Alan Cunningham, a Senior Research Fellow with the political think tank Quo Vademus, says that the recent arrest of a retired FBI agent on charges related to corruption and money-laundering should prompt a reconsideration of how much security-related power and ability retirees from the national security workforce should have or be allowed to exercise...
Corruption was endemic throughout the Trump administration. Throughout the entire length of his administration, corruption and high turnover was a daily occurrence, threatening the strength and integrity of government institutions and, in some cases, indirectly resulting in the deaths of Americans.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was in no way immune to allegations of corruption, partisanship, and favoritism throughout the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and during the Trump presidency; from making public statements vilifying the Bureau and cleaning out the entire U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) with political appointees and forcing removals, the Bureau and DOJ had likely never faced an antagonistic a presidency since Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
The antagonism between the Bureau and Trump was intense and the effects of the FBI’s investigation into Trump can still be felt today. One of the latest and most impactful turns in this investigation has been the arrest of Charles McGonigal.
Charles McGonigal is likely a name known to few people outside of those select individuals of the public and media who have been paying attention quite closely to the Russia investigation. However, few other agents played as large a role as he has in the collusion investigation between Trump and Russian agents.
From 2016 to 2018, McGonigal was the Special Agent-in-Charge (SAC) of the Counterintelligence (CI) Division for the New York Field Office (NYO). Having been appointed to the SAC position in October of 2016, he had been an FBI agent since 1996 and had served in New York, Cleveland, Ohio, FBI headquarters, and at the Washington Field Office (FO) investigating Russian organized crime, foreign intelligence entities (FIEs), international terrorism, and espionage. Practically his entire time with the Bureau was focused on espionage and rooting out foreign intelligence agents.
Having been appointed to be the lead agent for all counterintelligence operations in October of 2016, McGonigal was appointed to the position right before the Bureau determined to re-open the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email servers, and prior to his appointment, when he had been the “chief of the cybercrimes section at FBI headquarters … he was one of the first officials to learn that a Trump campaign official had bragged that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, sparking the investigation known as Operation Crossfire Hurricane”. His involvement in the opening salvos of the investigation are substantial and he played a large role in the eventual outcome of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
McGonigal retired from the FBI in 2018 and went into the private sector, having been a Senior Vice President at Brookfield Properties, a multibillion-dollar property development and management firm until January of 2022. In September of 2022, it was first reported by Business Insider after gaining court documents that McGonigal was under investigation for contacts with foreign intelligence operatives, namely Russia.
Insider reported that in late-2021 “US attorneys secretly convened a grand jury that examined the conduct of Charles McGonigal … looking into McGonigal’s business dealings with a top aide to Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire Russian oligarch who was at the center of allegations that Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to interfere in the 2016 election” while a separate court filing stating that McGonigal, in 2021, assisted a “former Soviet foreign ministry official and former chief of staff to the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations … “facilitate” between [a consulting firm] and Deripaska’s aide”. Additionally, prosecutors were “looking into whether McGonigal had ties to the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and whether he may have received “payments or gifts” from the governments of Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania”.
In regards to McGonigal’s ties to Albanian officials, the Insider reported that the senior CI agent “used his official FBI email account to try to arrange a meeting between [Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama] and an American firm the prime minister was thinking about hiring for an anti-corruption initiative” which never took place as the Bureau did not give approval.
This also would have been after the U.S. government, through the Treasury Department, had issued sanctions on Deripaska for his involvement and profiteering off of “continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities”.
On 23 January 2023, McGonigal was arrested by the FBI “on charges relating to his receipt of $225,000 in cash from an individual who had business interests in Europe and who had been an employee of a foreign intelligence service [Albania’s intelligence service], while McGonigal was serving as Special Agent in Charge of FBI counterintelligence efforts in the New York Office”. The U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) expanded in detail that McGonigal, while SAC of the Counterintelligence Division in New York “received then-classified information that Deripaska would be added to a list of oligarchs considered for sanctions” and had also tried in 2019 to have Deripaska removed from the sanctions list.
