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Hero or hired gun? How a British former spy became a flash point in the Russia investigation.

The Russia probe got its start with a drunken conversation, an ex-spy, WikiLeaks and a distracted FBI. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

In the fall of 2016, a little more than a month before Donald Trump was elected president, Christopher Steele had the undivided attention of the FBI.

For months, the British former spy had been working to alert the Americans to what he believed were disturbing ties Trump had to Russia. He had grown so worried about what he had learned from his Russia network about the Kremlin’s plans that he told colleagues it was like “sitting on a nuclear weapon.”

He was now being summoned to Rome, where he spent hours in a discreet location telling four American officials — some of whom had flown in from the United States — about his findings.

The Russians had damaging information about Trump’s personal behavior and finances that could be used to pressure the GOP nominee. What’s more, the Kremlin was now carrying out an operation with the Trump campaign’s help to tilt the U.S. election — a plot Steele had been told was ordered by President Vladi­mir Putin.

The FBI investigators treated Steele as a peer, a Russia expert so well-trusted that he had assisted the Justice Department on past cases and provided briefing material for British prime ministers and at least one U.S. president. During intense questioning that day in Rome, they alluded to some of their own findings of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign and raised the prospect of paying Steele to continue gathering intelligence after Election Day, according to people familiar with the discussion.

But Steele was not one of them. He had left the famed Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, seven years earlier and was now working on behalf of Fusion GPS, a private Washington research firm whose work at the time was funded by Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party.

The meeting in Rome captured the unusual and complicated role of Steele, who wrote memos that came to be known as the dossier and who has become the central point of contention in the political brawl raging around the Russia inquiry by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Those who believe Steele consider him a hero, a latter-day Paul Revere who, at personal risk, tried to provide an early warning about the Kremlin’s unprecedented meddling in a U.S. campaign. Those who distrust him say he is merely a hired gun leading a political attack on Trump.

Steele himself struggled to navigate dual obligations — to his private clients, who were paying him to help Clinton win, and to a sense of public duty born of his previous life.

Sir Andrew Wood, a British former diplomat and friend of Steele, said he urged him in the fall of 2016 to alert the authorities. “The right sort of people” needed to be told, Wood said he told Steele. “My opinion was, ‘You don’t have a choice. At least, you don’t have an honorable choice.’ ”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered a competing argument: “You can be an FBI informant. You can be a political operative. But you can’t be both, particularly at the same time.”

Among Steele’s actions now under scrutiny is his decision to forward to the FBI — along with his own research — a separate report detailing uncorroborated allegations about Trump’s behavior that had been written by a longtime Clinton friend.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment. Steele, who is facing libel lawsuits by people named in the dossier of research he compiled, declined to comment.

This portrait of Steele’s work is drawn from interviews with his friends and associates, former intelligence colleagues, court documents, congressional testimony and people familiar with the ongoing Russia investigations.

More than a year after the dossier’s completion, it remains unclear whether authorities have corroborated Steele’s specific allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia — including titillating claims that the Russians have compromising information about the president. Trump has denied Steele’s charges. However, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the Russians engaged in an elaborate operation to swing the election to Trump.

Steele, 53, who sports a graying coif and tailored suits with cuff links, has said little publicly since he was identified more than a year ago as the author of the dossier. Friends and former colleagues said he has been dismayed by the attacks on him, particularly a criminal referral about his actions that two U.S. senators made to the Justice Department, accusing him of lying about his contacts with news organizations. The move was viewed by some British lawmakers and longtime intelligence officials as an affront to the special bond between the United States and Britain.

Last week, House Republicans released a memo alleging that the Justice Department overly relied on Steele’s research in an application to monitor former Trump adviser Carter Page and did not adequately disclose Steele’s partisan ties to the court.

The full Nunes memo, annotated

Democratic lawmakers rejected those claims, saying the GOP document inflates the role Steele’s information played in the warrant. And intelligence officials have said the court was told that some of the research in the warrant application was paid for by a political entity.

