In the closing weeks of 2016, an explosive document was floating around in media and security circles. Reporters tried, and failed, to verify the claims it contained — that Donald Trump colluded with Russia, and the Kremlin held lurid blackmail material as leverage over Trump. Reporting on the document, which was first compiled as opposition research, was rare and carefully vague.
Meanwhile, a man named Christopher Steele was living quietly outside London. He was "eating his favorite tapas and pottering around Victoria, home to his newly refurbished office," The Guardian reports. He ran a private intelligence company, but aside from a spare LinkedIn page had almost no presence on the Internet; searching for his name would bring up hits on a porn actor, a musician and a TV doctor instead.
This week, everything changed.
On Tuesday, CNN reported on the dossier's existence and said it had been put together by a former British intelligence agent. Hours later, BuzzFeed published the document in whole (and Trump and the Kremlin issued prompt and furious denials).
On Wednesday, one outlet after another — first The Wall Street Journal, then The New York Times and NBC and The Telegraph and The Guardian — identified Christopher Steele as the former MI6 agent and Moscow expert who assembled the dossier.
The U.K. government asked the British media not to report the name, saying it put Steele's personal security "directly at risk," but it was too late.
Steele's name was everywhere, and the man himself nowhere to be found.
On Wednesday, he asked a neighbor to look after his cat, The Telegraph reports. He said he'd be gone for a "few days."
The BBC reports that it was either Tuesday or Wednesday — and that it was actually three cats.
Either way, Steele left his house early this week and "hasn't been seen publicly since," NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.
"No one showed up for work this morning at the offices of Orbis, the private intelligence consultancy Steele co-owns in central London," Frank reported Thursday.
The Telegraph, citing an anonymous source, says Steele was "horrified" when his nationality was made public. Now, the source tells the newspaper, Steele fears a Kremlin backlash and is "terrified for his safety."
His wife and children were not at home as of Wednesday night, the Telegraph reports.
The work of assembling the dossier was "bold and high risk, in that it implicated both Trump and the Kremlin," Frank notes.
Steele, if he is indeed the author, would certainly know about the potential dangers.
The Guardian reports that the former intelligence agent spent two years living in Moscow in the '90s and continued to specialize in Russia during his later career at MI6. The newspaper writes:
"[Steele] was, sources say, head of MI6's Russia desk. When the agency was plunged into panic over the poisoning of its agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, the then chief, Sir John Scarlett, needed a trusted senior officer to plot a way through the minefield ahead — so he turned to Steele.
"It was Steele, sources say, who correctly and quickly realised Litvinenko's death was a Russian state 'hit.' "
As you might expect with a story about a spook, all the published reporting on Steele relies heavily on anonymous sources. NPR has not independently confirmed any of these details.
But according to all available accounts, Steele was well-regarded within intelligence circles both for his work at MI6 and for his private security work after he left the spy service.
The Guardian reports that Steele, in his early 50s, is an Oxford graduate and was "one of the more eminent Russia specialists" at the British spy agency.
"Former colleagues of Steele describe him as 'very credible' — a sober, cautious and meticulous professional with a formidable record," the newspaper writes.
Reuters reports that with Orbis Business Intelligence, Steele investigated corruption at FIFA and passed the information on to the FBI.
It was that work that "lent credence to his reporting on Trump's entanglements in Russia," Reuters writes, citing U.S. officials.
The Guardian and The New York Times both theorize that to compile the attention-grabbing dossier, Steele probably didn't travel to Russia but relied on inside contacts there.
For the record, intelligence experts say they take the dossier seriously and that it was not meant as a hoax, but they caution that raw HUMINT — "human intelligence" — is messy and always requires cross-referencing and context. Experts see the document as important and potentially useful, which is not the same as believing the claims are factually true.
The document "does not contain the standard caveats or guidance about levels of 'confidence' that are common in U.S. intelligence community documents," NPR's Philip Ewing reports.