Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1
Victoria Station in London. A mixture of shabby and genteel. There’s a railway terminus, a bus station, and—a little farther on— a triangular park. Here you can find a statue of the French World War I hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch sitting on a horse. Written on the plinth are Foch’s words: “I am conscious of having served England . . .” Someone has added in black pen: “by murdering thousands.”
It’s a zone of arrivals and departures. Around Foch are tall plane trees and brown benches splattered white with pigeon droppings. There are tourists, commuters, and the odd hirsute bum, sipping from a can of lager and muttering. The man who owns this prime slice of real estate is the Duke of Westminster. He’s Britain’s wealthiest aristocrat.
Keep going and you reach a row of tall neoclassical houses, done in French Renaissance style. This is Grosvenor Gardens. The street looks onto the back wall of a world-famous residence, Buckingham Palace. With a bit of pluck and a long ladder you might vault directly into Her Majesty’s private back garden. Its fir trees, poking into the gray London skyline, are visible to commoners. The Queen’s lake is unseen.
Some of the houses here announce their inhabitants: PR firm, Japanese restaurant, language school. But at number 9-11 Grosvenor Gardens there’s no clue as to who or what is inside. Two pillars frame an anonymous black front door. There’s a closed-circuit TV sign. No names on the door buzzer. Above, three floors of offices.
If you enter and turn right, you find yourself in a modest ground-floor suite: a couple of bare rooms painted ivory white, a medium-sized color map of the world fixed to one wall, white blinds just above street level on high windows. There are computers, and newspapers, too: a copy of the London Times
. The impression is of a small, discreet, professional operation.
The office is home to a British firm, Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. Orbis’s website says it’s a “leading corporate intelligence consultancy.” It adds, vaguely: “We provide senior decision-makers with strategic insight, intelligence and investigative services. We then work with clients to implement strategies which protect their interests worldwide.”
Decoded, Orbis is in the nonstate spying business. It spies for commercial clients—delving into the secrets of individuals and institutions, governments and international organizations. London is the global capital of private intelligence. “A tough sector,” in the words of one former British spy, who worked in it for a year before landing a job with a large corporation. There are more than a dozen such firms, staffed mostly by former intelligence officers specializing in foreign know-how.
This isn’t quite the world of classic espionage or James Bond. But it’s not far from it.
The man who runs Orbis is called Christopher Steele. Steele and his business partner, Christopher Burrows, are Orbis’s directors. Both are British. Steele is fifty-two; Burrows a little older, fifty-eight. Their names don’t appear on Orbis’s public material. Nor is there mention of their former careers. A pair of bright younger graduates work alongside them. They form a small team.
Steele’s office gives few clues as to the nature of his undercover work.
There’s only one hint.
Lined up near the director’s desk are nesting Russian dolls, or matryoshki
. A souvenir from Moscow. They feature Russia’s great nineteenth-century writers: Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin. The dolls are hand-painted and have the names of the authors written toward the base in florid Cyrillic characters. The uppercase T
of Tolstoy resembles a swirling Greek pi.
In the tumultuous days of 2016, the dolls were as good a metaphor as any for the astonishing secret investigation Steele had recently been asked to do. It was an explosive assignment—to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to one Donald J. Trump, to unnest them one by one, like so many dolls, until the truth was finally revealed. Its conclusions would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of President Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Steele’s findings were sensational, and the resulting dossier would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of the gravest of crimes: collusion with a foreign power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime—vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key respects unprovable—was treason. The new U.S. president designate was, it was whispered, a traitor.
To find a plot that crazy, you had to turn to fiction: Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate
, about a Soviet-Chinese operation to seize the White House. Or a largely forgotten thriller by the writer Ted Allbeury, The Twentieth Day of January
. In this one, Moscow recruits a young American during the 1968 Paris student riots who goes on to greater things. Like Steele, Allbeury was a former British intelligence officer.
