The FBI arrested one of its former agents Saturday on the suspicion that, before and after he left the bureau, he committed a series of crimes that include taking money from a former foreign agent and violating U.S. sanctions against Russia by working with and on behalf of an oligarch with known ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The accusations are a gut punch to those of us who worked with McGonigal and to everyone in the U.S. intelligence community.
Charles McGonigal, retired since late 2018, was the special agent in charge of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York office, the largest in the bureau. Disturbingly, McGonigal’s alleged criminal relationship with foreign intelligence operatives is said to have begun while he was the head of counterintelligence operations there and continued after his retirement. Allegations included in a federal indictment against McGonigal and a former Soviet and Russian diplomat mention their use of shell companies and a forged signature to conceal the involvement of the oligarch. Another indictment just against McGonigal accuses him of taking a large cash payment from a former foreign agent while inside a car.
The accusations are a gut punch to those of us who worked with McGonigal and to everyone in the U.S. intelligence community. Yet, it’s essential to set emotions aside and examine how best to think about this case, just as the agents and prosecutors assigned to this investigation must be doing now.
An indictment out of Washington, D.C., accuses McGonigal, then the top spy catcher in the FBI’s New York office, of pocketing $225,000 from someone who had worked for an Albanian intelligence agency, and of concealing his relationship with another former foreign government official. An indictment out of New York asserts that, after McGonigal retired from the FBI, he worked with a go-between, on behalf of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, to investigate another oligarch who was a rival to Deripaska.
Deripaska has long been the subject of FBI investigations. According to a U.S. Treasury sanctions announcement in April 2018, the oligarch was “investigated for money laundering, and has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering. There are also allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group.” He remains under sanctions.
In his executive role in the FBI, McGonigal received the sanctions list that included Deripaska among the Russians named as working on behalf of Putin’s government.
In October 2021, after McGonigal had left the bureau, the FBI searched two homes, one in Washington, D.C. and one in New York, linked to Deripaska. In September, Deripaska was one of three citizens of the Russian Federation charged by the U.S. government with violating sanctions the U.S. imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine. Deripaska was also a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, a campaign manager for Donald Trump’s 2016 run for president. As set forth in the first and second pages of the New York indictment, in his executive role in the FBI, McGonigal received the sanctions list that included Deripaska among the Russians named as working on behalf of Putin’s government.
In the Washington indictment, McGonigal is accused of “concealing from the FBI his relationship with a former foreign security officer and businessperson who had ongoing business interests in foreign countries and before foreign governments. Specifically, McGonigal requested and received at least $225,000 in cash from the individual and traveled abroad with the individual and met with foreign nationals. The individual later served as an FBI source in a criminal investigation involving foreign political lobbying over which McGonigal had official supervisory responsibility.”
Here are four takeaways from the McGonigal indictments, based on what we know so far.
First, this case is a stark reminder that the U.S. has adversaries – particularly Russia and China — whose intelligence services start each day intent on penetrating our intelligence services and damaging our national security. In this case, Russia may have done just that. For those who claim that Russia is our friend, or that Vladimir Putin is to be emulated, or that we should stop supporting the free people of Ukraine in their war with Russia– this case is a wake-up call that we are in a battle — sometimes covertly — with a hostile adversary.
Second, this case presents a daunting damage and risk assessment for the U.S. intelligence community. Over his career, McGonigal led some of the most sensitive counterintelligence investigations in the modern history of the United States. And, in his most recent executive position in New York, he was privy to myriad national security secrets. The FBI and other agencies are most assuredly examining every investigation and operation touched by McGonigal over the years to determine if he might have exposed those secrets.
This case is a reminder that the U.S. has adversaries whose intelligence services start each day intent on penetrating our intelligence services.
Importantly, the assessment will include how McGonigal may have evaded rigorous security measures put in place after the last FBI executive was found to have worked with the Russians. More than 20 years ago, Robert Hanssen was arrested and convicted after spying for 10 years for the Russian intelligence services. The FBI then instituted mandatory financial disclosures for all employees, enhanced its security division resources and enacted a number of monitoring measures designed to make it much harder for its people to spy. Those measures appear not to have worked here. Congress and the DOJ Inspector General should examine what went wrong, or whether this is simply an example of the near-impossible task of totally preventing wrongdoing by an insider who knows how to beat the system.
Third, it’s important to characterize this case accurately and not get caught up in the misinformation and propaganda being spewed by many on the far right. They wish to politicize an already horrific set of facts to somehow undermine the findings of the special counsel who looked into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and its dealings with Russia. Social media and cable news platforms have run wild with assertions that McGonigal played a lead role in overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation, which was code-named Crossfire Hurricane. Trump himself was quick to weigh in with false assertions that McGonigal led the “Russia, Russia, Russia” case against him.
Those assertions aren’t true. While there are reports that McGonigal was connected to the Carter Page case, and that he reported his knowledge that George Papadopoulos told an Australian ambassador that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, that appears to be the limit of McGonigal’s association with the Russia-Trump matter. Crossfire Hurricane was run out of FBI headquarters, not out of New York, and McGonigal wasn’t assigned to the case.
Fourth, as disturbing as the McGonigal indictments are, there is some solace in the fact that they don’t contain a charge of espionage. That means, as far as we know, McGonigal didn’t do what Robert Hanssen did: share classified national defense information with foreign powers. McGonigal held a much higher, and even more sensitive, position than Hanssen did. If McGonigal had sold secrets to adversaries, the damage could be almost insurmountable. If there’s anything to be thankful for here, it’s that maybe — just maybe — FBI New York’s top spy catcher had a line that even he would not cross.
There’s also a degree of reassurance in the fact that the FBI was able to build a case on one of its own, move to charge and arrest him, and do so without him ever knowing they were coming. Let’s find at least some comfort in the fact that we still have spy catchers capable of capturing one of their own.