Top Democrats on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees are trying to block one of President Trump’s White House lawyers from taking over as senior National Security Agency counsel, the National Security Agency has learned. Daily Beast.
Earlier last week, Michael Ellis was named the surveillance giant’s best lawyer, an act of the White House in its final days. This has sounded alarm bells among Democrats and in some intelligence circles. Not only was Ellis supposedly one of Trump’s aides who helped Rep. Devin Nunes fabricate a surveillance “unmasking” scandal, he was involved in the transfer of the recording to a classified server. Trump’s now infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky – the one who helped impeach Trump.
Still, maneuvers are underway to block Ellis’ appointment. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Deputy Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Jack Reed (D-RI.), The highest Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, wrote to the Inspector General of the Ministry of Defense, of which NSA is a component, demanding an investigation into the Ellis facility.
“The publicly reported facts, if correct, constitute prima facie evidence of political influence in the selection for the highest legal post at the NSA or, failing that, point to possible irregularities which would be of great concern to our people. committees, “Warner and Reed wrote on Monday. to Sean O’Donnell, the acting Pentagon Inspector General.
The NSA General Counsel is a post with public service protections. In other words, a Biden administration cannot fire Ellis without specific fault. It has raised concerns, former officials say, that part of the final acts of the Trump administration is to embed loyalists into the bureaucracy, making real their accusations of a deep state that trumps authority. presidential.
“Trump burns the whole house. He burns it and tries to take everything with him.“
– former senior national security official
“Trump is burning the whole house,” said a former senior national security official. “He burns it and tries to take everything with him.
Ellis, who had been the National Security Council’s senior intelligence official and former aide to Trump’s ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Has been reportedly seeking an NSA job for months. .
Two former intelligence officials said Ellis had yet to show up for work on Thursday. This was explained as the time required to administer polygraphs and other duties required for the employment of the NSA. But his scheduled arrival generates internal anguish. The other official, who wasn’t sure why Ellis hadn’t appeared at Fort Meade yet, remarked, “It’s a weird shit show. On Monday, an NSA spokesperson did not respond if Ellis was at work.
The appointment of the NSA General Counsel is not the responsibility of General Paul Nakasone, Director of the NSA. It is the responsibility of Defense Department Attorney General Paul C. Ney, Jr. “I was told that there was pressure on Ney, that the White House leaned heavily on him” , said a former senior intelligence official. A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
When asked if the White House relied on Ney to hire Ellis, Department of Defense spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah Orland said: “ The prescribed recruitment process for this post has been followed in all respects and an appropriate selection of a qualified and competent candidate has been made. “
One of the former intelligence officials saw the appointment of Ellis less as a Trumpist intention to wreck the NSA and more as a testament to Ellis’ connections. “He has friends in high places who don’t care about rules and standards,” the ex-official said.
Among Warner and Reed’s questions about Ellis’ appointment was whether it met the rules for hiring someone in the defense and intelligence subcategory of the career civil service. . When a political candidate like Ellis is selected for one of these positions, a council of officials is supposed to meet to consider the candidacy.
But there is confusion as to whether this process went as it is supposed to go in Ellis’ case, given the last-minute meeting, first reported by the Washington post. Career NSA lawyer who served as senior advisor Teisha Anthony, a career civil servant, was also reportedly considered for the post and who has much more supervisory experience.
“I don’t know if Ellis went through the process correctly. To do this within the career civilian federal workforce, it normally takes at least a few weeks, if not a few months, ”said Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at Project on Government Oversight and former official with the US Bureau of Lawyers. specials. .
In response, Orland said the Pentagon “does not comment on unselected candidates, or the internal treatment of specific employees.”
Warner and Reed said the timing of the appointment, “less than a week after the presidential election and just moments after the incumbent Secretary of Defense was fired,” was “inherently suspicious and requires further investigation. “.
As with other Trump loyalists installed in the Defense Department last week, there is confusion and concern over what Ellis might be there to do. The NSA’s general counsel is powerful. He has full access to the NSA’s vast surveillance firms. But its power largely depends on the prerogatives of the director. The Senior Counsel serves as the Director’s advisor, providing advice on everything from budgets and public communications to dealing with the NSA’s dearest foreign surveillance partners.
Trump is said to want information that supposedly exonerates him or reinforces his accounts published by classified warrens in intelligence agencies, a problem which he says Publish Columnist David Ignatius has put the outgoing president at odds with CIA director Gina Haspel and other intelligence officials.
Two former intelligence officials said Ellis could, by virtue of his position, pass surveillance material – whether contextualized or not – to his former boss Nunes or other political ally with the appropriate security clearance . But he would “play with fire on it,” said one.
As a new civil servant, under a two-year probationary period, Ellis would risk being fired for relatively little reason.
If Ellis makes it to Fort Meade, he will have about six months to act as he sees fit before a Biden administration can move him out of his position. After Biden’s inauguration, Ellis will be entitled to protections from the public service that could delay the process to fire him. But reassigning him is another story. He could become “the lead advocate for stapler policy,” noted a former NSA official, who noted that unwanted reassignments are “sometimes used as a voluntary means to encourage problematic officials to separate voluntarily. of service.
But he will have no authority to carry out surveillance, several former officials said. The attorney general is also not a so-called “home classification authority,” which means that the lead NSA attorney cannot unilaterally classify or publish electromagnetic intelligence or analysis.
“He doesn’t have the final say at all on the classification of something. He cannot order the surveillance of anything or anyone, and he cannot stop the surveillance of anything and anyone, ”said one of the former senior intelligence officials.
A Pentagon official argued that political connections for an NSA general counsel “are clearly not automatically disqualifying,” pointing to Obama-era general counsel serving as President Obama’s aide and fundraising for the Obama campaign 2012.
If the purpose of Ellis’ appointment is to declassify and funnel surveillance material to MAGA allies that backs up their narratives – about Trump and Russia, about Biden and Ukraine or China, or whatever – it will be perilous for him, protections of the public service or not. .
Whatever happens with the maneuver to block Ellis, his potential presence at the NSA is a test for Nakasone – whether the director sees him as a potential problem or trusts him.
“The big question,” said a former Justice Department official, “is what he can do without Nakasone.”
The fact that politicians were sinking into public service positions bothered Trump’s allies. “I am concerned that due to the seniority of political appointments in many agencies, there may be pressures to approve these conversions outside of the standard merit-based approach to federal hiring.” , wrote Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). director of the Office of Personnel Management shortly after Trump’s victory in 2016. “It is imperative that we ensure that our federal civilian workforce is merit-based and independent.
—With additional reports from Erin Banco
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