House GOP members are calling on the Pentagon’s watchdog to investigate the Biden administration’s decision to place the Trump administration’s pick for the top NSA lawyer job, Michael Ellis, on administrative leave, calling it political “retribution.”
Ellis, a former counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes, when the California Republican led the House Intelligence Committee, was named NSA general counsel, a career position, a few weeks after President Biden defeated former President Donald Trump, but the NSA’s leadership resisted letting him fill the role, and the Biden team blocked him on Inauguration Day.
Nunes, now the committee’s ranking member, was joined by fellow Republicans in sending a letter to NSA director Gen. Paul Nakasone, asking for answers about why he attempted to block Ellis and calling on the Defense Department to expand an inquiry into Ellis.
“The sad reality is that NSA — at the behest of elected Democrats and the leftist media — has politicized this career intelligence position,” the Republicans alleged on Tuesday. “We therefore demand that the DoD IG investigation be expanded to include the circumstances of Mr. Ellis’s placement on administrative leave, as well as any actions taken by you to avoid placing Mr. Ellis in his position. This retribution against President Biden’s perceived political enemies — and the real-world effects on professionals who continue to serve their country honorably — has no place in the United States of America.”
Ellis is a Yale Law School graduate and Naval Reserve intelligence officer, seen by many as a Trump ally, who previously served under National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg during the Ukraine impeachment fight and worked as the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs. He was picked to be the NSA’s general counsel after a yearlong selection process. Ellis, who was notably involved in the pre-publication review process of former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s memoir in 2020 and concluded the book contained classified information, joined the NSA amid a Pentagon shake-up. Republicans contended that “all indications show that the proper process was followed in Mr. Ellis’s case without regard to political considerations” and that “there is no indication of any improper influence.”
The GOP said the Pentagon inspector general is already believed to be focused on “the circumstances of Mr. Ellis’s appointment” and “alleged — but unspecified — mishandling of classified information” and argued that “this investigation (and the placement of Mr. Ellis on administrative leave) followed an intense pressure campaign by liberal commentators and elected Democrats to remove Mr. Ellis.”
An NSA spokesperson told the Washington Examiner on Jan. 20, “we don’t comment on personnel matters” — a reversal from a few days prior, when an NSA official said that Ellis “accepted his final job offer” and that the agency “is moving forward with his employment.”
Then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller reportedly told Nakasone to accept Ellis’s appointment after Nakasone sought to delay Ellis taking the job. Paul Ney, general counsel for the Defense Department, selected Ellis months ago.
The letter from Nunes, also sent to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and acting Pentagon inspector general Sean O’Donnell, was co-signed by Reps. Elise Stefanik, Ken Calvert, Michael Turner, Brad Wenstrup, Chris Stewart, Rick Crawford, Robert Aderholt, Mario Diaz-Balart, and John Carter.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had written to Miller about her “deep concern about the irregularities involved in the selection of the General Counsel of the National Security Agency” and said that “I ask that you immediately cease plans to improperly install Michael Ellis.” Pelosi claimed Ellis “was selected due to interference by the White House, and was chosen over much more qualified candidates.”
“The General Counsel of the Department of Defense is the sole selection authority for the position of General Counsel of the National Security Agency — as well as all other senior career DoD General Counsel positions,” a Defense Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner last month.
The Pentagon spokesperson added, “A candidate for a career position is not automatically excluded from consideration due to ‘administration ties’ – as the two prior NSA Generals Counsel were not excluded from consideration and eventual selection due to their ‘administration ties.’ 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.”
Rajesh De, who served as NSA general counsel from April 2012 through May 2015, had worked as deputy assistant to the president and then-White House staff secretary from early 2011 through April 2012 under President Barack Obama. Before that, he had worked as principal deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department and was named a volunteer member of Biden’s DOJ transition team in November.
Glenn Gerstell, who served as NSA’s top lawyer from 2015 until early 2020, bundled at least $50,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Gerstell was appointed by Obama to serve on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council beginning in 2011. He was among 50 former intelligence officials who signed a letter claiming the Hunter Biden laptop story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” Then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said, “There is no intelligence … that Hunter Biden’s laptop is part of some Russian disinformation campaign.”
Nunes and the others wrote that “the two individuals who served as NSA GC during the Obama Administration had nowhere near the level of intelligence experience Mr. Ellis does — but they both had strong Democratic political connections.” Republicans said that “given this history, the accusations that Mr. Ellis is a ‘political’ appointee are spurious and border on bad faith.”
GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent his own letter to Austin last week, tweeting that Ellis “is an immensely qualified professional” and that Pelosi’s efforts to remove him were “only meant to satisfy her personal vendetta against the Trump Admin.”
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