The president has seized on Steele’s role as evidence that Mueller’s entire investigation is tainted. “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” he tweeted Saturday. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on.”

Those who know Steele say he grew increasingly alarmed about the prospect of the election of a U.S. president who he believed could be unduly swayed by Moscow. As his anxiety drove him to reach out to the FBI, he also met with journalists from several news organizations, including The Washington Post.

'He's the spy'

Steele had all the right credentials for the job.

He was steeped in Russia early on after being recruited to Britain’s elite spy service from the University of Cambridge. He spent two decades working for the MI6 spy agency, including a stint in his mid-20s in Moscow, where he served undercover in the British Embassy.

When he returned to work for the agency in London, he provided briefing materials on Russia for senior government officials and led the British inquiry into the mysterious 2006 death in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB official and Putin critic.

In 2009, after more than two decades in public service, Steele turned to the private sector and founded a London-based consulting firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, drawing on the reputation and network he developed doing intelligence work.

Among those who have continued to seek his expertise is Steele’s former boss Richard Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004.

In an interview, Dearlove said Steele became the “go-to person on Russia in the commercial sector” following his retirement from the Secret Intelligence Service. He described the reputations of Steele and his business partner, fellow intelligence veteran Christopher Burrows, as “superb.”

In one of his first cases as a private consultant, Steele worked closely with the FBI in its investigation of corruption at FIFA, the powerful worldwide soccer governing body. Steele, who at the time was working for the English Football Association, shared his research with top officials at the Justice Department. U.S. officials eventually charged 14 top soccer executives and their associates with wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering.

Steele and Burrows soon amassed a group of clients that included multinational companies and wealthy business titans, including some Russians, according to people familiar with their work.

Steele continued to feed information to the U.S. government, passing along intelligence he gathered about Ukraine and Russia for corporate clients in 2014 and 2015 to a friend at the State Department, according to former assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland. “He offered us that reporting free, so that we could also benefit from it,” she said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

In June 2016, Steele was contacted by Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and co-founder of Fusion GPS. Simpson and Steele had been introduced by a mutual friend in 2009 who knew that they shared a near-obsessive interest in Russian organized crime and that they had worked together on previous cases.

Simpson had an intriguing offer: Would Steele’s firm help research Trump’s ties to Russia?

Simpson’s firm had been looking into Trump’s history as a businessman, including his work in Russia, for months — first for the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication that is funded in part by GOP hedge fund executive Paul Singer. After that arrangement ended in the spring, the law firm Perkins Coie hired Fusion GPS to continue the work on behalf of Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

By the time Steele signed on as a subcontractor, Fusion GPS’s financing for the project was exclusively Democratic.

Most of Simpson’s research was based on scouring public records, court filings and media reports from around the world.

Steele brought far more: He was able to tap a network of human sources cultivated over decades of Russia work. He moved quickly, reaching out to Russian contacts and others he referred to as “collectors” who had other sources — some of whom had no idea their comments would be passed along to Steele.

Who is ‘Source D’? The man said to be behind the Trump-Russia dossier’s most salacious claim.

His sources included “a close associate of Trump,” as well as “a senior Russian foreign ministry figure” and a “former top-level Russian intelligence officer,” both of whom Steele indicated had revealed their information to a “trusted compatriot,” he later reported to Fusion GPS.

Just weeks after taking the case, Steele told friends that the initial intelligence he had gathered was “hair-raising.”

Trump allegedly had been compromised by video evidence of encounters with prostitutes, Steele’s reports said. And he had been wooed by Russian financial inducements, including opportunities to develop Trump buildings in the former Soviet Union and lucrative real estate deals with Russian buyers of his properties.

Steele wrote up his initial findings in late June in the first of 17 memos that later would be known as the dossier. “U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP’S ACTIVITIES IN RUSSIA AND COMPROMISING RELATIONSHIP WITH THE KREMLIN,” he wrote at the top.