Until his work was brought blindingly into the light, Steele was unknown. Unknown, that is, beyond a narrow circle of U.S. and UK government intelligence insiders and Russia experts. That was the way he preferred it.
The year 2016 was an extraordinary historical moment. First, Brexit, Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union. Then, to the surprise and dismay of many Americans—not to mention others around the world—Donald J. Trump was unexpectedly elected that November as the United States’ forty-fifth president.
The campaign that got him to the White House had been rancorous, divisive, and mean-spirited. Looming above the campaign was this single and scarcely believable accusation: a foreign leader traditionally seen as an enemy of the United States had secretly helped Trump in his against-the-odds presidential campaign—maybe even nudging him across the line to victory. Trump, went the claim, was the Kremlin’s candidate. He was a puppet of Putin, whom top Republicans had previously regarded as a cold-eyed KGB villain—“a murderer and a thug,” according to John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona. Someone who wished America ill.
At this point, the accusation of collusion with Moscow stuck for two reasons. First, there was Trump’s own curious behavior on the campaign trail. Faced with claims that Russia was hacking Democratic emails, and leaking them to damage his rival, Hillary Clinton, Trump publicly urged Moscow to keep going.
At a July 2016 press conference in Florida, he said this:
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
As a Clinton aide pointed out, this was a straightforward appeal to a foreign power to commit espionage against a political opponent. Was this Trump opportunism? Or something more coordinated, more sinister?
Few doubted that the emails released via WikiLeaks in June and October 2016 hurt the Democratic candidate. In and of themselves, they weren’t especially scandalous. To an unscrupulous adversary like Trump, however, they were a present, a great gift: an opportunity to grab the media cycle by the neck and to shake home the message of “Crooked Hillary.” Also relevant was the fact that Moscow had stolen Republican National Committee emails, too. Only it hadn’t published them.
Second, how to explain Trump’s consistent praise of Putin? In the febrile months leading up to the November 8, 2016, vote, Trump had lambasted not only Clinton and Obama but also his Republican Party rivals, Saturday Night Live
, the “failing” New York Times
, the U.S. media in general—his favorite enemy—and Meryl Streep. And others. It was a long list.
Russia’s president, by contrast, was lauded as “very smart.” Putin was practically the only person on the planet to escape Trump’s sweeping invective, delivered in semiliterate exclamatory style via Twitter, at a time when most sane people were in bed. Trump was willing to verbally assault anyone who queried his behavior—anyone but his friend Putin.
The budding Trump-Putin friendship couldn’t merely be explained by personal chemistry; they hadn’t—it appeared—met. Sure, there were ideological similarities: a contempt for international bodies such as the UN and a dislike of the European Union. And, you might argue, Christian-inflected white nationalism. But this wasn’t quite enough. It was as if there were a strange fealty at work, an unexplained factor, an invisible hand, a missing piece of the puzzle. Trump didn’t praise any other foreign leader in quite the same way. Or as often. His obeisance to Putin would continue even as he ascended to office.
These two issues—the promotion of Russia’s hacked emails and the praise of Putin—raised a remarkable question. Had Putin somehow been blackmailing
the candidate? If not, how to explain Trump’s infatuation? If yes, blackmailing how, exactly?
There were plenty of rumors, of course. Some of them had reached my newspaper, The Guardian
. In the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, and in the feverish and dumbfounding period afterward, investigative journalists on both sides of the Atlantic were pursuing a number of leads. This was a difficult, frustrating, and tantalizing business. There were doubts about sources. Some of the dirt on Trump came from people close to the Clinton campaign, people with an ax to grind.
Nevertheless, this was, we realized, potentially the most important U.S. political story in a generation. If Trump had indeed conspired with Russia, not only publicly but perhaps covertly, too, via undisclosed back-channels, that looked like treachery. It was Watergate all over again.
But this time around, the “burglars” weren’t low-level Nixon operatives. They weren’t even Americans. According to the CIA and the FBI, they were anonymous hackers working for Putin’s spy agencies. The cash paying their salaries was Russian—and possibly American. They didn’t bust into the DNC using lock picks, surgical gloves, and bugging equipment, like their 1972 counterparts.
