The National Security Agency will move forward with the installation of Michael Ellis, a Trump loyalist who was the former lead counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and a National Security Council official, to its top legal post after pressure from the White House, the Washington Post first reported on Sunday, amid concerns that he is not qualified for the post and that it’s an attempt by the Trump administration to “burrow” a political appointee into a career civil service position at the nation’s largest spy agency.
On Saturday, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller ordered NSA Director Paul Nakasone to install Ellis as general counsel by 6 p.m., but Nakasone—who opposed Ellis for the position—did not take action by the deadline, the Washington Post reported Saturday evening.
Ellis was originally selected for the position in the days immediately following the presidential election but administrative delays prevented his timely installation, the Post said.
“Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon,” an NSA official said in a statement on Sunday. “NSA is moving forward with his employment.”
CNN noted Saturday that since Ellis’s new position as general counsel is a civil service job, he will be harder for the Biden administration to remove than would a political appointee.
After Ellis’s selection was announced in November, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) requested that the Pentagon’s acting inspector general conduct an investigation. “The combination of timing, comparative lack of experience of the candidate, the reported qualifications of the other finalists, and press accounts of White House involvement create a perception that political influence or considerations may have played an undue role in a merit-based civil service selection process,” the senators wrote in a letter obtained by CNN.
Ellis has been dogged by accusations of improprieties. In 2017 while the top lawyer for the National Security Council, he was reportedly involved in sharing classified intelligence reports to Nunes. He also was embroiled in the Ukraine scandal that rocked the White House in 2019 and fueled an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified that Ellis had directed NSC officials to move a transcript of a pivotal phone call with the Ukrainian president to a more highly classified server in an apparent effort to restrict it from being viewed.
Former U.S. Army general and Clinton Cabinet member Barry McCaffrey called the decision a “fundamental threat” to U.S. security on Twitter on Sunday. “This is a political hack in a career position with 48 hours to go,” he wrote.
The NSA is ‘moving forward’ to install Michael Ellis, a former GOP operative, as its top lawyer, the agency said Sunday (Washington Post)
Acting secretary of defense orders NSA chief to install Trump loyalist as agency’s general counsel (CNN)
The Gravity of Michael Ellis’ Promotion to Senior Director for Intelligence at the White House (Just Security)