NSA places former GOP political operative in top lawyer position after Pentagon chief’s reported order
The National Security Agency (NSA) made a former GOP political operative its top lawyer just days before President Trump leaves office, reportedly following an order from acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
An NSA spokesperson confirmed that the agency was installing National Security Council (NSC) staffer Michael Ellis as the general counsel.
The Washington Post reported that Miller directed NSA Director Paul Nakasone to elevate Ellis to general counsel to do so by 6 p.m. Saturday.
“Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon,” an NSA spokesperson told The Hill in a Sunday statement. “NSA is moving forward with his employment.”
Pentagon General Counsel Paul Ney announced in November that Ellis would become the NSA general counsel, but he hadn’t started the job yet due to administrative procedures.
Ellis, a former chief counsel for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who later joined the White House, will start in the role on Tuesday, a source familiar told CNN.
The installation comes days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and will complicate the new administration’s potential efforts to immediately replace him, as the career civil service position makes it difficult for its occupant to be fired. But the incoming administration could reassign him to another position, The New York Times noted.
Sources told the Times and the Post that Nakasone was not supportive of Ellis’s appointment over other career officials at the agency.
The NSA director and others reportedly feared that the White House attempted to “burrow” Ellis into the job against a policy that prevents an administration from inputting a political operative in career civilian positions before a transfer of power.
But a U.S. official told the Post that the Office of Personnel Management told Nakasone that the policy did not apply to intelligence community employees.
A Defense Department spokesperson said the general counsel of the department operates as “the sole selection position” for the NSA’s general counsel.
“The Director of the NSA does not select or approve of candidates for the position of the NSA General Counsel,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“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,” the statement added.
“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,” it concluded.
When reached by phone, Ellis told the Post, “I don’t talk to the press, thank you,” and hung up.
Ellis, who joined the White House in 2017 and became a lawyer on the NSC in 2019, overruled an official’s decision to clear former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book for publication, according to the Times.