Instead, they penetrated the DNC’s computer networks—an ingress by the brute method of thousands of phishing emails. The operation, the FBI would conclude, was simple and inexpensive. It was devastatingly effective. And perhaps proof that America’s political systems were more vulnerable to shadowy electronic forces than anyone had thought.
Meanwhile, Trump hadn’t exactly helped our efforts to establish the truth. Breaking with all precedent, he refused to disclose his tax returns. His global real estate empire was hidden behind a network of several hundred opaque companies. Visualized as a graphic, Trump’s corporate holdings looked like a giant exploding puffball.
Was Trump a multibillionaire, as he flamboyantly claimed? Or was he in fact broke and overleveraged, owing large sums of money to banks abroad? What financial ties, if any, did he have to foreign governments? What might be said of his family, in particular the future president’s powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner?
In December 2016, Nick Hopkins, a Guardian
colleague, and I went to see Chris Steele to ask him these and other questions. Hopkins is the paper’s investigations editor. He had met Steele previously and knew of his expertise on Russia. This was my expertise, too. From 2007 to 2011, I spent four years in Russia as the Guardian
’s Moscow bureau chief until I was put in an airport cell and deported from the country. This, I am sure, was a result of some of my less flattering reports on Vladimir Putin.
It was a Thursday afternoon, two and a half weeks before Christmas. London’s streets were crowded and hectic with shoppers. We traveled by underground from the Guardian
’s office near Kings Cross. At Victoria Station we got out and walked the short distance to Grosvenor Gardens—past Marshal Foch and his entourage of pigeons.
We buzzed the front door of Orbis. They decided to let us in. Steele greeted us. He was of medium height, dressed in a plain suit, with once-black hair now mostly gray, friendly in manner but with an edge of reserve that was entirely understandable.
Journalists and spies have traditionally viewed each other with suspicion. In some respects, they are engaged in the same trade: cultivating sources, collecting and sifting information, separating fact from fiction. Both write for an audience. A newspaper’s audience is anybody with an Internet connection. Spies write for a small official circle, cleared for secrets. Often, I imagine, the product is the same. The spies have one advantage. They receive material obtained from state eavesdropping and secret sources.
Steele had agreed to chat over four o’clock tea. By this point his investigation had not made worldwide headlines. He had not yet removed himself from the public eye, so the three of us returned to the street and looked for a spot to grab a cup of tea.
We tried Balls Brothers—a café and wine bar, its green awnings overlooking Lower Grosvenor Garden. A waitress told us they had no space: the tables were reserved for Christmas office parties. We wandered across the road into a pub, the Shakespeare, its name marked in letters of black against gold. A portrait of the bard himself hung above the entrance.
We found a tucked-away table. I went to the bar and came back with drinks: beer for Steele, Coke for Nick, pot of tea for me. The decor had a railway theme, publicity for the Great Western Railway. There were old black-and-white photos of men in flat caps reading in a carriage and young women splashing in the sea at a beach.
Steele was someone who liked being in the shadows, away from publicity or fuss. In the world of corporate intelligence, the fewer people who knew what you were doing, the better. Invisible was good. Reporters (they knew things, but could be indiscreet and on occasion treacherous) were a necessary evil.
“Have you heard of me?” he asked.
I confessed I hadn’t.
I knew most people in town who were focused on Russia, but not Steele.
“Good,” he said. “That’s how I like it.”
Steele’s reticence was a matter of professional custom. First, he was a former spy. Second, he was bound by the rules of commercial confidentiality. He wasn’t going to say anything about his clients. There was no hint he had been involved in what was the single most important investigation in decades. Besides, those who investigated, criticized, or betrayed Putin often met with disastrous ends.