Steele told associates that he was so nervous about the explosive nature of the information that he sent the memo via a commercial courier to Washington, rather than electronically.

In short order, Steele made another fateful decision: that he needed to confide in U.S. law enforcement officials. He contacted a Rome-based FBI official with whom he had worked on the FIFA case and asked him to visit him in London in July, according to people familiar with the matter.

Steele told Simpson of his plan to meet with the FBI, describing it as an obligation rooted in his past work for the British government.

“ ‘I’m a former intelligence officer, and we’re your closest ally,’ ” Steele told Simpson, according to testimony Simpson later gave to the House Intelligence Committee. “ ‘You know, I have obligations, professional obligations. If there’s a national security emergency or possible national security issue, I should report it.’ ”

Simpson said he did not question Steele’s judgment: “He’s the spy,” Simpson said. “I’m the ex-journalist.” Simpson declined to comment to The Post.

On July 5, 2016, the Rome-based FBI agent met with Steele and Burrows in Orbis’s London offices, housed in a five-story Georgian-style building in the Victoria neighborhood.

Later that month, Steele reached out to a State Department contact in Washington, according to Nuland, who said officials decided his allegations were best left to the FBI.

In late July, Steele told friends he was rattled when WikiLeaks released thousands of internal Democratic National Committee emails on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, material that U.S. law enforcement officials said was hacked by Russia. Then Trump — who had repeatedly praised Putin on the campaign trail — publicly called on Russia to hack and release a cache of missing Clinton emails.

Steele, who had researched Russian attempts to interfere in European elections for another client, began to fear that the Americans were not taking the Kremlin’s efforts seriously enough, associates said.

In the early fall, he and Burrows turned to Dearlove, their former MI6 boss, for advice. Sitting in winged chairs at the Garrick Club, one of London’s most venerable private establishments, under oil paintings of famed British playwrights, the two men shared their worries about what was happening in the United States. They asked for his guidance about how to handle their obligations to their client and the public, Dearlove recalled.

Dearlove said their situation reminded him of a predicament he had faced years earlier, when he was chief of station for British intelligence in Washington and alerted U.S. authorities to British information that a vice presidential hopeful had once been in communication with the Kremlin.

He said he advised Steele and Burrows to work discreetly with a top British government official to pass along information to the FBI.

At the time of the meeting, Dearlove said he did not know whether Steele had approached the FBI.

Burrows declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Steele sought out Wood, the former British ambassador to Moscow. The two had become friendly after leaving government service. A court filing would later call him an Orbis associate, but Wood said he had no financial relationship with Steele or his company.

Over several hours in Wood’s living room in a stylish London neighborhood, Steele outlined his findings and the two men dissected the credibility of Steele’s information, including whether his sources could be leading him astray on purpose, Wood recalled. The conversation was anguished at times, he said.

“He wanted to share the burden a bit,” Wood said.

They concluded that Steele’s sources were speaking at considerable risk to themselves and had no discernible reason to deceive the small intelligence firm.

“You have to go through the intellectual process of deciding whether it was a complete con,” Wood said. “He was speaking like someone who believed what he was saying was soundly based.”

Dossier goes public

As Steele sat down in a seventh-floor conference room at The Post’s downtown Washington headquarters in late September 2016, he looked out at the bustling newsroom with obvious discomfort.

“Don’t you have any meeting space without glass walls?” the longtime intelligence officer asked.

On that September day, Steele talked for almost two hours — occasionally interrupted by Simpson, who was in attendance. The Post agreed to keep the session off the record because of the sensitivity of the material, but is now reporting the existence of the visit and a subsequent one in October — although not what was discussed — because they have been referenced in court documents.

The Post made efforts to independently confirm Steele’s information at the time, but was unable to corroborate his specific findings and did not publish stories based on the material.

