Trump administration pick for top NSA lawyer placed on administrative leave

Trump administration pick for top NSA lawyer placed on administrative leave

The Trump administration pick for the National Security Agency’s top lawyer has reportedly been placed on administrative leave after the NSA announced just a few days ago that it was “moving forward” with his employment even amid pushback from Democrats.

Michael Ellis, former counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes when the California Republican led the House Intelligence Committee, was named the NSA’s general counsel a few weeks after President Biden defeated former President Donald 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.

Catherine Herridge of CBS News tweeted that “a source familiar with events tells CBS News that recently appointed NSA General Counsel Michael Ellis was placed on administrative leave today because his appointment is now the subject of a DoD IG investigation” and that “there is a separate, newly leveled allegation that Ellis mishandled classified information.”

Multiple outlets reported that they confirmed Ellis had been put on administrative leave. Herridge also tweeted that “those close to Ellis say he is career intelligence professional, with a strong record of accomplishment both in Congress + Executive Branch.”

The Pentagon and Defense Department watchdog did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An NSA spokesperson told the Washington Examiner that “we don’t comment on personnel matters” on Wednesday evening, but this is a bit of a reversal from just a few days ago, when an NSA official said on Sunday that “Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon” and that the agency “is moving forward with his employment.”

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that Miller told the NSA’s director, Gen. Paul 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. Nakasone had also reportedly pushed back on Ellis’s selection.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had written to then-acting Pentagon chief Miller about her “deep concern about the irregularities involved in the selection of the General Counsel of the National Security Agency” and said that “I ask that you immediately cease plans to improperly install Michael Ellis as the new NSA General Counsel.”

She said she was also asking the Pentagon watchdog for “an investigation into the circumstances of the NSA General Counsel selection process” and told Miller that “I have serious concerns about your statement that this process was free from political interference.”

“The General Counsel of the Department of Defense is the sole selection authority for the position of General Counsel of the National Security Agency — as well as all other senior career DoD General Counsel positions. The director of the NSA does not select or approve of candidates for the position of the NSA General Counsel,” a Defense Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner on Sunday evening, adding, “to be clear, congressional or media interest in a particular hiring action are not justification under the merit system principles and process to delay placing a selected qualified individual in a position.”

The Pentagon spokesperson said, “A candidate for a career position is not automatically excluded from consideration due to ‘administration ties’ – as the two prior NSA Generals Counsel were not excluded from consideration and eventual selection due to their ‘administration ties.’ Once a candidate is selected through the merit system, given an offer, and meets the requirements to be entered into the position, if that entry does not happen it exposes the department, agency, and senior leadership to claims for a violation of the merit system principles and processes that are designed to protect the participants in such selections.”

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 Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who alerted Nunes in early 2017 that communications of Trump associates might have been intercepted during foreign surveillance.

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