The poisoning of a Russian espionage agent and the naming of a politically coercive company in March 2018 proved a rare set-back for two British apparatchiks. Normally regarded as masters of their craft – and tradecraft – Christopher Steele and Alexander Nix were hoist by their own petard in areas of proven expertise, Espionage and Influencing.
Steele’s expertise worked for MI6 (SIS – Secret Intelligence Service) where his career followed a predictable trajectory after Cambridge University, where he studied Russian and was President of the Union – to the SIS section of the Foreign Office, thence to the intrigues of 1990s Moscow.
Along the way he made a reputation for being reliable and not given to alarmism. His basic espionage training included military skills in fire-arms and physical endurance, disguise and counter-surveillance.
As a professional intelligence officer, Steele’s success rate was high in negotiating with, and ‘exfiltrating’ to, European countries defectors from his host’s intelligence services. His own country’s spies thought so highly of him that at a discreet get together with CIA counter-parts he was described as ‘the real James Bond’.
By his 40s he had been recalled to the London Russian desk of SIS, supervising a clutch of Russian defectors, among them Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by the Russian intelligence service, FSB, in tea-rooms off Grosvenor Square, in revenge for working with SIS. More recently another defector, Sergei Skripal, was also targeted and perhaps brain damaged in revenge as a warning to potential other defectors.
Steele left SIS to, along with other ex-colleagues, found a business research firm, Orbis, which in turn was hired by US political interests and allegedly produced, via Steele’s former Russian network, a dossier on Trump which became known as the Dirty Dossier, as it included episodes of The Donald cavorting with Russian call-girls who, among other services, urinated on Trump in the hotel bed once occupied by his rival Hilary Clinton. Which seemed the point of the exercise.
Though now being handsomely paid by corporate interests, Steele’s past as a skilled agent came back to haunt him when his authorship of the dossier was made public. One of his Russian sources was summarily dragged from a meeting by masked abductors; another source was found dead in his car with a cranial gunshot wound. Steele went to ground with his family, leaving requests with a neighbour to feed the cats … revealing the ‘ordinary life’ many spies inhabit. Weeks later he surfaced in the Orbis offices after, presumably, he had received some kind of assurance from – whoever.
No such assurance was forthcoming for Alexander Nix, another achiever who was a co-founder of Cambridge Analytics, ostensibly another business ‘consultancy’ which also dealt in the black arts of power, deception and betrayal. Like Steele, Nix was a high academic achiever. MI6 specifically trained him in and ex-Etonian and Saatchi executive Nigel Oakes in ‘psycho ops’ – developed in the live laboratory of the Northern Ireland conflict, with the aim of inducing paranoia among paramilitaries. With input from security services personnel whose refining of paranoia among Irish paramilitaries had induced self-destruct, Oaks and Nix were plausible in being contracted to win elections by governments floundering in remnants of Empire.
In Asia and Africa, Cambridge Analytica plausibly persuaded leaders to give the company vast sums of money and, in some cases, land – in return for mounting psychological campaigns against opponents. In Kenya particularly where politicians were prone to the post-colonial reflex of believing the White Man’s magic was superior to the native version, Cambridge Analytica by its own boasting “wrote speeches [and] honey- trapped – all on camera”.
Unable to resist the lure of explaining to a potentially powerful Asian client (full marks to Central Casting) Nix was filmed by a camera left casually in a briefcase at a meeting. The resultant exposure on Channel 4 provoked investigations by the UK authorities, embarrassment for the Conservatives, and for the DUP and UKIP parties which had business relationships with it; and a deeply traumatised Nix being hustled away from reporters by heavies.
Steele’s enforced purdah from Orbis and the departure of Nix from Cambridge Analytica seem to point to the enduring tactical importance of using long spoons when supping with devils. Steele can hardly have predicted his dossier on Trump would have generated such a personal backlash as to force his family into hiding to avoid revenge of the type that afflicted his one-time charge, Litvenko.
Nix, boaster about the black arts of entrapment, fell foul of an ostensibly wealthy ‘client’ from a Sri Lankan political party seeking guidance. The client was a TV investigations unit, replete with convincing actors, a working camera and sound system. His own methods were used against him to devastating effect.
The collateral ruin far exceeded his original success, with Facebook, Twitter and other giants of the digital universe suffering not only losing users and and revenue but attracting legislative penalties sufficient to deter them from making data available to sinister conspirators like Cambridge Analytica.
Technology has a price, as Nix and Steele can vouch.