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The National Security Implications of Charles McGonigal’s Arrest
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The National Security Implications of Charles McGonigal’s Arrest

The case shows how the government is falling short in monitoring the actions of former agents and officers.

Charles McGonigal, the former head of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York office, stands silently as his attorney Seth Ducharme gives a statement to the media after leaving Manhattan Federal Court on January 23, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images.)

Charles McGonigal, the former special agent-in-charge (SAC) of foreign counterintelligence at the FBI’s New York field office, has been arrested and charged with sanctions violations and money laundering for his alleged involvement with a Russian oligarch. An indictment is only the government’s version of what’s often a complex story, McGonigal retained distinguished counsel, and we’re certain to learn more. But if a counterintelligence official that senior was indeed turned by foreign governments, it’s a serious blow to American interests.

The government unsealed separate indictments in New York and Washington on Monday. The New York indictment charges McGonigal with sanctions violations and money laundering. The Treasury Department sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a Vladimir Putin associate, in 2018. The Justice Department alleges that while McGonigal was still with the bureau, a suspected Russian intelligence officer working for Deripaska approached him to obtain an internship for his daughter with the New York Police Department. McGonigal allegedly obliged, and to the NYPD’s surprise, the Russian officer’s daughter claimed to police that he’d provided her with access to confidential FBI information.

According to the indictment, after retiring from the FBI, McGonigal met with Deripaska abroad while the latter sought a law firm to represent him in efforts to be delisted as a sanctioned entity. The firm retained McGonigal as an investigator for $25,000. Subsequently, DOJ alleges, McGonigal illegally began working directly for Deripaska to investigate another oligarch, in return for a $51,000 retainer and $42,000 per month. McGonigal allegedly laundered these payments through an unidentified New Jersey business owned by a friend, which he’d previously joined, using a fake identity, while still with the FBI.

The Washington indictment charges McGonigal with false statements regarding his finances and foreign contacts and travel while at the FBI. McGonigal received at least $225,000 while still at the bureau to help current and former Albanian and Bosnian officials (including Albania’s prime minister) try to arrange meetings with senior U.S. officials, according to the indictment. Allegedly, he even opened FBI criminal investigations at their request.

New York City is a cockpit of espionage. The United Nations brings officials to our shores from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. These adversaries’ diplomats, military attachés, and intelligence officers find themselves on what the FBI considers its turf: The bureau owns New York’s streets for counterintelligence purposes. That city’s field office dwarfs all others, and the SAC for counterintelligence there is a senior executive in the U.S. intelligence community.

Given the breadth of targets at U.N. headquarters and foreign missions and consulates in Manhattan, McGonigal enjoyed exceptional access to U.S. interagency and foreign liaison services’ espionage operations. It’s important to note that neither indictment charges McGonigal with espionage, but they allege that he did favors for foreign agents and officials, accepted money for them, and lied about it. The national security implications are severe, even if McGonigal just unwittingly and indirectly gave information to the Russians or Chinese.

A counterintelligence damage assessment must now determine whether McGonigal’s potential compromise even unintentionally affected Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, or aided Moscow’s assassination operations against Russian defectors in the West. But for possible FBI leaks, could U.S. intelligence have done a better job of responding to Moscow’s wider 2022 invasion of Ukraine?

In addition, it’s been reported that McGonigal led an investigation into why China reportedly arrested many Chinese officials on allegations that they clandestinely worked for the CIA. Are the lessons learned from any damage assessment of CIA’s reported losses in China now compromised by McGonigal?

More broadly, McGonigal’s unexplained affluence as a civil servant raises the question of whether the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies sufficiently monitor their agents and officers. This is not just a bureau problem: CIA officers were convicted of espionage for China in 2019 and 2020. And it’s not just intelligence agencies: The military lacks insight into any foreign ownership control or interest in the private employers of its National Guard and reserve service members as well. 

Security clearance holders such as McGonigal maintain lifelong legal obligations to protect classified information, and moral obligations to inform former employers of recruitment pitches by foreign intelligence. Yet 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. For example, former National Security Agency officers were fined in 2021 for working for the United Arab Emirates without authorization in the form of export control licenses.

Espionage has been a tool for advancing state interests since time immemorial, and Russians are among the most determined and talented practitioners of its dark arts. Under the leadership of Putin, a former KGB officer, Moscow will continue to try to penetrate the U.S. government. 

Meanwhile, most FBI agents and CIA officers retire around age 50 with modest pensions, and 15 years or more of work ahead of them—just as the financial strains of middle age hit. Many are also naively unfamiliar with the private sector.

Not-for-profit organizations and businesses now help CIA and NSA officers transition out of the government without getting poached by bad actors. But McGonigal’s indictment strongly suggests that in addition to these good volunteer and part-time efforts, a robust system of more extensive lifelong reporting obligations for former intelligence personnel is needed.

Kevin Carroll served as senior counsel to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (2017-18) and House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (2011-13), and as a CIA and Army officer.