Jan 27: Timothy Snyder- McGonigal, Russia & Trump
Thread published on January 25, 2023 & Jeff Stein's article from SpyTalk
Timothy Snyder, McGonigal & Trump
In April 2016, I broke the story of Trump and Putin, using Russian open sources. Afterwards, I heard vague intimations that something was awry in the FBI in New York, specifically counter-intelligence and cyber. We now have a suggestion as to why.
The person who led the relevant section, Charles McGonigal, has just been charged with taking money from the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Follow this thread to see just how this connects to the victory of Trump, the Russian war in Ukraine, and U.S. national security.
The reason I was thinking about Trump and Putin in 2016 was a pattern. Russia had sought to control Ukraine, using social media, money, and a pliable head of state. Russia backed Trump the way that it had backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in the hopes of soft control.
Trump and Yanukovych were similar figures: interested in money, and in power to make or shield money. And therefore vulnerable partners for Putin. They also shared a political advisor: Paul Manafort. He worked for Yanukovych from 2005-2015, taking over Trump's campaign in 2016.
You might remember Manafort's ties to Russia from 2016. He (and Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump, Jr.) met with Russians in June 2016 in Trump Tower as part of, as the broker of the meeting called it, "the Russian government's support for Trump" (#RoadToUnfreedom, p. 237).
Manafort had to resign as Trump's campaign manager in August 2016 when news broke that he had received $12.7 million in cash from Yanukovych. But these details are just minor elements of Manafort's dependence on Russia. (#RoadToUnfreedom, p. 235).
Manafort worked for Deripaska, the same Russian oligarch to whom McGonigal is linked, between 2006 and 2009. Manafort's assignment was to soften up the U.S for Russian influence. He promised "a model that can greatly benefit the Putin government." (#RoadToUnfreedom, p. 234).
While Manafort worked for Trump in 2016, though, Manafort's dependence on Russia was deeper. He owed Deripaska money, not a position one would want to be in. Manafort offered Deripaska "private briefings" on the campaign. He was hoping "to get whole." (#RoadToUnfreedom, 234)
Reconsider how the FBI treated the Trump-Putin connection in 2016. Trump and other Republicans screamed that the FBI had overreached. In retrospect, it seems the exact opposite took place. The issue of Russian influence was framed in a way convenient for Russia and Trump.
The FBI investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, focused on the narrow issue of personal connections between the Trump campaign and Russians. It missed Russia's cyber attacks and the social media campaign, which, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, won the election for Trump.
Once the issue of Russian soft control was framed narrowly as personal contact, Obama missed the big picture, and Trump had an easy defense. Trump knew that Russia was working for him, but the standard of guilt was placed so high that he could defend himself.
It is entirely inconceivable that McGonigal was unaware of Russia's 2016 cyber influence campaign on behalf of Trump. Even I was aware of it, and I had no expertise. It became one of the subjects of my book #RoadtoUnfreedom.
The FBI did investigate cyber later, and came to some correct conclusions. But this was after the election, and missed the Russian influence operations entirely. That was an obvious counterintelligence issue. Why did the FBI take so long, and miss the point?
I had no personal connection to this, but will just repeat what informed people said at the time: this sort of thing was supposed to go through the FBI counter-intelligence section in New York, where tips went to die. That is where McGonigal was in charge.
The cyber element is what McGonigal should have been making everyone aware of in 2016. In 2016, McGonigal was chief of the FBI's Cyber-Counterintelligence Coordination Section. That October, he was put in charge of the Counterintelligence Division of the FBI's NY office.
We need to understand why the FBI failed in 2016 to address the essence of an ongoing Russian influence operation. The character of that operation suggests that it would have been the responsibility of an FBI section whose head is now accused of taking Russian money.
Right after the McGonigal story broke, Kevin McCarthy ejected Adam Schiff from the House intelligence committee. Schiff is expert on Russian influence operations. It exhibits carelessness about national security to exclude him. It is downright suspicious to exclude him now.
Back in June 2016, Kevin McCarthy expressed his suspicion that Donald Trump was under Putin's influence. He and other Republican members concluded that the risk of an embarrassment to their party was more important than American security. #RoadToUnfreedom, p. 255.
The Russian influence operation to get Trump elected was real. It serves no one to pretend otherwise. We are still learning about it. Denying that it happened makes the United States vulnerable to ongoing Russian operations.
I remember a certain frivolity from 2016. Trump was a curiosity. Russia was irrelevant. Nothing to take seriously. Then Trump was elected, blocked weapon sales to Ukraine, and tried to stage a coup. Now Ukrainians are dying every day in the defining conflict of our time.
The McGonigal question goes even beyond these issues. He had authority in the most sensitive possible investigations within U.S. intelligence. Sorting this out will require a concern for the United States that goes beyond party loyalty.
Jeff Stein, Secret Agent Man: The Mysterious Charlie McGonigal- SpyTalk
“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 his onetime boss, Frank Figliuzzi, who on the eve of his retirement as the FBI’s assistant director of counterintelligence 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.
Figliuzzi, now an NBC News national security analyst, 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,” Figliuzzi 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.”