Christopher Steele is concerned his dossier on Donald Trump’s Russian connections was held up at the FBI Office whose head of Counter Intelligence has been indicted for working with one of Putin’s most powerful oligarchs
News that a senior FBI official Charles McGonigal has been indicted for taking payments from sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and then trying to conceal those payments, raises deeply disturbing questions about the investigations he oversaw as head of counterintelligence at the FBI’s New York Field Office during the tumultuous 2016 presidential election,
The case, which is still unfolding, has particularly concerned the former British intelligence officer and Russia expert, Christopher Steele, author of the ‘Steele Dossier’ on Donald Trump and his Kremlin connections which was passed on to the FBI’s New York in the summer of 2016.
Steele told Byline Times that McGonigal had the opportunity to influence both “Trump-Russia and the (re-opened) Hillary Clinton email investigations in 2016, arguably two of the most politically consequential ones in US history.”
McGonigal, who has denied charges of money laundering and violating economic sanctions against Russia, was also a key figure in the FBI’s Cyber-Counterintelligence Coordination Section prior to being tapped to lead the counterintelligence division at the FBI’s New York Field Office a few weeks before the end of the presidential campaign.
Within weeks of McGonigal’s promotion to the new position in early October, the New York Field Office took centre stage as part of a scandal involving alleged leaks that ultimately forced then-FBI Director James Comey to go public with information about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails barely over a week before Election Day — a decision that radically altered the course of the 2016 campaign and may have swung the election in Trump’s favour.
Although we don’t yet know whether or to what extent McGonigal may have been aware of or involved in these events, the allegation that one of the FBI’s most senior counterintelligence officials — who was tasked with overseeing some of the agency’s most sensitive and top-secret investigations — may have been secretly taking money from the Russian oligarchs he was supposed to have been investigating raises serious questions about his role in a series of events that, more than six years later, remains among the most pressing national security issues facing the United States.
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The Clinton Emails and the ‘Comey Effect’
Having worked as section chief for the Cyber-Counterintelligence Co-ordination Section at FBI headquarters during the height of Russian hacking around the looming election, McGonigal was named by the FBI’s then director, James Comey, as special agent in charge of the Counterintelligence division for the New York Field Office on 4 October 2016.
A few weeks later, close Trump ally and former Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, started dropping hints on Fox News about information coming from the FBI field office. On 26 October, Rudy Giuliani told Fox News’s Martha MacCallum that Trump had “a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next two days.”
“I’m talking about some pretty big surprise,” he added.
Giuliani went on to boast of his close friendships with retired FBI agents, and though he denied having a role in Comey’s Oct. 28 announcement and the events leading up to it, he also acknowledged that he had “heard about it” from contacts at the FBI.
“I did nothing to get it out, I had no role in it,” Giuliani said in a Fox & Friends interview on 4 November. “Did I hear about it? You’re darn right I heard about it…”
In addition to Giuliani, FBI agents from the NY Field Office also reportedly leaked information to GOP Rep. Devin Nunes. According to Nunes’ own telling, in late September 2016, “good FBI agents” revealed to him — and possibly other congressional Republicans — that they had discovered more of Clinton’s emails on Weiner’s laptop.
Three weeks after the appointment of McGonigal, and in the closing days of the 2016 presidential election, James Comey made the unprecedented decision of announcing that the FBI was reviewing new emails possibly related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server due to information from the New York field office. Comey made the announcement in a letter to Congress on October 28, 2016, saying that agents working on “an unrelated case” had turned up new emails and were investigating whether or not the material was significant.
A Republican congressman, Jason Chaffetz, leaked news of the letter and misrepresented its content, tweeting that the investigation into Clinton had been reopened. The unrelated case, it was later revealed, was the FBI’s investigation into disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. While examining Weiner’s laptop, investigators discovered that his wife Huma Abedin — a top aide to Clinton — had also used the laptop, which contained emails between Abedin and Clinton.
Though the investigation concluded there had been no criminal wrongdoing on the part of Hillary Clinton, the amplification of critical stories about her emails dented her poll ratings, and to some, was the key final factor in the shock victory of Donald Trump. The nationwide swing in poll numbers of about 3 points against Clinton following the Oct. 28 announcement has been dubbed the “Comey effect,” and professional pollsters say this very well could have cost Clinton the election.
It has been widely reported that Comey made the now-infamous announcement because of political pressure, in part from FBI agents who were sympathetic to Trump. It was the FBI’s New York field office — the same field office where McGonigal had just been appointed to a top position — that was widely suspected of leaking the information about the Weiner laptop investigation that led to Comey’s October 28 announcement, resulting in the cascading series of events that may have swung the election in Trump’s favour.
Byline Times asked the FBI’s New York Field Office was asked whether they had any further information on whether leaks came from them, but did not reply. McGonigal’s lawyers were also approached for comment on these questions but had not replied by the time of publication.
The ‘Halloween Surprise’
Beyond the issue of potential leaks related to the Weiner laptop investigation, the indictment of the former head of counterintelligence poses troubling questions about the role of the FBI’s New York Office in the wider investigation into Russian interference in US elections.