Around the same time, Steele also met with other news organizations including the New York Times, the New Yorker and Yahoo News, according to court filings. In an article published on Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff reported that U.S. officials had received “intelligence reports” alleging that Page had met with Igor Sechin, executive chairman of the Russian energy corporation Rosneft, while in Moscow in July — a finding of Steele’s research. Page has denied meeting with Sechin but later acknowledged interacting with one of his deputies.

Memo points to FBI’s sustained interest in Carter Page, ex-adviser to Trump

FBI officials did not know Steele had spoken to Yahoo, according to a declassified version of the criminal referral released Tuesday by two Republican U.S. senators, which they suggested meant Steele had lied about his media contacts.

Steele also spoke around that time to then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, with whom he had worked on the FIFA case. The British former spy told Ohr that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president,” House Republicans alleged in their memo released last week. At the time, Ohr’s wife, a Russia expert, was working as a researcher for Fusion GPS.

The GOP memo argued that Steele’s comments to Ohr were “clear evidence of Steele’s bias,” saying they should have been noted in the warrant application that the Justice Department submitted that included his research. The classified warrant application and internal FBI documents cited in the memo have not been released, making it impossible to independently verify the claims made by the memo’s authors.

Friends of Steele said his comment was not driven by political bias, but by his alarm after sifting through months of reports about Trump’s ties to Russia.

Then came the Rome meeting. During his meeting with the four FBI officials, Steele gleaned that the bureau had independently developed information that appeared to match some of his reports — and that the FBI was particularly interested in a young Trump campaign foreign policy adviser named George Papadopoulos, he would later tell associates. Papadopoulos had not surfaced in Steele’s research, according to his memos.

“Essentially what he told me was they had other intelligence about this matter,” Simpson told a Senate committee in August, adding: “My understanding was that they believed Chris at this point — that they believed Chris’s information might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing.”

FBI once planned to pay former British spy who authored controversial Trump dossier

Weeks after the Rome meeting, the Justice Department incorporated some of Steele’s research into its secret application for a warrant to surveil Page.

Friends said Steele felt more upbeat after Rome, but his mood quickly turned. Four days after returning to London, WikiLeaks began posting the private emails of Clinton campaign chief John D. Podesta — a slow release of information that would last until Election Day.

Steele kept up his communications with the FBI, which over months included phone calls, emails and Skype exchanges that have been documented in hundreds of pages of internal FBI records reviewed by congressional investigators.

In October, he shared with his contacts at the bureau another report he had received from a State Department employee about Trump and Russia, according to people familiar with the document. It was written by Cody Shearer, a freelance journalist who was friends with Hillary and Bill Clinton. Shearer gave it to author and Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal, who transmitted it to Jonathan Winer, then a State Department official.

The memo claimed that a source inside the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) spy agency alleged that Trump had financial ties to influential Russians and that the FSB had evidence of him engaging in compromising personal behavior, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

Blumenthal declined to comment and Shearer did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney for Winer, Lee Wolosky, said his client “was concerned in 2016 about information that a candidate for the presidency may have been compromised by a hostile foreign power. Any actions he took were grounded in those concerns.”

In a note to the FBI, Steele made clear that he could not vouch for the accuracy of the Shearer memo, but noted that it echoed his own research, which also found that the Russians allegedly held evidence that could be used against Trump.

“We have no means of verifying the sources or the information but note some of their own is remarkably similar to our own, albeit from a completely different sourcing chain,” he wrote, according to people familiar with Steele’s message.

Republican congressional investigators are now exploring whether Steele’s research was shaped by information gathered by Clinton allies or if the Russians may have given him incorrect information, according to people with knowledge of their inquiries.

In a letter to the Justice Department released Monday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote that the fact that “Clinton associates were contemporaneously feeding Mr. Steele allegations raises additional concerns about his credibility.”

