Who Corrupted a Top FBI Spyhunter?
In the final days of the Cold War, a young diplomat arrived at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. Agents in the FBI’s San Francisco field office kept a close eye on the personnel coming and going from the consulate. The six-story building in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods long served as a hub of espionage activity. The newly-arrived Soviet diplomat in his twenties, Evgeny Fokin, soon raised suspicions that he was a KGB officer operating under diplomatic cover on his first overseas posting. “I do remember he was an intelligence officer. He was KGB at the time,” says Rick Smith, a retired veteran of the FBI’s counterintelligence squad in San Francisco.
Three decades later, that young diplomat is now at the center of another spy story. This one involves Charles McGonigal, a former senior FBI counterintelligence officer who was indicted last month for taking money illegally from Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence services. Fokin was the mysterious “Agent-1” described in court papers, an executive working for Deripaska who slowly corrupted the veteran FBI agent over a three-year period, according to sources and documents reviewed by Rolling Stone.
Arrested last month, McGonigal faces federal charges in New York of violating federal sanctions laws that prohibited him from taking money from Deripaska and laundering those ill-gotten gains. He is also accused in a separate case filed in Washington, D.C., of accepting nearly a quarter of a million dollars in secret payments from a former Albanian intelligence officer, including $80,000 that was handed over gangland-style in a car parked outside a New York City restaurant. “His arrest is a sorry day for the FBI,” a retired senior FBI official tells Rolling Stone. “The bureau has taken a beating the last few years with Trump and others attacking it. His arrest is all we need.”
The damage to the bureau may go deeper than previously understood. In 2020, McGonigal took part in an Atlantic Council panel discussion titled “How Did Russia’s Security Services Capture the Kremlin?” A better question might be: Did Russia’s security services compromise a top FBI counterintelligence agent, here in America? How was one of the FBI’s top spyhunters so easily ensnared? “And how exposed is the FBI, given that it was Fokin, a suspected Russian spy, who snared him?”
The key to understanding the McGonigal case revolves around yet another set of questions: What were the former FBI counterintelligence agent’s motivations? Was he chasing the dollars that billionaires like Deripaska sprinkled around the private security world? Or did McGonigal’s greed lead him to spill secrets to an oligarch and the suspected former Russian intelligence officer on his payroll?
News of McGonigal’s arrest and his ties to Deripaska sparked rampant speculation that McGonigal was Russia’s inside man with a hand in the FBI’s dual investigations of the Trump campaign and Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. The oligarch’s name came up frequently in the FBI probe of the Trump campaign. Deripaska had ties to both Trump 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and to Christopher Steele, the British ex-spy who authored the infamous (and deeply flawed) dossier on Trump and Russia. Manafort made millions conducting influence operations overseas for Deripaska until the two had a falling out over a business deal.
But a source with direct knowledge of events tells Rolling Stone that McGonigal had no role in the FBI’s probe of Clinton. He was, however, on the periphery of the Trump investigation; an email that landed in McGonigal’s secure inbox in July 2016 kicked off the Trump-Russia probe. The email revealed that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat that the Russians had damaging information on Clinton. McGonigal forwarded the message on to other agents — and it was those agents, not McGonigal, who opened the investigation that came to be known as Crossfire Hurricane. A few months later, McGonigal was read into the investigation of Carter Page, a Trump foreign-policy adviser who was the subject of a wiretap relating to his contacts with Russian intelligence officers. But other aspects of Crossfire Hurricane, including the Manafort investigation, were part of a bigger puzzle that eluded McGonigal. He stood outside the limited circle of investigators who had insight into the FBI’s wide-ranging and tightly-held inquiry, according to the source with knowledge of events.
McGonigal has raised concerns that go far beyond politics. His last assignment in the FBI — from September 2016 until his retirement two years later — was as special agent in charge of counterintelligence in the New York field office. It’s a job that would have given him access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets and the intimate details of FBI investigations into foreign spies on U.S. soil. Among the investigations McGonigal oversaw as head of counterintelligence in New York was one into his future employer, Oleg Deripaska, according to federal prosecutors. Deripaska was indicted last year by a grand jury in Manhattan for sanctions evasion and obstruction of justice.
McGonigal had the potential to supply an intelligence gold mine. Some of the most secret of secrets — the names of spies, double agents, and the sources and methods the United States used to gather intelligence — crossed his desk. Did McGonigal give any of that up? “The potential here is that he could be one of the most devastating spies in U.S. history but there’s not enough evidence to make that claim,” says retired CIA officer John Sipher, who worked on the investigation of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia for two decades.
So far, there’s no hint of espionage in court filings. “What I’m hearing at the end of the day is … it was greed and not espionage,” says a former FBI agent who knew McGonigal. Standard procedure in such cases is to conduct an internal assessment to determine what, if any, damage McGonigal may have done to bureau operations. The FBI declined to comment on whether such an assessment was underway. But six former FBI agents who spoke with Rolling Stone were dumbfounded to learn that McGonigal got himself entangled with an alleged Russian spy and his thuggish boss.
The FBI’s file on Deripaska dates back to the 1990s, when he emerged from the bloody post-Soviet “aluminum wars” as director general of Rusal, one the world’s largest producers of aluminum. The U.S. Treasury Department notes that Deripaska was accused of ordering the murder of a businessman, suspected of links to organized crime, and has been investigated for threatening the lives of business rivals, extortion, and racketeering. He also served as a “proxy” for the Kremlin and Russia’s intelligence services, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Fokin, who has worked for the oligarch since 2007, also had a thick FBI file. Fokin served in the North American department of the Soviet and later Russian Foreign Ministry in the 1980s and 1990s, according to his official biography. After two years in San Francisco, Fokin’s next assignment took him to Washington as an attaché in the Russian Embassy from 1990 to 1995. According to a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, he worked in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and served as a liaison officer with U.S. intelligence agencies during that time.Fokin did not respond to messages sent to his personal and work emails.
