Former British spy behind Trump-Russia dossier lauded by intelligence colleagues
Bipartisan Senate intelligence committee to probe allegations of Russian election interference
Christopher Steele, the one-time British spy who has compiled a dossier on U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, is a well-regarded operative who wouldn't make up stories to satisfy his clients, according to diplomatic and intelligence experts who know him.
Steele, 52, worked for MI6, Britain's overseas intelligence agency, and served in Moscow in the early 1990s. After leaving the agency, he and a partner started Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. in 2009. The firm provides strategic advice, gathers intelligence and conducts cross-border investigations, according to its website.
"I know him as a very competent, professional operator who left the secret service and is now operating his own private company," Andrew Wood, Britain's ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000, told the BBC on Friday. "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."
The dossier was reportedly produced as political research for the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and was being discussed in Washington as early as October, even though its details weren't widely reported until this week.
The report contains unproven information on close co-ordination between Trump's inner circle and the Russians about hacking into Democratic accounts — as well as unproven claims about Trump's sexual activities attributed to anonymous sources. The Associated Press has not authenticated any of the claims.
Trump has called the allegations in the dossier "fake news."
Wood said Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican, asked him about the document during a security conference in November because of Wood's relationship with Steele.
Wood is now an associate fellow at the think-tank Chatham House and is a consultant for companies with interests in Russia.
High-level Russian sources
Three British intelligence officers interviewed by The Associated Press described Steele as well regarded in the intelligence community, with excellent Russian skills and high-level sources.
Although Steele wasn't a senior figure in MI6, one of the officials said because of Steele's experience on the Russia desk and the high-level contacts he had during his time in Moscow, he was brought in to help with the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian secret service officer and Kremlin critic who was poisoned in 2006 in London by polonium-210, a radioactive substance. The official, who worked primarily on Eastern Europe, said he had no other details of Steele's involvement in the case.
James Nixey, the head of Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program, told the AP that parts of the document created by Steele "read exactly as reports from the secret services that we have been allowed to see before."
"Some of the practices which we know and which are confirmed to have happened during Soviet and post-Soviet times are reported in this dossier," Nixey said, adding that Russia's denials were also part of a Cold War pattern in which the Kremlin "would outright deny something which is quite plainly true."
Gone into hiding
All three of the former intelligence officials, however, cast doubt on whether the material in the report and its level of detail would have come from active sources within Russia. The material, they said, was more likely to have come from conversations with third parties.
Russia would certainly like to know where he got his information from.- Andrew Wood, ex-British ambassador to Russia
Wood said it seems unlikely that Russian operatives intentionally lied to Steele. He added that it is not surprising that he has gone into hiding.
"Russia would certainly like to know where he got his information from, assuming his information is basically true and he hasn't just made it up, which I don't think for a moment," Wood said. "And they're accustomed to take action."
Senate committee probe
Meanwhile, leaders of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee said Friday the panel will investigate allegations Russia used cyber attacks to influence the presidential election, including any links between Russia and the political campaigns.
The committee plans to interview senior officials of the Trump and Obama administrations and may issue subpoenas to compel testimony, the panel's Republican chairman, Richard Burr, and its top Democrat, Mark Warner, said in a statement.
The announcement comes after a Trump official admitted to Reuters that the president-elect's national security adviser Michael Flynn spoke on the phone to the Russian ambassador to Washington on Dec. 29, the day the United States hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking.
Trump's team had previously said the phone call happened on Dec. 28, countering reports from White House sources.
One day after Obama announced the sanctions and expelled dozens of Russian officials from the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin said he did not plan to retaliate. Trump, who has been complimentary of Putin, praised the Russian leader's decision.
The Trump official said it was their understanding that U.S. retaliation for Russia's interference in the presidential election did not come up in the conversation between Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.