If you haven’t heard the name “Charles McGonigal” before, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Top FBI officials in Counterintelligence aren’t supposed to make the news and become household names.
But yesterday, McGonigal was indicted by grand juries in New York and Washington D.C. and arrested for secretly working for Russian oligarch and close Putin ally Oleg Deripaska, and for taking money from an Albanian intelligence agent.
McGonigal is charged with violating economic sanctions, money laundering and conspiracy.
It’s hard to overstate how damaging this arrest is to the already tainted reputation of the FBI. Los Angeles Times legal columnist Harry Litman noted the arrest has left the FBI community “completely stunned” and wondering “if they can get to a guy like McGonigal, whom can't they get to?”
And as NBC Investigations analyst Tom Winters put it, “Taking a big picture and the totality of all of this, this is somebody whose job was to investigate Oleg Deripaska” and now “he’s a potential foreign agent.”
But beyond the shock of the arrest, things get way murkier when you rewind the clock, especially knowing what we now do about McGonigal’s willingness to do Deripaska’s bidding.
Much as I hate to reopen questions around the 2016 election, McGonigal’s arrest and the revelations about his later ties to the Russian oligarch require it. And I can see how Hillary Clinton might be left with an inescapable “I knew it” feeling.
Let’s dive into why.
McGonigal was in a position to do serious harm to Clinton in 2016.
McGonigal was no run-of-the-mill FBI agent. He was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office’s counterintelligence division—in other words, the official who was supposed to be investigating the Russians, not crawling into bed with them, even if it happened after he left the FBI.
His willingness to accept illegal employment from Deripaska calls his integrity, patriotism, and motives while acting as FBI division head directly into question.
The timing of his initial appointment is also causing raised eyebrows, now that we know what we know. On October 4, 2016, a month before the presidential election between Clinton and Donald Trump, then FBI Director James Comey appointed McGonigal to that key counterintelligence position in the New York office.
It’s important to point out here that around the time of the 2016 election, that particular field office really had it out for Hillary Clinton. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke candidly about the animosity of that office toward Clinton when she was interviewed by investigators looking into Comey’s actions while FBI director.
Comey had told Lynch that it had become clear that “there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton,” and that “it was surprising to him or stunning to him.” Comey said that “it was hard to manage because these were agents that were very, very senior.”
Did those “very, very senior” agents include McGonigal? Legal and political observers have taken note of the timing of McGonigal‘s appointment, including historian Michael Beschloss, who observed that Comey made the appointment in late October of 2016, only “[t]hree weeks before his fateful announcement” that he was reopening the criminal case against Hillary Clinton.
Josh Marshall of the influential Talking Points Memo also couldn’t help but notice the timing, tweeting:
"Weird. McGonigal got put in charge of CI [Counterintelligence] at the NYC field office like almost to the day they reopened the Clinton emails case."
Marshall called these circumstances “ironies,” and that’s the correct term because it’s highly unlikely that the case itself reopened because of McGonigal.
There simply wouldn’t have been time for him to make such an order. But two other major things happened shortly after that appointment that are worth highlighting.
Leaks out of the NY Office forced Comey’s hand.
If Comey had never gone public with the fact that his office had reopened the Clinton email investigation, there would have been no impact on her standing in the national election.
But leaks about the investigation were coming straight out of that New York office, and Comey later admitted that it was the leaks that required him to get ahead of the news.
As The Atlanticreported, Comey told investigators he believed partisan agents in New York might try to put their finger on the political scale:
"My worry was, I have to be careful that people in New York aren’t by virtue of political enthusiasm, trying to take action that will generate noise that will have an impact on the election."
Former FBI counsel James Baker echoed that fear, specifically about a likely leak of the reopened investigation:
"We were quite confident that … somebody is going to leak this fact. That we have all these emails. That, if we don’t put out a letter, somebody is going to leak it."
Rudy Giuliani, himself a former federal prosecutor, was openly hinting that he had inside information from the FBI’s New York office, telling Fox News a week before Comey’s disclosure to Congress that there was a “pretty big surprise” coming. (Giuliani later denied he had spoken to any FBI agents.)
In short, Comey felt compelled to get ahead of the leaks driven by partisan pressures from the New York Office. Was McGonigal among those partisans? Was he the source of the leak? And worse still, was he in any way influenced by foreign adversaries?
While there isn’t yet any evidence that McGonigal was compromised by the Russians at the time, his subsequent illegal behavior with Deripaska should raise big concerns.
After all, by the time he started illegally working on Deripaska’s behalf, it was well-established that Deripaska had worked with convicted Russian asset Paul Manafort, the “voluntary” head of the Trump campaign who also provided internal battleground state polling data to Russian intelligence.
McGonigal knew what kind of danger Deripaska presented to America when he accepted a job from him, but he chose money over loyalty to country.
Was McGonigal a source of disinformation?
On October 31, 2016, unnamed sources in FBI counterintelligence led The New York Times to publish a big story with the headline “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”
It reported, rather maddeningly and incorrectly:
"Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government."
"And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump."
The identity of these “law enforcement officials” was left undisclosed, but the damage was done. Voters who had any doubts about Trump and his links to Russia now had nothing less than The New York Times assuring them that the FBI had found nothing despite months of investigation.
Historian Beschloss again took note of the timing of the Times article.
"This was 8 days before the Trump-Clinton election."
"It was 27 days after Comey named McGonigal to head Counterintelligence for FBI's New York Field Office."
Could McGonigal have been one of the Times’ sources for this misleading reporting, and could he have falsely shaped the narrative here? It’s hard to be sure of anything, given what little we still know, and the Times isn’t likely to ever reveal its sources.
But it would be unwise to discount the possibility that the long hand of Russian money and influence may have played some role.
Political commentator Kaivan Shroff captured the cold fury of many upon connecting the dots:
"Just to be clear, when the New York Times reported that the FBI saw 'no link between Trump and Russia'—a week before the 2016 election—the FBI agent who was just arrested over ties to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska was heading up the investigation."
"Just an absolute scandal."
When those in charge of our investigations and our security are themselves so readily compromised, public faith in our institutions takes a nosedive, and with good reason.
The arrest of McGonigal is an important step toward restoring integrity to the Department, but to get back there we will need a thorough and honest accounting of what damage McGonigal did while in his position, especially to the electoral chances of Hillary Clinton.
If the answer after a full inquiry is that he was not part of the cabal in the New York field office bent on bringing her down, then we should know that as well.
But right now it is more than understandable why mistrust and anger among Democrats runs deep, given the guy in charge of the Trump-Russia investigation in New York illegally went to work for the Russians and even may have played a significant part in Hillary Clinton’s narrow electoral defeat.