Lord Gregory Barker — a member of the House of Lords in the British Parliament who was Fokin’s boss at EN+, Deripaska’s London-listed conglomerate — has previously said that Fokin denied being a spy. While Deripaska had been barred from entering the United States due to his alleged organized crime connections, there was no such prohibition on Fokin. “He continues to have an open visa for the U.K. and for the U.S.A.,” Barker said during a February 2019 Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. John Mann, who knew Fokin from his years in Russia as a spokesman for Roman Abramovich, another oligarch, added, “I don’t think he’s a spy, just a PR guy.”
McGonigal, however, believed Fokin worked in intelligence — and may even have tried to recruit him. According to the indictment, McGonigal told an FBI supervisor that he “wanted to recruit Agent-1” — Fokin — “who was, according to McGonigal, a Russian intelligence officer.”
According to a copy of Fokin’s now-deleted LinkedIn page obtained by Rolling Stone, Fokin did public relations for a succession of oligarchs after leaving government service. He first worked for MediaMost, an independent Russian media conglomerate owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, who was arrested in 2000 and forced to sell his properties. Fokin next handled international information at Yukos, a Russian oil giant. Yukos’ boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested in 2003 and spent 10 years in prison while his company was acquired by the state.
Fokin’s most recent position was director of international cooperation at EN+. “I always found him likable, professional, very pro-U.S. and sensible,” says a senior colleague who asked not to be named. EN+ fell under U.S. sanctions in 2018 but was granted a reprieve the following year when Deripaska agreed to reduce his stake in the company and relinquish control. The strict terms imposed on EN+ by the U.S. Treasury forbade any member of the company from contact with Deripaska without authorization, which Fokin did not have, according to a source with knowledge of events.
Seth DuCharme, McGonigal’s defense attorney, did not return messages left seeking comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is prosecuting McGonigal for taking money from Deripaska, also declined comment. A representative of Oleg Deripaska calls Rolling Stone’s questions about Fokin, his intelligence background, and McGonigal “disgusting” and a “sick fantasy.” Rolling Stone’s “latching onto this sort of dull pulp fiction at a time of real humanitarian catastrophes puts in question the mental and moral acuity of the press,” the spokesperson says.
The feds’ indictment lays out an astonishing picture of a veteran FBI spyhunter being slowly compromised by a veteran spy. Small favors became bigger favors until McGonigal found himself in too deep. It’s the sort of espionage pattern that counterintelligence agents are trained to detect and thwart.
It began when McGonigal was still in the FBI. Fokin asked for an introduction to him from a Russian interpreter who worked for federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “At Mr. Fokin’s request, I contacted Mr. McGonigal,” the interpreter, Sergey Shestakov, said in 2021 when he registered, belatedly, with the Justice Department as Fokin’s foreign agent.
Fokin needed a favor, according to the indictment. Could McGonigal help get his daughter, Alexandra, an internship at the New York Police Department? The FBI agent obliged and Alexandra received “VIP treatment” from the NYPD. “I was involved in crazy, but insanely interesting and difficult matters,” Alexandra Fokin wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post in July 2018 that was obtained by The Washington Post. “The work experience in the field of counterterrorism turned out to be something absolutely new and unique. The briefings, the conversations, and, of course, the endless pages of analysis.”
Fokin soon had another request. He needed legal help to fight the sanctions the U.S. Treasury imposed on Deripaska in April 2018 for “having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, a senior official of the government of the Russian Federation.” McGonigal helped introduce Fokin to lawyers at an international firm. “At Mr. Fokin’s request, I facilitated with the help of Mr. McGonigal the retention of [the] law firm of Kobre & Kim,” Shestakov told the Justice Department. The effort to lift sanctions was at least partially successful. The Trump administration eased its pressure on Deripaska’s Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminum company, less than four months after sanctions on it and its notorious leader were imposed. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the sanctions were punishing the “hardworking people of Rusal.”
The web of contacts deepened in 2019 after McGonigal’s retirement from the FBI. He met Deripaska at the oligarch’s sumptuous home in London, and in Vienna. In August 2021, McGonigal signed a contract with Fokin to work as a $41,790-a-month security consultant for Deripaska, according to the indictment. If Fokin’s goal was to compromise the former senior FBI agent, he now had him. Taking money from a sanctioned oligarch was a crime. “They could have asked him anything,” Smith, the FBI counterintelligence veteran in San Francisco, says. Either way, whatever leverage Fokin and Deripaska had on McGonigal vanished in November 2021 when the FBI seized his personal phone on a court-ordered search warrant.
By then, the damage was done. Asha Rangappa, an assistant dean at Yale and a former FBI counterintelligence agent in New York in the 2000s, points out that Russian operations aimed at the West are often structured so that Moscow benefits no matter what the outcome. The case of McGonigal — a former senior FBI agent who accepted illegal money from a sanctioned oligarch — seems to follow a similar pattern. “This is so sketchy. They have so much leverage over him if [McGonigal’s payment] doesn’t come to light,” Rangappa says. “If it does come to light, it’s a black eye for the FBI.”
“Either way, it’s a win-win,” she said.
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