Did MI6 operative Chris Steele make a vital comms error by disappearing into thin air?

It has been three weeks since January 11, when former MI6 operative and author of the "Trump dossier" Christopher "Chris" Steele handed over his cat to his Surrey neighbour and disappeared with his second wife and four children.

MI6 building, London (©ThinkstockPhotos)
MI6 building, London (©ThinkstockPhotos)

President Donald J Trump has since been inaugurated, with nary a mention of the controversial dossier, which is still being investigated by the US intelligence services.

Steele was reportedly "horrified" when his nationality was made public, and even more so when he realised that his identity was to be exposed.

As a seasoned MI6 officer, with many years’ experience in Russia under his belt, his credibility and reputation have been debated at length in the world’s media, but without Steele surfacing to give his version of events and to defend his integrity.

Without his comments to set the record straight, we’re left with an information void, and as every crisis comms specialist knows, a void gives rise to speculation.

And speculation was rife, with many media outlets scrabbling in the dark to find a new angle: interviewing former colleagues, nameless neighbours and the father of Steele’s late first wife.

Christopher Burrows, co-director at Orbis, the London-based research intelligence firm which he launched with Steele in 2009, didn’t give much away either: in a television interview he refused to confirm or deny whether his business partner had penned the dossier, adding that they would review the situation over the next couple of days. If there was such a review, it has only led to an even stonier silence.

Did Steele make a vital communications error by disappearing into thin air?

Reportedly fearful for his life and the lives of his family members, would he be safer if he remained visible and on the media radar, enlisting professional help to navigate the media maelstrom?

One mistake he did make was naively failing to predict that his identity would be disclosed.

Whether this was because he was still in MI6 mode, or whether he naively failed to understand how drip feeding information to the media would result in his name in the headlines, is anyone’s guess.

It was naïve to assume that he could hide his identity when so many knew it: the FBI, selected journalists, and then there was Fusion GPS, the Washington firm which sub-contracted the research project to Steele.

And was BuzzFeed, the online news site slammed by President Trump for producing "fake news", ethically mistaken in choosing to publish the unverifiable dossier?

Although we are not privy to verifiable sources of information to judge whether any of the raw intelligence compiled by Steele was fake or real, the fact that it existed and was passed on to the FBI was in itself news.

Steele himself quickly became the story, and in his absence, the media is still delving for information.
This past week, a Telegraph article suggested that former KGB/FSB general Oleg Erovinkin, whose body was found in a car boot on Boxing Day, was a major source for the dossier.

The media will continue to delve for information, with or without Steele.

It doesn’t look like he will resurface anytime soon, but if he does, he will need expert crisis comms advice to guide him through the media labyrinth.

One thing is certain: neither Steele nor his "dossier" will be forgotten.

In the meantime, is the neighbour still taking care of the cat, or has it also been whisked away to a safe house?

Raine Marcus is a former senior correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and founder of Radar PR

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