In November, Pentagon General Counsel Paul C. Ney Jr. appointed then White House official Michael Ellis as General Counsel to the NSA, a civilian career position at the government’s largest and most technologically advanced spy agency, The Post reported. He was selected after a public service competition. However, he did not take up the position as he had to complete administrative procedures including a polygraph test.
Reached by phone on Saturday, Ellis said, “I’m not talking to the press, thank you” and hung up.
Miller gave NSA Director Paul Nakasone until 6:00 p.m. Saturday to install Ellis on the job, according to several people speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The 6 p.m. deadline passed without Nakasone taking any action. It was unclear on Saturday night what the Pentagon’s next move would be.
Nakasone was not in Ellis’ choice and has tried to delay its installation, according to several people.
Ellis’ designation, made under pressure from the White House, has been criticized by national security law experts. It appears “an attempt to inappropriately politicize an important career position,” wrote Susan Hennessey, a former attorney with the NSA Office of General Counsel, of Lawfare, where she is the editor-in-chief.
President-elect Joe Biden said on Dec. 28 that his transition team had encountered political obstacles from the Trump administration and labeled them irresponsible. (The Washington Post)
The move is worrying given that it comes four days before President Trump leaves office and takes over the Biden administration, former U.S. officials said. The move will make it difficult for the Biden government to replace him immediately, the former officials said.
“Such a move in the 11th hour and an order from the Acting Secretary of Defense are overwhelming evidence of irregularities,” Hennessey said on Saturday. “Unless the Acting Secretary of Defense can provide compelling reasons as to why this person needed to be installed now, it should be assumed that this is incorrect and the Biden team should remove this person on Day 1.”
There were also concerns about Ellis’ qualification for the job, according to several people. One person said these issues included the possibility that he was selected over candidates who scored higher during the interview process.
A US official backed off critics, saying the two former NSA attorneys general had ties to the Obama administration. Glenn Gerstell, who retired a year ago, raised $ 50,000 for the Obama campaign in 2012, he said. And Gerstell’s predecessor, Raj De, was White House Personnel Secretary in the Obama administration prior to his arrival at the NSA.
Nakasone and others, according to current and former officials, are concerned that the White House is trying to “dig” Ellis into the job, in violation of a longstanding policy of preventing political staff from embedding themselves into civilian career positions before moving becomes administration.
According to a US official, Nakasone recently orally warned the Office of Human Resources that the policy does not apply to intelligence workers. On Thursday, according to two officials, he requested a written legal opinion on the matter. He has not yet received this written statement, officials said.
Ellis previously served as chief attorney for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), A staunch Trump supporter and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Ellis joined the White House in 2017 when he became a lawyer on the National Security Council. In 2019 he was appointed Senior Director for Intelligence.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.