The acting secretary of defense is trying to install a Trump loyalist as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency, according to three sources familiar.
Christopher Miller, who just two days earlier said he couldn’t wait to leave his job, ordered the head of the NSA to install Michael Ellis as general counsel by 6 p.m., Saturday, but NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone did not act by the given deadline, leaving it unclear what Miller or the White House would do.
Ellis was first tapped for the position in early November, just two days after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election and in the midst of a political purge of different agencies, including the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon declined to comment. This story was first reported by the Washington Post.
But Ellis’ installation stalled, according to the Washington Post, because of administrative procedures, including the need for a polygraph test, leaving Miller to push for it in the waning days of Trump’s four years in office.
Within days of Ellis’ being picked for the job in November, which came shortly after President Donald Trump fired then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper via Twitter, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jack Reed requested an investigation from the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, saying in a letter, “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.”
Before joining the Trump administration, Ellis served as the head counsel to California Rep. Devin Nunes, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters. Ellis then became a lawyer with the National Security Council, refusing to testify as part of the House’s 2019 impeachment inquiry. In March 2020, Ellis became the senior director for intelligence on the NSC, joining other Trump loyalists in key intelligence positions.
But the attempt to shift Ellis to the NSA is different, because the general counsel at the country’s largest intelligence agency is a civil servant position, not a political appointee. This makes Ellis harder to fire once the Biden administration comes in, the sources said, adding that the strategy is called “burrowing.”
Ellis said, “I don’t talk to the press, thank you,” and hung up when reached by the Washington Post. CNN has been unable to reach Ellis.
Susan Hennessey, a former NSA attorney and CNN legal and national security analyst, ripped the decision to install Ellis in the Trump administration’s last weekend in power.
“At this point, no one should extend this selection process the benefit of the doubt. By all indication, the Trump admin is violating civil service rules and politicizing an apolitical role. If Ellis is installed tonight, Biden should remove him on Day One,” she wrote on Twitter.
The general counsel of the NSA is not a Senate-confirmed position, Hennessey explained on her Lawfare blog in November, which removes a step of Congressional oversight that exists for roles such as general counsel of the CIA, Pentagon, or Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The goal of this process was to remove any political bias in appointing a candidate to one of the key roles at the NSA.
“This is a really difficult, really important job and we have a process to ensure only qualified individuals are in the role *BECAUSE* it is necessary to the national security of the United States,” Hennessey wrote Saturday on Twitter.