One critic was Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko was a former FSB officer who fled Russia in 2000 after exposing corruption at the top of his organization. (Two years earlier Putin had personally fired him.) In exile in London, Litvinenko denounced Russia’s president in books and articles. Litvinenko’s friends warned him that nothing good would come of this.
In 2003, MI6 recruited Litvinenko as an occasional expert on Russian organized crime. Litvinenko advised British and Spanish intelligence. His thesis was later cited in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables out of Madrid. It said the Kremlin, its well-resourced spy agencies, and the Russian mafia had merged. In effect, they formed a single criminal entity, a mafia state.
Litvinenko’s reward was a radioactive cup of tea, delivered to him by two Russians in a London hotel bar. The hotel, the Millennium, is next to the U.S. embassy on Grosvenor Square in an area familiar to Russian spies. If the CIA officers stationed there had peered out of their third-floor window on November 1, 2006, they might have seen Litvinenko’s assassins, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, walk through the hotel’s revolving door. A UK public inquiry found Putin “probably approved” this operation.
I had spent a decade investigating the Litvinenko assassination, and Steele had also followed the case closely. He hadn’t met Litvinenko, but he led MI6’s subsequent investigation into this unprecedented murder. Steele concluded it was a plot authorized at the highest levels of Russian power. The poison was polonium-210—a rare, lethal, and highly radioactive isotope. Once it is ingested, death is certain. In Litvinenko’s case, it took more than three weeks of suffering.
Not knowing the powder keg Steele was sitting on, we had come to talk to him about the Trump-Russia investigation we were quietly carrying out since the U.S. election. We had two leads. One was intriguing and at this point speculative: that Russia had covertly financed Trump’s campaign. We knew much of the alleged details. There was no proof. We had no primary source. If proof did exist, it was well hidden.
The other lead was more solid. We had documentary evidence that high-ranking Russian bureaucrats and well-connected insiders had laundered $20 billion. The scheme was ingenious—its trail involving British lawyers, Moldovan judges, a Latvian bank, and limited companies registered in London. The cash had gone everywhere, some of it through U.S. accounts with banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Most of the beneficiaries remained a mystery.
Cash had been hidden offshore. The scheme had been partly used for political operations abroad. It illustrated the porousness of the U.S. banking system, its pores open to Russian money. And if you could launder money into New York, you could, presumably, spend it on covert hacking. On anything you wished for.
Steele listened more than he talked. He wouldn’t confirm that our stories were correct, though he implied we were on the right track.
He offered parallel lines of inquiry.
“You need to look at the contracts for the hotel deals and land deals that Trump did. Check their values against the money Trump secured via loans,” Steele told us.
This, it seemed, was a reference to Trump’s former home in Florida. Trump had bought the mansion in 2004 for $41 million. Four years later, he sold it to a Russian oligarch for $95 million. Even allowing for inflation, for the repainting Trump said he’d carried out on the property, for the allure of the Trump brand, and for the whims of a very rich man seeking to invest in the United States, this seemed an extraordinary profit.
“The difference is what’s important,” Steele said.
Another theme of the election campaign was Trump’s relations with women. This had come to the fore after the emergence of a 2005 recording. On it Trump bragged about the privileges of being “a star.” One perk: when he met beautiful women he could simply “grab them by the pussy.” Trump apologized for this. He insisted the women who alleged sexual harassment were liars—jezebels motivated not by justice but by politics.
To our surprise, Steele implied that Trump and sex was an interesting line of inquiry. He gave no details.
Steele wasn’t going to tell us much. Nevertheless, it appeared he might confirm—or trash—information we’d acquired from elsewhere. For an investigative journalist, this was helpful.
After forty-five minutes it was time for Steele to go.
The situation had a distinctly Watergate echo. Our mission was now clear: follow the sex and the money.
We left separately, determined to keep our investigation going. Then things got a whole lot bigger.
Two days later, Steele’s work would land on President Barack Obama’s desk, but its beginnings were decades in the making.
Copyright © 2017 by Luke Harding. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.