Report finds no flaws in hiring Trump loyalist as NSA’s top lawyer

WASHINGTON — A Pentagon inspector general’s report released Thursday concluded that there was no undue pressure from the Trump White House to appoint Michael J. