Members Only | January 25, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Did one of America’s top spycatchers spy on America?

Charles McGonigal is a Putinist no one saw, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.

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The FBI’s former top spy-catcher in New York was arrested Monday for allegedly working with a sanctioned Russian oligarch while still on the government’s payroll. Former special agent Charles McGonigal stands accused of working for aluminum baron Oleg Deripaska, a central figure in Russia’s bid to rig the 2016 election for Donald Trump. 

As the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence operations in New York City from 2016 to 2018, McGonigal was one of the nation’s most senior intelligence officials. In that capacity, he ran investigations against Russian oligarchs, including Deripaska. By definition, Russian oligarchs owe their jaw-dropping wealth to the personal favor of Vladimir Putin. The oligarchs earn their keep by doing dirty work for the Kremlin.

The allegation of a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence official being on the payroll of one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies is alarming. 

The government alleges that McGonigal began working with Deripaska in 2018, prior to McGonigal’s retirement from the FBI later that year. 

McGonigal began by arranging an NYPD internship for the daughter of one of Deripaska’s lieutenants, according to the indictment. This may have been McGonigal’s downfall because the intern bragged that she was very close to an FBI officer who showed her secret documents and an NYPD officer reported it. McGonigal went on to work as an “investigator” for a law firm hired by Deripaska, and finally worked for Deripaska directly, the indictment states.

Taking money from sanctioned individuals, of course, is a federal crime. McGonigal allegedly worked for Deripaska from 2018 through late 2021 when the FBI seized McGonigal’s electronic devices. 

No illusions
Oleg Deripaska is a well-known proxy for the Kremlin. 

According to a report by the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he has worked hand-in-glove with the Kremlin on foreign influence operations all over the world, often in partnership with Donald Trump’s former (and pardoned) campaign manager, Paul Manafort. 

Manafort is a longtime Republican operative who got rich exporting sleazy US campaign tactics to other countries. Between 2004 and 2009, Deripaska reportedly paid Manafort tens of millions of dollars to meddle in the elections of various countries, including Ukraine and Guinea. The relationship between the oligarch and the lobbyist soured over a failed business venture in which the lobbyist allegedly lost the oligarch’s money.

By 2016, Manafort was broke and eager to worm his way back into Deripaska’s good graces. According to the Mueller Report, this may have been why Manafort passed confidential polling and strategy data to one of Deripaska’s top lieutenants. This data was almost certainly used to help Russia interfere more effectively in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. After years of meddling in elections on Deripaska’s behalf, Manafort could have had no illusions about what Russia wanted to do with this data. 

A friend in Jersey
Deripaska was sanctioned in 2014 in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. He’s been finagling his way back ever since. 

Over the years, Deripaska has hired a shady army of lawyers, lobbyists and assorted helpers to plead his case in the United States. Deripaska was hit with more sanctions in 2018 because Russia’s aggression against Ukraine made Russia an extraordinary threat to national security. 

One of McGonigal’s jobs was allegedly to help lift those sanctions. 

The indictment states that as a senior spycatcher, McGonigal was privy to then-classified information about which oligarchs were to be sanctioned. 

That round of sanctions was imposed in April. McGonigal retired in September. The indictment doesn’t allege, in so many words, that McGonigal tipped Deripaska off in advance, but it invites that inference. 

Allegedly, McGonigal was paid through a law firm hired by Deripaska. However, in 2021, McGonigal allegedly eliminated the middleman (no, not like that) and started working for the oligarch directly. 

McGonigal’s greed may have outstripped his common sense, because Deripaska was, well, under sanctions, meaning that it would not only be ethically questionable to take his money, but downright illegal. 

McGonigal allegedly tried to hide these payments by funneling them through a company owned by his friend in Jersey. 

Putin’s closest allies
Journalist Marcy Wheeler, who closely monitors Trump-Russia cases, argues that it’s unlikely that McGonigal played a major nefarious role in any of the high-profile FBI scandals of the Trump era. 

However, the allegation of a high-ranking FBI counterintelligence official being on the payroll of one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies is alarming. 

These revelations should trigger a sweeping investigation not only of McGonigal’s alleged wrongdoing but the FBI’s ability to safeguard our nation’s secrets.  

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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