On 31 October, just four days away from the 2016 Presidential Election and less than a month after McGonigal’s appointment, the New York Times published an article ‘Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia’. Unnamed FBI and intelligence officials were reported to have told the newspaper that “none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr Trump and the Russian government.”
The same officials also claimed there was no evidence of Putin or the Kremlin taking sides: “Even the hacking into Democratic emails… was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr Trump.”
Among some intelligence experts, who had already reported extensive evidence of Russian interference in the elections, this article was dubbed the ‘Halloween Surprise’ because it was premature and prejudicial. Over six years on, and following a report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and detailed investigations by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the judgement appears partisan. It didn’t reflect the full extent of the investigation at the time, which, had it emerged on the eve of the election, might well have had as much an impact on Trump’s campaign as the emails did on Clinton’s
This differential treatment given to the Clinton and Trump investigations is further compounded by the fact that it was reportedly well-known among insiders that the FBI, and the NY Field Office in particular, had a deep-seated bias against Hillary Clinton. One FBI agent described the FBI as “Trumpland” in a 2016 interview with the Guardian newspaper, suggesting that anti-Clinton animosity may have driven the leaks that so severely damaged her reputation.
Byline Times approached both the New York Times and McGonigal’s lawyers for comment on the ‘Halloween Surprise’ but had received no reply by the time of publication.
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The Steele Dossier
For Christopher Steele, the former head of the Russia Desk for Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6, from 2006 to 2009, the indictment of McGonigal raises questions about the FBI’s laxity in investigating potential Kremlin interference in US elections.
Steele left MI6 to form Orbis Business Intelligence in 2009 which then worked with authorities to expose corruption in FIFA, provided the US Department of State with regular reports on Russia and Ukraine, and specifically co-operated with the New York field office of the FBI for two years investigating Russian organised crime
In the summer of 2016, having been commissioned privately to investigate Donald Trump’s links to Russia, Steele was so alarmed by intelligence sources warning him of the Kremlin’s support for Trump, he passed on his dossier via an FBI contact to the New York field office where McGonigal worked. Though the dossier was never intended for publication, it was a summary of intelligence sources that clearly needed proper investigation.
According to an ABC News report, Steele’s intelligence dossier on Trump’s Russian links “sat for weeks in the FBI’s New York field office” during the summer of 2016 as the election campaign raged on, instead of being referred to the ongoing counterintelligence investigation undertaken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, code-named Crossfire Hurricane.
(Operation Crossfire Hurricane was started, completely independently from Steele’s dossier, on a tip-off that a Trump foreign policy aide, George Papadopolous, was openly boasting about his Russia embassy connections on a trip to London in March 2016, and suggesting Russian intelligence had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”.)
According to a declassified House Intelligence Committee memo, “Steele’s reporting did not reach the counterintelligence team investigating Russia at FBI headquarters until mid-September 2016, more than seven weeks after the FBI opened its investigation.”
This lapse led to one of the key strategic failures of the Russia investigation: The failure to investigate potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in real-time.
By 2 October 2016, two days before McGonigal moved from cyber counterintelligence to head up the counter-intelligence division in New York, Steele was so alarmed by the lack of apparent action on Russian interference he met FBI agents in Rome and challenged them to go public. To Steele, this was a national security issue and the public needed to be alerted to the threat to the integrity of the presidential election.
However, the FBI officers in Rome explained to him how a specific piece of legislation, the Hatch Act, prevented them from announcing any investigation within 90 days of a federal election for fear of negatively influencing the vote. At this point, the Clinton-Trump Presidential showdown was barely a month away.
Steele accepted their explanation. But when FBI Director Comey announced a reinvestigation into the Clinton emails on 28 October, those Hatch Act principles were blatantly breached. After that, the relationship between Steele and the FBI broke down.
‘All Angles Must be Investigated’
The McGonigal indictment shines a light on the FBI during one of the most contentious periods in recent US history, as Vladimir Putin was trying to cement his illegal invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Oleg Deripaska, through his business relationship with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was focused on changing US opposition to Russia’s encroachment on its neighbour.
Was there a pressure group within this section of the FBI, as Guiliani suggested, trying to sway the election? And for how long were they a problem? Did McGonigal or any of his colleagues know about the Steele dossier or were in any way involved in locking away during the crucial run-up to the Presidential election, thus preventing the Crossfire Hurricane team from investigating Russian interference in real-time – before the election? In other words, before it was too late.
The Yale historian and author Timothy Snyder has said that the indictment of McDonigal raises even bigger questions than Russian intervention in Trump’s election, and its connections to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “Sorting this out will require a concern for the United States that goes beyond party loyalty.”
Christopher Steele, who has had to endure years of legal cases and congressional grillings over the dossier he never intended to be published, agrees: “The arrest and indictment of former FBI counter-intelligence officer McGonigal appear to confirm ongoing suspicions and raises a raft of new questions.”
“These potentially concern the conduct of the Trump-Russia and (re-opened) Hillary Clinton email investigations in 2016, arguably two of the most politically consequential ones in US history. For that reason, all angles must be comprehensively investigated, mistakes learnt and those involved held fully accountable,” Steele told Byline Times.
Byline Times reached out to the FBI and McGonigal’s lawyers for a response to these questions, but neither had responded by the time of publication. McGonigal has entered a not-guilty plea.
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