Pentagon watchdog finds NSA properly sidelined GOP operative hired as top lawyer

The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the National Security Agency (NSA) properly sidelined a GOP operative that was hired as the agency’s top lawyer amid an investigation into security incidents.

Michael Ellis was hired in November to serve as the NSA’s General Counsel but was installed in the final days of the Trump administration in January. Ellis was placed on leave the day Trump left office due to the NSA’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding his hiring and his handling of classified information.

Ellis resigned in April, and the NSA dropped its inquiry.  

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In a 35-page report released Thursday, the OIG found that there was no “improper influence” when Ellis was chosen for the role.

However, “we also determined that the security inquiry was a sufficient reason for [NSA Director Gen. Paul] Nakasone’s decision to place Mr. Ellis on administrative leave,” the report says.

Ellis had previously served as chief of staff to Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesProposed California maps put incumbents in jeopardy Devin Nunes's family ordered to reveal who is paying for defamation lawsuit Three key behind-the-scenes figures in Jan. 6 probe MORE (R-Calif.) before joining the White House as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council. He is currently a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

The report detailed two security incidents that occurred earlier in the month before Ellis was placed on leave.

In one incident, Ellis either “created or directed the copying” of a classified NSA notebook. An NSA employee received a copy from a State Department official who was not authorized to have the information, and further review found that several copies had been produced.

In the second incident, an NSA employee tried to get a document from Ellis that contained “some of the most sensitive information that NSA possesses.”

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Ellis retained the document for the White House archives and placed it in a container that did not meet proper security requirements for the sensitivity of the program. The document was later returned on Jan. 14.

Nakasone placed Ellis on leave on Jan. 20, citing both the incidents and the circumstances surrounding Ellis’s hiring. Multiple news outlets at the time reported that the White House had pressured the NSA to hire Ellis, leading to bipartisan Congressional inquiries.

The OIG said that eight Pentagon officials evaluated Ellis in three levels of review, none of which told the watchdog that felt pressure from the White House.

NSA to The Hill that they welcomed the "oversight and accountability" from the inspector general

"NSA welcomes the oversight and accountability from the DoD IG on this matter and others. We cooperated fully throughout the process of this investigation and welcome the review offered. For questions on the background, process, and findings of this report, we'd refer you to the DoD IG themselves."

Updated at 2:59 p.m.