McGonigal was also charged with “one count of conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, in violation of the IEEPA, one count of violating the IEEPA, one count of conspiring to commit money laundering, and one count of money laundering” incredibly serious and unprecedented charges considering McGonigal’s standing in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and national security apparatus. He has now pled not guilty.
ABC News, partly working off the released indictments, revealed that McGonigal had also worked for Deripaska on contract as an investigator “through a law firm representing the Russian oil tycoon” before working “directly for Deripaska, getting an initial payment of $51,000 and then payments of $41,790 each month for three months from August 2021 to November 2021”. This revelation was made to prosecutors with the federal government via testimony given by McGonigal’s ex-lover whom he was having an affair with from October 2017 to late 2018; during this time, McGonigal’s lover recalled seeing substantial amounts of cash and receiving highly extravagant gifts beyond the salary of a Bureau executive.
How McGonigal’s Arrest Comments on National Security Retirees
First, McGonigal’s impact on the Russia investigation cannot be overstated.
As the highest-ranking individual for CI investigations operating out of the largest and arguably most influential Bureau Field Office in the United States, he held a wide amount of power and influence overall all CI operations, not just those coming out of New York. Even more concerning is the fact that both the Russia investigation and the investigation into Hillary’s email servers were started out of the office he ran.
While there is not enough evidence at this moment to indicate that McGonigal purposefully, willfully, or otherwise doctored evidence to better suit the Russian Federation, it absolutely casts a light upon the validity and veracity of the entire investigation process. It is quite possible that McGonigal’s actions, even unintentionally, did play a role in the eventual decision and report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller which found “the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts” or otherwise somehow assisted in FSB or GRU missions in the United States.
From a larger national security standpoint, however, the ramifications of McGonigal’s actions are quite clear. Kevin Carroll, former Senior Counsel to both the Secretary of Homeland Security and the House Homeland Security chairman, described that McGonigal “enjoyed exceptional access to U.S. interagency and foreign liaison services’ espionage operations” and that the indictments never indicate an espionage angle “they allege that he did favors for foreign agents and officials, accepted money for them, and lied about it … even if McGonigal just unwittingly and indirectly gave information to the Russians or Chinese” that will rock the IC to its core.
Others with expertise in the intelligence and national security system of the United States have also commented on this case. Frank Figliuzzi, former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence with the FBI, writing in NBC News, advocates for a strong, heavy, and critical look at the safeguards of security measures. Figliuzzi writes after the Robert Hanssen espionage case, the Bureau “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 … [having failed 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”.
Caroll has also brought up this point that while McGonigal and others of his stature hold top-level security clearances and “maintain lifelong legal obligations to protect classified information, and moral obligations to inform former employers of recruitment pitches by foreign intelligence … there’s no system to monitor these agents’ and officers’ contacts after they leave government service, and former intelligence personnel are prime targets for recruitment by foreign governments”.
Having a robust security system to vet new officers is imperative. Utilizing the Single-Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), hiring for quality and ethical candidates over past work experience, preference points, or whom the applicant may know personally, and having a more proactive counterintelligence apparatus for those within the service would all work to help. Yet the largest and most pervasive problem appears to be individuals who have completed their government service and utilize their connections for personal gain (e.g., wealth, standing, promotional opportunities, etc.).
McGonigal’s status as a high-ranking CI officer likely assisted him in evading justice and being at large for so long while continually working for such concerning individuals, some of whom who he investigated raises serious questions that need to be investigated and answered about how much power and ability retirees from the national security workforce have. They are often highly sought after by large corporations and financial institutions as security officers or consultants, yet determining how these former government servants are using their security clearances, technical know-how, and overall past experiences is a question that needs to be answered and a problem that needs to be solved before even more damage is done.
Alan Cunningham is a Senior Research Fellow with the think tank Quo Vademus and is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. He is a graduate of Norwich University and the University of Texas at Austin. His areas of expertise are Latin America, Cold War history, and intelligence studies.
Suggested citation: Alan Cunningham, Retired Intelligence: The Arrest of FBI Agent Charles McGonigal and What This Means for US National Security, JURIST – Professional Commentary, February 2, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/02/retired-intelligence-the-arrest-of-fbi-agent-charles-mcgonigal-and-its-implications-for-us-national-security/.
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.