Orbis can be established, it is likely to raise even more questions about Steele, because Deripaska has already figured in the Russia investigation, in an unsavory light. Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, has been accused of defrauding Deripaska's company while working for it in Ukraine. (Manafort has been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of money laundering and other financial crimes. He has pleaded not guilty.) Even if Steele's rumored work for Deripaska is aboveboard, it illustrates the transition that he has made from the world of government service to the ethically gray world of commerce. Oligarchs battling other oligarchs provide some of the most lucrative work for investigators with expertise in Russia. Orbis maintains that, as long as its activities are limited to providing litigation support for Western law firms acting in Western courts, it is helping to settle disputes in a more civilized way than they would be in Russia. But Steele stepped into a murkier realm when he left M.I.6.

Republican claims to the contrary, Steele's interest in Trump did not spring from his work for the Clinton campaign. He ran across Trump's name almost as soon as he went into private business, many years before the 2016 election. Two of his earliest cases at Orbis involved investigating international crime rings whose leaders, coincidentally, were based in New York's Trump Tower.

Steele's first client after leaving M.I.6 was England's Football Association, which hoped to host the World Cup in 2018, but suspected dirty dealings by the governing body, fifa. England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes. According to Ken Bensinger's "Red Card," an upcoming book about the scandal, "one of Steele's best sources" informed him that the Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin--now the C.E.O. of the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft--is suspected of having travelled to Qatar "to swap World Cup votes."

Steele appears to have spoken anonymously to the Sunday Times of London about the case. An "ex-M.I.6 source" who investigated the bidding process told the paper, "The key thing with Russia was six months before the bid, it got to the point where the country feared the humiliation of being beaten and had to do something. . . . Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities." He added, "Don't expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin's signature saying 'Please, X, bribe Y with this amount in this way.' He's not going to do that."

Steele might have been expected to move on once his investigation of the bidding was concluded. But he had discovered that the corruption at fifa was global, and he felt that it should be addressed. The only organization that could handle an investigation of such scope, he felt, was the F.B.I. In 2011, Steele contacted an American agent he'd met who headed the Bureau's division for serious crimes in Eurasia. Steele introduced him to his sources, who proved essential to the ensuing investigation. In 2015, the Justice Department indicted fourteen people in connection with a hundred and fifty million dollars in bribes and kickbacks. One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top fifa official who had embezzled a fortune from the organization and became an informant for the F.B.I. Blazer had an eighteen-thousand-dollar-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump's residence.

Nobody had alleged that Trump knew of any fifa crimes, but Steele soon came across Trump Tower again. Several years ago, the F.B.I. hired Steele to help crack an international gambling and money-laundering ring purportedly run by a suspected Russian organized-crime figure named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. The syndicate was based in an apartment in Trump Tower. Eventually, federal officials indicted more than thirty co-conspirators for financial crimes. Tokhtakhounov, though, eluded arrest, becoming a fugitive. Interpol issued a "red notice" calling for his arrest. But, in the fall of 2013, he showed up at the Miss Universe contest in Moscow--and sat near the pageant's owner, Donald Trump.

"It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower," Steele told friends.

Posted by at March 11, 2018 5:02 AM

  

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