Election Day was rapidly approaching, and Steele appeared increasingly disturbed by what he considered a lack of sufficient media attention to Russia’s activities. He made a second visit to The Post’s newsroom in October, this time visibly agitated.

Meanwhile, the public was unaware that the FBI was investigating Trump associates. Steele understood the reason: Bureau officials repeatedly told him they were extremely cautious about taking actions that could be viewed publicly as influencing an election, associates said.

So he was stunned on Oct. 28 when then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced that he was reopening an inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Three days later, the New York Times reported that FBI officials had not turned up evidence that the Trump campaign had links to Russia.

Steele and Simpson were dismayed, Simpson later testified.

“Chris was concerned that something was happening at the FBI that we didn’t understand, and that there may be some political maneuvering or improper influence,” Simpson told the House committee, adding that “we were very concerned that the information that we had about the Russians trying to interfere in the election was going to be covered up.”

He and Steele decided that “it would be fair if the world knew that both candidates were under FBI investigation,” Simpson said.

On Oct. 31, Mother Jones published a story by David Corn headlined, “A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump.”

The story did not name Steele, but it was based on information he shared, Corn later reported.

The late October events ruptured Steele’s relationship with his FBI handlers. The former intelligence officer was “suspended and terminated” by the bureau after the Mother Jones story, according to the GOP memo.

Steele told friends a different version: that he had been in talks to work with the FBI after his contract with Fusion GPS lapsed but that he cut off the discussions in frustration. The FBI, which had agreed to fund his trip to Rome, never reimbursed his expenses, according to people familiar with the situation.

Then Trump won.

In the aftermath, Steele quickly provided a full review of his findings for a senior British official, a step he had told the FBI in Rome he would take in the case of a Trump victory, according to people briefed on his decision.

By mid-November, Wood — the former diplomat and Steele friend — said he approached Steele to discuss whether they needed to take further steps to ensure the U.S. government was aware of his information, as well. They were particularly eager to provide the research to Republicans who shared their wariness of Russia.

Wood said he reached out to David Kramer, a former State Department official who was close to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a Russia expert. Kramer declined to comment.

Kramer arranged for Wood to meet McCain in a small room on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada in December, Wood said.

There, Wood described Steele’s research and told McCain he could arrange for him to review it.

“I told him, ‘I know there’s a document. I haven’t read it, but it seems to me that it’s reliably set up,’ ” he said.

McCain, he recalled, “was visibly shocked.”

The senator expressed interest in reading the full report, Wood said, recalling that McCain responded, “Thank you for seeing me. You did the right thing and I’m grateful. My first thought has to be for my country.”

A McCain spokeswoman declined to comment.

Ten days later, in a cloak-and-dagger scene, Kramer and Steele arranged to meet at Heathrow Airport in London. Kramer was told that he should look for a man wearing a blue raincoat and carrying a Financial Times under his arm, according to people familiar with the episode.

Kramer accompanied Steele to his home, where he spent a few hours reviewing the Trump research.

Back in Washington, Kramer received a copy of the dossier from Simpson and completed the handoff to McCain.

In a private meeting on Dec. 9, McCain gave Comey the dossier — passing along information that Steele had provided to the FBI earlier in the year.

Shortly before Inauguration Day, Comey briefed Trump on the document, alerting him to what the FBI director would later describe to Congress as a report that contained “salacious, unverified” information that was circulating in the media.

Steele’s role would soon emerge publicly. BuzzFeed published the dossier, and then the Wall Street Journal identified him as the author.

Steele went into hiding, leaving his London home with his family for six weeks.

He reemerged in March, speaking briefly outside his office to thank supporters. “I won’t be making any further statements or comments at this time,” Steele said.

He has not been heard from publicly since. But in September, according to people familiar with his activities, Steele spent two days behind closed doors, talking to Mueller’s investigators.

Devlin Barrett, Alice Crites and Dana Priest contributed to this report.