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America has a McGonigal problem

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The case of Charles McGonigal is bigger than one corrupt FBI agent.

In fact, it’s bigger than the entire FBI.

The legal case against Charles McGonigal, the FBI’s former New York counterintelligence chief — a scandal that launched a thousand conspiracy theories — is beginning to wind down. Last week, a judge in the Southern District of New York sentenced McGonigal to 50 months in prison; a second judge in Washington, DC, is expected to sentence McGonigal on a different set of charges in February.

But the bigger story — about transnational flows of money, intelligence, and influence, and the weakness of the legal and ethical firewalls that are supposed to constrain them — is just beginning.

The two McGonigal indictments offer a rare glimpse of the inner workings of the Acela corridor, a global bazaar where contacts, secrets, and influence are swapped for millions while the laws that are supposed to protect US national security interests are often ignored.

And now, with McGonigal’s two guilty pleas and first sentencing, that rare window into how things really work inside the steakhouses of Washington and Manhattan is closing. McGonigal was embraced by this clubby world of lobbyists and law enforcement dons even as he brought home bags of cash to fund his secret double life.

In November of last year, BI was first to break the news that prosecutors were scrutinizing McGonigal’s contacts with Albanian officials and a powerful Russian oligarch. When McGonigal was arrested and charged in January, the media and Capitol Hill reacted with shock. How could one of the FBI’s senior-most counter-intelligence officials retire and then illegally take money from a sanctioned Russian oligarch he had been investigating?

But that was before Robert Menendez, who is still a sitting Democratic senator from New Jersey, was indicted for allegedly accepting gold bars and bundles of cash so that military aid could keep flowing to the Egypt’s authoritarian government.

That was before FBI agents seized the phones of Eric Adams, who is still the mayor of New York, as part of a probe into campaign donations from the government of Turkey.

If McGonigal’s corruption was surprising then, it should be less surprising now. Official corruption in America goes beyond one agency, one administration, or one political party. It isn’t political. It’s cultural, the product of a society so obsessed with wealth that even its best-compensated public officials see themselves as middle-class strivers. Despite $850,000 in income and $1.5 million in assets, according to his pre-sentencing report, McGonigal’s attorneys tried to excuse his behavior by saying that he needed “to find a way to earn a living.” “It’s not high society,” his lead attorney, Seth DuCharme, argued in a Manhattan federal court on Thursday. “He has prestige, and he has respect, but he’s not a billionaire.”

Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch who hired McGonigal, is a billionaire, one with longstanding ties to Vladimir Putin and whose alleged involvement with bribery, murder, and organized crime was cited by the US Treasury Department. (Deripaska has denied all wrongdoing, and has publicly distanced himself from Putin since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.)

Beyond the illegality of McGonigal taking Deripaska’s money in violation of US sanctions, Assistant US Attorney Hagan Scotten made clear in court why their relationship should be so worrying. Pushing back on an argument by McGonigal’s attorneys that his crime was less serious than transferring military equipment, Scotten asked the judge to consider the value to the Kremlin of “having a former counter-intelligence chief on their payroll. What is more valuable to them?”

“How much would Putin ask his oligarchs to pay here?” Scotten went on. “How much would that have been worth to him?”

While the government has never alleged that McGonigal was spying for Russia, Scotten believed that’s where things were likely headed. McGonigal “cannot claim that he was unaware that he was selling his service to a scoundrel working against America’s interests,” the New York prosecutors wrote in their filing on his sentencing. “The investigative skills, contacts, and influence of a former senior American counterintelligence officer are of obvious, and dangerous, value to an agent of Vladimir Putin.”

The entire McGonigal story, as laid out in the government’s filings and BI’s reporting, reads like the opening chapters of a classic spy novel: Operatives spot and then recruit a hapless minion and set about gradually turning his loyalties around to align with theirs. McGonigal was supposed to be one of the FBI’s top grandmasters at this game, and what might be most astonishing about the allegations is the degree to which he apparently allowed his Russian associates to remake him into their pawn.

While he was still working at the FBI, McGonigal was introduced by one former Russian diplomat to another, more senior one, with rumored ties to Russian intelligence who worked with Deripaska. He was, according to the government, asked to do something simple but also, arguably, slightly compromising — arrange for the second diplomat’s daughter to receive VIP treatment from the New York City Police Department. A few months later, after McGonigal’s retirement, he met with Deripaska at two of his residences, in London and Vienna. And then he started accepting Deripaska’s money, surreptitiously. It flowed from a Russian bank to one shell company based in Cyprus to another controlled by a friend.

Judge Jennifer H. Rearden appeared to find Scotten’s argument compelling. Last week, she sentenced McGonigal to 50 months in prison, 3 years probation, and a $40,000 fine. McGonigal’s lawyers, citing his record of service within the FBI, had asked the judge for no additional confinement. Rearden ordered McGonigal to turn himself in on February 26. He will be sentenced in a Washington, DC, district court under a second plea agreement on February 16.

In New York, prosecutors said, McGonigal continued to wield the privileges and leverage the contacts that he’d enjoyed as the FBI’s New York City counter-intelligence chief, even though he no longer held that job. He traveled the world for meetings with foreign ministers, heads of state, and titans of industry — including a London get-together with Deripaska that was so alarming to British intelligence agents that they alerted their US counterparts. And back in New York, according to prosecutors, McGonigal continued to put an FBI placard on the windshield of his car, so he could park wherever he pleased.

This is who the FBI chose to promote to one of its most senior positions and entrust with its most sensitive secrets. In recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the Justice Department’s inspector general is “engaged” in scrutinizing the McGonigal matter. Members of Congress from both parties have also demanded answers of the FBI.

But McGonigal’s two plea agreements mean there is likely a lot about his career that may never be made public. These include his alleged attempts (after retiring) to get paid for arranging meetings with UN officials, and his role in the Trump-Russia investigation, and his time in the FBI’s New York Field Office during the crucial months just before the 2016 election.

“People get caught up in their Bond fantasies, their addiction to money, and their need to maintain their indispensability by offering more and more,” said one Washington insider familiar with the intelligence world. “It’s a very small step from selling services to foreign oligarchs to acting as the agent of a foreign government.”

Nevertheless, foreign oligarchs remain among the core clientele of otherwise respectable lawyers, lobbyists, and former US officials. McGonigal is not the end of this story, but rather, a warning. The US should be most worried about those who are still getting away with it.

Mattathias Schwartz is chief national security correspondent at Business Insider. He can be reached at schwartz79@protonmail.com.

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