‘He was one of these rockstars’: Former FBI agents shocked at the indictment of one of their own


The insular world of FBI counterintelligence agents was rocked last month when one of their own, Charles F. McGonigal, formerly the FBI’s top counterintelligence officer in New York, was indicted. He allegedly sold access to Russian and Albanian officials for hundreds of thousands. dollars in cash.

After retiring from the FBI in 2018, McGonigal is accused of working illegally for one of Russia’s most notorious oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, a former campaign manager for Donald Trump. He was linked to the FBI’s Russia investigation thanks to his ties to Manafort.

Former FBI officials who worked with McGonigal said they were stunned, disappointed and “furious” when they received the news. One called the allegations “appalling.”

According to a former senior FBI official who worked with McGonigal, “This guy was incredibly well-respected and really looked up to as a career counterintelligence specialist.” “He was one of those rock stars. [counterintelligence] Joe, when the tough jobs, when the most sensitive assignments came up, he was on the shortlist of people you’d look at and say, ‘Hey, where’s Charlie, what’s he doing for the next six months?’

Speculation has swirled around McGonigal’s potential loss, including whether she exposed any sensitive information that could harm U.S. national security. As a senior counterintelligence official, McGonigal had access to some of the most sensitive information in the possession of the FBI, as well as information from the CIA and other agencies.

Former officials familiar with his work say he would have been familiar with FBI collection techniques, operations against Russian diplomats in the United States and more.

There are also questions about McGonigal’s proximity to several high-profile investigations, including associates of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. McGonigal helped oversee parts of both investigations.

All of this has fueled a strong interest in McGonigal, including recently from Congress.

The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, is demanding a briefing on “the extent to which Mr. McGonigal’s alleged misconduct has affected these highly sensitive matters, including whether he compromised sensitive sources, methods, and practices. Analysis” and “whether his alleged misconduct materially affected the outcome of any investigation or further compromised our national security.”

House Judiciary Republicans said Thursday they have opened their own investigation.

Peter Lepp, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who once worked for McGonigal, said the McGonigal case was a “total embarrassment” for the FBI.

Sources briefed on the matter say that, at least for now, FBI officials see McGonigal not as a spy, but as a corrupt ex-officer who is making money on his way out the door. were looking for Top FBI officials dismiss the idea of ​​McGonigal’s arrest as an embarrassment, instead a sign that the bureau is willing to go after its own accusers of wrongdoing.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, whose tenure began just before McGonigal retired, ducked a question about the case at an unrelated news conference last week.

“There are some important things that are missing here in this case,” Ray said. With a case against him, and it’s the FBI that arrested him….I think [what] The allegations in this case demonstrate that the FBI as an organization is willing to shine a light on conduct that is completely unacceptable, including when it occurs by one of our own people, and that People are held accountable.”

After reviewing the potential damage to intelligence information as well as the means and methods at McGonigal’s disposal, the FBI viewed it as a case of simple corruption, according to people briefed on the matter.

The bureau does not view McGonigal as a case of espionage in the style of the most damaging detective in FBI history, Robert Henson.

Hanson spied for Russia for years while holding high-level counterintelligence positions, dead-dropping Russia to provide information that helped identify American spies and spying techniques.

There is also no suggestion in the public indictment that McGonigal committed espionage. Current and former FBI officials familiar with McGonigal and his work say they believe McGonigal — a former accountant — simply got “greedy.”

The former officials also dismissed a series of theories that have circulated on social media about McGonigal’s role in the FBI’s Russia investigation, particularly those related to her work for Deripaska.

McGonigal headed the cyber section of the FBI’s counterintelligence division in 2016, when the bureau was closely monitoring efforts by Russian intelligence to influence the presidential election. But former officials say McGonigal did not have final decision-making authority in the broader investigation, which ultimately covered activities far beyond Russia’s cyber activities.

McGonigal was promoted to handle some of the most sensitive counterintelligence cases in the FBI’s files, including high-stakes investigations into CIA assets that were killed or killed in China. Otherwise, they were lost. He was seen as capable, incredibly intelligent and hardworking.

But by 2017, just over a year after being appointed head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division in New York, McGonigal allegedly got into a car parked outside a downtown restaurant and took $80,000 in cash from a man. who had previously worked with him. Albanian intelligence.

It’s one of the more salient details of two indictments against McGonigal, filed last month in New York and Washington, that include money laundering, conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions against a Russian oligarch and the FBI. Includes allegations of lying.

For nearly two years before his retirement in 2018, the Justice Department alleges, McGonigal effectively sold his access to top U.S. officials, and attempted to arrange meetings on his behalf for individuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina. who were previously linked to Albanian intelligence.

McGonigal allegedly accepted at least $225,000 for the assistance, all while lying to the FBI about his activities, including multiple trips to Europe paid for by his Albanian contacts and the FBI. done without informing Ai, as well as a secret relationship he had with the Prime Minister. of Albania

After retiring in 2018, McGonigal violated U.S. sanctions by receiving illegal payments to help Deripaska lift U.S. sanctions against her and investigate a political rival in Russia, according to the New York indictment.

Oleg Deripaska, Russian billionaire, arrives at the GAZ Group plant in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia in 2019.

For some current and former officials, McGonigal’s conduct while still at the bureau is far more “appalling,” as a former senior official put it, than the Deripaska-related allegations against him. which took place after his retirement.

Particularly troubling, the person said, is the allegation that McGonigal forced the FBI to open a criminal investigation against a U.S. citizen who previously served as a human source to an Albanian intelligence associate. was expected to work on – but he failed to disclose his financial ties. In the bureau with this person.

“It’s incredibly serious, so clearly wrong — if he did the things they allege, it’s not like a gray area,” said a former senior FBI official. A former BI senior official said.

It’s unclear exactly what tipped the FBI off that one of its star counterintelligence agents was crossing a line.

Behind the scenes, the FBI has been investigating McGonigal for years, people briefed on the case have said, including surveilling her for months at a time.

Charles McGonigal, former special agent in charge of the FBI's counterintelligence division in New York, leaves a courtroom in New York on Jan. 23, 2023.

Some who worked closely with McGonigal say there was little indication at the time that anything was amiss. Peter Lipp, who worked for McGonigal on the China espionage case and was later fired by him, recalled that McGonigal had short tempers and “screamed” at subordinates so often Dressing down in the office had a nickname: “McGonigal Hot Wash.”

“He’ll yell at you so much you’ll get your second shower of the day,” Leap said

Asked if he ever had reason to be suspicious of McGonigal’s behavior, Leap was unequivocal: “Even in retrospect, no. Just because you’re an ass boss doesn’t make it so.” Doesn’t mean you’re going to be corrupt.

Another former senior official was equally blunt when asked if he ever suspected McGonigal was corrupt. “Absolutely never.”

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