CAMBRIDGE, England — Before Stefan A. Halper emerged at the center of a political storm over the FBI’s Russia investigation, he was a familiar face among the Gothic buildings and on the twisting river paths at the University of Cambridge, where he was known as a foreign policy expert with a network of intelligence sources cultivated over decades.
For 15 years, Halper convened seminars, informal dinners and apartment gatherings in Cambridge with leading academics and onetime leaders of the British spy services.
His perch as a Cambridge professor gave Halper, a veteran of three Republican administrations, the chance to mingle with figures such as then-Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn and Vyacheslav Trubnikov, former director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.
It also gave him a valuable cover to assist the FBI in a secret operation — investigating Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 White House race.
Halper, a longtime source of information for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement personnel, used his position at Cambridge to reach out to three Trump advisers in 2016, introducing himself as a scholar interested in discussing foreign policy, according to people familiar with the interactions.
Recent revelations that the 73-year-old academic was a confidential source for the FBI have fueled President Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI. “Spygate,” as the president put it in a tweet, is a “scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!”
There is no evidence that a spy was embedded inside the Trump campaign, as the president and his allies have suggested. Former Justice Department and intelligence officials said Halper’s work appeared to be routine — occasionally supplying limited information for a broad FBI inquiry into Russian efforts to intervene in U.S. politics.
However, there are lingering questions about his role — including how he was activated and why his first contact with a then-little-known Trump adviser, Carter Page, came weeks before the Justice Department investigation was officially opened.
It is also unclear how long Halper — who remained in touch with Page until at least July 2017 — assisted the FBI in the probe.
Halper declined to comment. The FBI declined to comment.
To colleagues and friends, Halper’s participation in the case was appropriate for an experienced former White House official with access to individuals already of interest to investigators.
“He is a well-regarded academic who is also a patriot,” said Richard Dearlove, who is the former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency and has known Halper since the two met at Cambridge in 2004.
A former U.S. official described Halper as a peripheral figure in intelligence circles — someone who is unofficially “part of the family” and is trusted to take on low-risk tasks at the government’s behest.
Halper’s identification as a secret FBI source has roiled this prestigious university, whose long history of connections to clandestine services has both brought scandal and bolstered its reputation.
During the Cold War, British intelligence officer turned double agent Kim Philby and four other prominent Cambridge graduates known as the Cambridge Spy Ring spied on Britain for the Soviet Union.
The university also has been a recruiting ground for British intelligence officials — including Christopher Steele, an undergraduate in the 1980s who went on to work for two decades for MI6. After going into private practice, Steele produced a now-controversial research dossier about Trump in 2016 for a consulting firm working on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Friends of Halper and Steele say the two are not acquainted and did not work together during the 2016 campaign season.
The university did not respond to requests for comment on how Halper cited his Cambridge role during his outreach to Trump advisers. In a statement, a Cambridge spokesman noted that Halper, who taught international affairs and American studies, stepped down in 2015 with the honorary title of emeritus senior fellow of the Center of International Studies.
Cambridge faculty members declined to speak on the record to a Washington Post reporter who recently visited the campus, citing university instructions not to speak to the media about Halper without clearance.
Still, in a crowded hallway at the famed Cambridge Union on a recent evening, some professors privately fretted about whether the university’s reputation had been damaged by the controversy.
Halper arrived to teach at Cambridge in 2001 with an impressive pedigree: He was a Stanford University graduate with two doctorates who spent years as a high-ranking U.S. government official.
Thanks in part to his then-father-in-law Ray Cline, who worked at the CIA, Halper landed a post in President Richard M. Nixon’s White House as a young policy adviser. He ended up in the next two GOP administrations, working for President Gerald Ford’s chiefs of staff and in President Ronald Reagan’s State Department.
“My recollection of him early on during the Nixon-Ford period was that he was well educated and smart — and that he was very interested in letting you know that,” recalled Stan Anderson, a Washington lawyer who served in the campaigns of Nixon, Ford and Reagan.
Halper developed powerful friends, such as former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, who worked with him on arms control and other defense issues. And he cultivated a wariness about the chaotic Russian economy that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Beware of Russians bearing gifts,” Halper wrote in 1996 in a column for the Christian Science Monitor that criticized the Clinton administration’s approach toward Gazprom, the sprawling, state-controlled energy company in Russia.
At Cambridge, Halper was an active and gregarious presence in the Department of Politics and International Studies, according to students and faculty members.
He often hosted dinners for students at his apartment, where he would tell colorful stories about working for Nixon and Ford, according to students who know him, including a Post reporter who studied at Cambridge.
In cramped department quarters and coffee shops, he would trade stories and tidbits he had picked up from his network with groups of students who felt far away from American politics.
One former student called Halper “mysterious and captivating,” recalling his penchant for recounting connections to powerful figures in the British and American national security establishment.
During this period, Halper formed a close bond with Dearlove, the now-retired head of MI6.
Together, they launched the Cambridge Security Initiative, which produced research for governments and other clients, modeled in part after the Rand Corp.
Together, the two also became active in the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, established by another Cambridge professor, Christopher Andrew, formerly an official historian for the British domestic intelligence service, MI5.
All three were present for a 2014 visit by Flynn, then head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who had agreed to speak to the Intelligence Seminar while traveling for Defense Department-related activities.
During a dinner Flynn attended, Halper and Dearlove were disconcerted by the attention the then-DIA chief showed to a Russian-born graduate student who regularly attended the seminars, according to people familiar with the episode. The student and a Defense Department official traveling with Flynn have denied that anything inappropriate occurred.
