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Secret Agent Man: The Mysterious Charlie McGonigal

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A onetime colleague of accused FBI turncoat Charles McGonigal says the former top counterintelligence official was an “egotistical narcissist” who frequently “screamed at subordinates,” resented the successes of underlings and may well have been part of an anti-Hillary Clinton clique in the New York office who helped pressure FBI Director James Comey to reopen the bureau’s investigation of her wayward emails only days before the 2016 election.

Charles McGonigal (Reuters)

“His peers thought highly of him, and his managers did,” said the decorated former FBI agent, asking for anonymity in order to speak freely about the indictment that has rocked the close knit world of counterintelligence. “But a lot of people that worked for him couldn’t stand him because he was such a dickhead. He just treated people really bad.”

“With Charlie, it was just ego and ambition,” he maintained. 

If true, such a personality defect could help unlock the mystery of why such a high ranking and successful FBI official would risk falling under the spell of foreign agents. The news of McGonigal’s arrest certainly stunned a former top FBI official who in 2010 put McGonigal in charge of a “very sensitive” project (that he would not name because of security constraints). The New York Times reported years later, in 2018, that he’d been assigned back then to lead an FBI-CIA task force looking into the loss of CIA spies in China. Former agency officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee was arrested, but a complete answer to all the losses remains unsolved. In 2016, McGonigal was named Special Agent in Charge of the Counterintelligence Division for the New York Field Office.

The former FBI official says there was no reason not to promote McGonigal. “I did my own homework and checked on Charlie, who also was at the Washington Field Office, and everybody said, yeah, he is your guy,” he told SpyTalk. If there were complaints about McGonigal’s management style, they never bubbled up to him, he said. He recalled McGonigal as “extremely professional and businesslike.”

McGonigal was charged Monday in two separate corruption cases involving illegal cash receipts and money laundering —the first for allegedly taking secret payments of more than $225,000 from a former Albanian intelligence agent on behalf of a political party there, the other for trying to get Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska removed from U.S. sanctions. In that scheme, according to the Justice Department, McGonigal was paid $25,000 monthly via an account held by a former Russian diplomat who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. government named Sergey Shestakov. 

McGonigal pleaded not guilty in New York Monday and had nothing to say as he exited the courthouse with his attorney.

Before his retirement in 2018, McGonigal had been in charge of investigating Deripaska, a billionaire crony of Vladimir Putin who has been implicated in several criminal acts over the years, including playing a role in covert Russian efforts to influence the 2016  presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.

The FBI’s New York office (officially, a division) was “Trumpland,” the source said. Per FBI tradition, McGonigal didn’t wear his politics, if any, on his sleeve, in Washington. But when he landed in New York on Oct. 4, 2016 he was suddenly thrust into an environment where a number of agents openly expressed their disdain for the Clintons and Democrats in general. 

McGonigal was a New Yorker through and through. At the start of his career 20 years earlier, McGonigal had worked on the investigation into the TWA Flight 800 crash headed by the boss of the New York office, James Kallstrom, who was close to both then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the flamboyant real estate developer and tabloid newspaper staple Trump. In the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, Giuliani, a Trump adviser and lawyer, repeatedly went on Fox News hinting that the FBI was sitting on a “big surprise” regarding Hillary Clinton that would propel Trump to victory. That turned out to be the FBI’s discovery of the former secretary of state’s emails on the laptop of her close adviser Huma Abedin, whose husband Anthony Weiner used it to send lewd pictures of himself to underage women. On Sept. 21, just two days after the FBI had taken possession of the infamous “Steele Dossier” on connections between Trump and the Russians , the London tabloid Daily Mail had run  a front-page “exclusive” on  Weiner’s emails with a 15-year-old girl. FBI Director James Comey, fearing that he could be accused of covering for Clinton, announced that he was re-opening the bureau’s email investigation, a heavy blow to her campaign.

McGonigal would’ve had a front row seat—at least—on all these developments, as well as the troubled surveillance warrants on Trump foreign policy aide Carter Page and information received from an Australian diplomat that another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had  bragged about the Russians having “dirt” on Clinton. 

Maybe McGonigal even touched the balls in play. The topics are already getting renewed —and overheated—according to the former FBI official—attention from right wing media as a result of the FBI man’s arrest.

“When he got to New York, he had a piece of the Carter Page case as a high level SAC,” he said. But just “briefly.”

“This stuff that’s out there about how he ran Crossfire Hurricane,” code name for the FBI’s investigation into links between Trump’s associates and the Russians and whether Moscow interfered in the campaign, is wrong, the former official said. ”No, he didn’t touch it. That’s all bullshit. Carter page, yes, because he was a boss in New York for a period.” But only that.

“The other thing that is interesting, and this is worth looking at,” the former official continued, “is he was one of—there were many, but he was one of— the original people to say to the bureau, ‘Hey, this guy George Papadopoulos told the Australian ambassador in London that the Russians had dirt on Hillary.’ Now that, arguably, was one of the factors that caused headquarters to open the original early CI case on whether Russia was messing with the election…Now why, why did Charlie have knowledge of George Papadopoulos talking to this? I, I have no freaking idea. And somebody I’m sure is looking at that,” the former official said.

