Late last month, the Justice Department brought charges against Charles McGonigal, a former FBI agent who authorities claim helped a Russian oligarch evade U.S. economic sanctions against Russia.
This is obviously a troubling development. McGonigal, who has pleaded not guilty, was the special agent in charge of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York office. The charges suggest foreign governments are capable of infiltrating top law enforcement offices. It should almost go without saying: A Russian-backed FBI agent could have all sorts of access to key national security investigations, and could wield foreign influence in unfathomably dangerous ways.
Former FBI agent is charged with helping Russian oligarchJan. 24, 202306:49
But federal officers aren’t alone in being vulnerable to infiltration. Your local police department could fall victim, as well.
Early last year, the Daily Beast published a report by Jeff Stein that was headlined “The U.S. Cops Suckered by Foreign Spies With Honeytraps, Blackmail and Luxury Vacations.” The report uses law enforcement experts and federal indictments to show how countries, including Russia, Iran, China, Israel and Turkey, have cultivated sources inside local police departments.
The potential for that has worried U.S. officials for years.
Writing for Voice of America in June 2020, reporter Jeff Seldin detailed U.S. officials’ concerns that Russian officials were targeting local police officers with pro-police propaganda. The timing was key, as such efforts stood to worsen social divisions at a time when Americans were demonstrating against police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement.
From the report:
The death of African American George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing U.S. protests have for weeks dominated media coverage from Russian state-sponsored outlets like RT and Sputnik. Only now, it seems that Russia, through the English-language RT in particular, is reaching out to U.S. police officers and union officials, in what some U.S. officials and lawmakers say is an effort to further inflame tensions. “It is critical that Americans remain wary of state-sponsored and state-directed media platforms such as RT and Sputnik,” Senate Intelligence Committee Acting Chairman Republican Marco Rubio told VOA.
The report goes on to quote Sen. Marco Rubio as saying, “Russia wants nothing more than to exploit our own divisions in an effort to exacerbate existing societal tensions.” The Florida Republican also said lawmakers were worried about Russian efforts to influence police officers and their supporters.
The report also lists examples of U.S. police officers being recruited to appear on Kremlin-backed news outlets and condemn police reform efforts. Some of these officers later expressed regret, saying they didn’t know the outlets were state-sponsored ones.
News reports from the past week clearly show why rooting out nefarious influence should be a top priority for law enforcement officials at the federal level and local level. The McGonigal case has serious national security implications that warrant concern. But along with that, at the local level, the brutal fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers has bolstered calls for more scrutiny of police units and their motivations.
And true scrutiny means looking at all of the forces — at home and abroad — that can encourage police to break bad.