The National Security Agency is “moving forward” with the installation of Michael Ellis as general counsel despite opposition from Democrats and reported pushback from the NSA director, Gen. Paul Nakasone, following the Trump administration attorney’s selection for the national security post in November.
Ellis, former counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes when the California Republican led the House Intelligence Committee, was named the NSA’s chief lawyer just weeks after President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Trump. Previously, Ellis served under National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg during the Ukraine impeachment fight and worked as the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs. Ellis joined the NSA amid a Pentagon shake-up when Trump fired former Pentagon leader Mark Esper and picked former National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller to take over.
“Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon,” an NSA official told the Washington Examiner on Sunday. “NSA is moving forward with his employment.”
On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Miller told Nakasone to accept Ellis’s appointment after Nakasone reportedly sought to delay Ellis taking the job. Paul Ney, general counsel for the Defense Department, selected Ellis several months ago. The Pentagon declined the Washington Examiner’s request for further comment.
Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff claimed, “It’s very clear that this is part of this administration’s effort to embed people in the civil service who are political and partisan actors,” on Face the Nation on CBS News on Sunday.
A Trump administration official pushed back on claims that there was anything improper about the choice in November.
“The DoD general counsel is the selection authority for the NSA general counsel position. The prescribed hiring process for that position was followed in every respect and an appropriate selection of a qualified and capable candidate was made,” the official told the Washington Examiner in November. “Any analysis of this hiring should take into account that the last two NSA general counsels appointed in the prior administration had associations with political Administration leadership — one was serving as staff secretary to the prior President when he was appointed; while the other was a campaign finance bundler for the prior President’s campaign — yet were selected for the merit-based position.”
Those comments came in response to Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who is the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, writing a letter to the Pentagon’s acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell, asking him to “investigate the process” and claiming that “the publicly reported facts, if accurate, constitute prima facie evidence of improper political influence in the selection for the top legal position at NSA.”
Rajesh De, who served as NSA general counsel from 2012 through 2015, worked as deputy assistant to the president and then-White House staff secretary from early 2011 through early 2012 under President Barack Obama. De was named a volunteer member of Biden’s DOJ transition team in November.
Glenn Gerstell, who served as NSA’s top lawyer from 2015 until early 2020, bundled at least $50,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity, and donated between $200,000 and $500,000 in federal elections from 1990 and 2012, according to Open Secrets. Gerstell was appointed by Obama to serve on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council beginning in 2011, also serving on the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security Commission.
Gerstell was among 50 former intelligence officials who signed a letter in October claiming the Hunter Biden laptop story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” At the time, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said, “There is no intelligence … that Hunter Biden’s laptop is part of some Russian disinformation campaign.”
Ellis was involved with the prepublication review process of former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir in 2020 and concluded the book contained classified information. Ellis was also reportedly one of the two former White House officials, along with now-acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who alerted Nunes in early 2017 that communications of Trump associates may have been intercepted during foreign surveillance.
Nunes received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Trump this month, in part for his work as House Intelligence Committee chairman, where he helped unearth problems with the FBI’s use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to surveil former Trump campaign associate Carter Page.
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