Tip of an Iceberg

“I think there’s more to this,” says McGonigal’s former colleague “He’s involved in all that. I think somebody’s gotta really look at what his role was and all that. Now, was he a decision-maker? No, but he was the SAC [for counterintelligence]  in New York…”

In a provocative thread of tweets Monday night, the eminent presidential historian Michael Bechloss drew a dotted line between McGonigal’s arrival in New York, the Clinton leaks and the odd (and inaccurate) New York Times story only days before the election that was headlined, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” 

Quoting anonymous “law enforcement sources,” the Times reported that “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” It added that “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.”

Had McGonigal leaked to the tabloid and/orGiuliani?  He was ambitious to a fault, his former colleague told SpyTalk. He might have done it to please his anti-Clinton bosses and Giuliani.

“I wouldn’t put it past Charlie to have been one of those sources,” he said. And as the office’s counterintelligence boss, he would have been an authoritative source to reporters on both the Weiner laptop issue and “Russiagate.” 

 “I would not doubt that Charlie played a role in” the leaks, the source maintained. “Wouldn’t surprise me. It just wouldn’t surprise me.”

Together, the stories originating in the New York FBI went viral across in social media, where they were pushed by Russian bots and effectively doomed Clinton’s campaign. 

The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, was outraged by the FBI’s “double standard.” He fired off a letter to Comey saying “it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government—a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity.” But “you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information” about the Russian subversion (which would be affirmed after the election in a U.S. intelligence report.

Incalculable Losses 

McGonigal has not been charged with espionage, but intelligence sources are shivering at the prospect that he could be found to have leaked secrets to Russia, China or others. 

“If the SAC for counterintelligence in New York went bad, truly bad, meaning espionage, the losses would be almost insurmountable,” said a former top FBI official, asking for anonymity to discuss such a sensitive matter.  “If I had to pick the top four or five roles in the FBI to be recruited by a foreign service, that would be the worst case scenario…”

Like other senior intelligence agency veterans, former career CIA case officer Douglas London said it was impossible to say what McGonigal was really up to from the bare bones Justice Department announcements. Based on “absolutely nothing but my speculation and instinct,” London said that, “in working as a lobbyist for Deripaska and the Albanians, respectively, McGonigal might have been commercially recruited under a false flag business pretext or otherwise run in cooperation with the Russians, who would have worked over time to get the FBI agent to divulge his counterintelligence knowledge.” London added that, “it would have been an amazingly amateurish mistake for a guy with his experience, perhaps believing he could spy ‘in plain sight’ based on the business pretext.” Whatever, London said he was “hoping [McGonigal] had not spilled everything,” particularly the names of Russians or other foreign nationals working as spies for the FBI or CIA.

Other odd facets of McGonigal’s post-FBI work stood out to intelligence veterans.  As a former chief of counterintelligence, McGonigal  “could name his job in the corporate sector,” as the former official put it, fielding offers in the $200,000 range to head up a company’s security operation.  But McGonigal, perhaps feeling slighted by failing to land one of the top three slots in the FBI, such as special agent in charge of New York, Los Angeles or the Washington Field Office, might’ve dismissed that as chicken feed.  

“It’s almost like, ‘I’ll beat all of you,’” the former official said. Instead, McGonigal took gigs from Deripaska and the Albanians—and God knows who else—paying him $75,000 a month. Plus international travel. The FBI arrested McGonigal after he stepped off a plane returning from a trip to Sri Lanka. Where else did he go? Who else might he have been working for? How might he have been compromised?

McGonigal in better days. Photo via Twitter @jentaub.

The security world uses an acronym, MICE, to sum up the principal motivations behind officials who turn coat. It stands for “Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego.” For Cold War Soviets, a principal drive was hatred of the communist system. Today, in places like Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, it’s systematic corruption and repression. Postwar Americans, on the other hand, spied for money, or were compromised by hostile services, or both. But in either case, personal animus—resentment toward bosses or colleagues—has almost always been a key factor. 

What was McGonigal thinking? Consorting with the likes of Deripaska was the incredibly reckless act of a person who must have thought himself untouchable—or driven by private demons, fellow former spies speculate.

“It’s not sure if it was ‘just’ a corrupt end of his career [heading] into retirement, or [whether he was] a true spy who committed espionage,” said a former senior CIA operations official, who cautioned that he was merely speculating as an outside observer. “Also, he seems to have played fast and loose [with his illicit associations] so I’d be surprised if warning signs of corruption were not out there” long before an investigation was opened on him. “Regardless, it’s pretty shocking,” he said.

McGonigal always thought he was “the smartest guy in the room,” his former colleague averred. “And I think you can see that in the charges. There’s an underlying theme there of ambition and just thinking you’re smarter than everybody else.

“I mean, how do you think you’re gonna get away with this—unless there’s a narcissism there and [him thinking], ‘I can beat the FBI. I’m smarter than them. And I’m untouchable.’