In late 2016, Dearlove and Halper resigned as conveners of the Intelligence Seminar, expressing concern that it could be a target of manipulation from the Kremlin because it received funding from a donor linked to Russia. Andrew, the founder of the program, called the allegation “absurd” in an interview with the Financial Times. He declined repeated requests for comment from The Post.
Dearlove has since rejoined the seminar, telling friends that his concerns have been resolved.
Exactly when Halper began assisting the FBI on the Russia investigation remains undisclosed.
The FBI formally opened its counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the presidential race on July 31, 2016. The probe was spurred by a report from Australian officials that George Papadopoulos, a young Trump aide, had boasted to an Australian diplomat of knowing that Russia had damaging material about Hillary Clinton.
Yet Halper’s outreach to Trump advisers began weeks earlier.
In June, a doctoral student working for Halper called and emailed Page, an unpaid foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, and invited him to attend a July symposium about the U.S. presidential election at Cambridge, according to people familiar with the interactions.
Page, an energy financier with a doctorate from the University of London, had taken part in other academic conferences around the world and viewed this one as no different, he told The Post.
The university paid his discount airfare and put him up in a dorm room. The seminar was also attended by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former Minnesota congressman turned Washington lobbyist Vin Weber and James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs under Albright in the Clinton administration, according to the agenda and people familiar with the event.
Page and Halper had a brief conversation at the event — an interaction Page described as pleasant but not particularly memorable.
“There has been some speculation that he might have tried to reel me in,” Page previously told The Post. “At the time, I never had any such impression.”
The Cambridge conference was held days after Page had traveled to Russia, where he had delivered a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School that was, in part, critical of U.S. foreign policy.
Page had been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013, when the FBI caught two accused Russian spies on a wiretap discussing their attempts to recruit him. In the fall of 2016, he became a surveillance target of the FBI, which suspected him of acting on behalf of the Russian government — an assertion he denies. Page has accused the government of abusing its authority by unfairly targeting him.
After his return to the United States, Page visited Halper at his wooded six-acre estate in Virginia. The two talked about foreign policy and the political campaign. Halper gave him a copy of a book he wrote on China — a hawkish book that has also drawn the attention of current White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who told Fox News last month that he has corresponded with Halper over the past two years about China.
Page wrote in a tweet that he and Halper were “just a few scholars exchanging ideas.”
On Aug. 29, 2016, about six weeks after first meeting Page, Halper used that relationship to broker a contact with another Trump official: Sam Clovis, an Iowa academic who served for a period as the campaign’s national co-chairman.
“I am a professor at Cambridge University lecturing on US politics and foreign policy. I am what is called a ‘scholar practitioner,’ having served in the White House and four presidential campaigns — two as policy director,” Halper wrote to Clovis in an email. “Over the past month I have been in conversation with Carter Page who attended our conference in Cambridge on US elections. Carter mentioned in Cambridge, and when visiting here in Virginia, that you and I should meet.”
The email, first reported by the Washington Examiner, was described to The Post by Clovis’s attorney, Victoria Toensing.
In late summer, the two men met for coffee at a hotel in Northern Virginia, where they chatted about China. The professor asked Clovis whether they could meet again, but Clovis was too busy with the campaign. After the election, Halper sent him a note of congratulations, Toensing said.
Clovis did not view the interactions as suspicious at the time, Toensing said, but now is rethinking the interactions knowing that Halper had encounters with others in the campaign.
“To be infiltrating a presidential campaign within two or three months of an election campaign is outrageous,” she said.
Days after meeting with Clovis, Halper sought out Papadopoulos, the third Trump aide.
People familiar with the outreach said it was done as part of the FBI’s investigation. The young foreign policy adviser had been on the radar of the FBI since his meeting with the Australian diplomat triggered the formal opening of the probe that summer.
On Sept. 2, 2016, Halper invited Papadopoulos to join in some research he was conducting at Cambridge about the relationship between Turkey and the European Union, offering to pay him an honorarium of $3,000 for a 1,500-word paper, according to an email described to The Post.
Emails show Papadopoulos flew to meet Halper in London at the Travellers Club, a 200-year-old private men’s club that is a favorite of British intelligence officers and foreign diplomats.
According to two people familiar with their conversation, Halper probed Papadopoulos about whether he had ties to Russia — a notion that Papadopoulos adamantly rejected.
After Papadopoulos returned to the United States and sent his research document, the professor responded: “Enjoyed your paper. Just what we wanted. $3,000 wired to your account. Pls confirm receipt.”
For his part, Halper maintained contact with at least one Trump associate until at least the summer of 2017.
On July 28, 2017, the professor emailed Page, asking what his plans were — and referring to the ongoing Russia investigation.
“It seems attention has shifted a bit from the ‘collusion’ investigation to the ‘contretempts’ within the White House and, how — or if — Mr. Scaramucci will be accommodated there. I must assume this gives you some relief,” Halper wrote in the midst of Anthony Scaramucci’s turbulent stint as communications director.
“We are here in Virginia enjoying a warm but quiet summer,” he wrote, adding: “Be in touch when you have the time. Would love to catch up.”
Costa and Nakashima reported from Washington. Devlin Barrett, Alice Crites, Shane Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, Frances Stead Sellers, Julie Tate and Matt Zapotosky in Washington contributed to this report.