Installing Trump Official As Top NSA Lawyer Shows ‘Disregard’ For NatSec, Pelosi Tells DOD

An aerial view of the US Cyber Command joint operations center on the NSA campus is seen on May 25, 2020, in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
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January 18, 2021 2:59 p.m.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Monday demanded that the Pentagon halt the installation of a White House official and Trump loyalist as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency. 

But the Pentagon has offered no such assurance. In a letter to Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, Pelosi said the last-minute onboarding of Michael Ellis as NSA’s general counsel reeked of politics. 

“The circumstances and timing – immediately after President Trump’s defeat in the election – of the selection of Mr. Ellis, and this eleventh-hour effort to push this placement in the last three days of this Administration are highly suspect,” she wrote. 

“Further, the efforts to install him or ‘burrow’ him into a highly sensitive intelligence position 72 hours prior to the beginning of a new Administration manifest a disturbing disregard for our national security.” 

“Therefore,” Pelosi said, “this placement should not move forward.”

Pelosi’s letter followed news that the acting Defense secretary himself had intervened in the process. 

Miller ordered NSA Director Paul Nakasone to install Ellis as NSA general counsel on Saturday, the Washington Post reported citing individuals familiar with the matter. The NSA subsequently said Sunday that it was “moving forward” with the hire, The Washington Post reported. 

Ellis — who served as Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) chief counsel when Nunes chaired the House Intelligence Committee — was one of three finalists for the job, though he did not receive the highest score from a panel evaluating candidates, the New York Times reported citing unnamed people familiar with the process.

He was selected for the position in November, following Trump’s electoral loss, but it has taken months for him to get through the NSA’s onboarding process.

In a statement to TPM, a Pentagon spokesperson said the Defense Department does not comment “on communication between Congress and DOD leadership.” 

But the spokesperson pointed to a prior statement on the Ellis news, which noted that the Department’s general counsel has selection authority for career general counsel positions. 

“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 argued. “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 Post reported several complicating factors: For one thing, Nakasone, the NSA director, was not in favor of Ellis’ hiring, despite directors traditionally having weighing in the position. Also, the Ellis selection came “under pressure from the White House,” in the Post’s words, citing unnamed people familiar with the matter who commented on the selection when it was first reported in November. 

Ellis is set to start work Tuesday, the day before Biden takes office. Pelosi also requested that the Pentagon’s inspector general investigate the hiring. 

“I have serious concerns about your statement that this process was free from political interference,” she wrote to Miller, describing a conversation the pair had on Sunday. 

The general counsel position is a career civil service job, rather than a political appointment, leading to concerns that Ellis’ hiring could be a harmful form of “burrowing” a Trump administration political hire into a sensitive position. 

Ellis could be fired by the Biden administration’s Pentagon general counsel, if that person determines that he was given his NSA job in violation of established hiring policies. Ellis could challenge such a firing, the Post noted, but the burden would be on him to prove his case. 

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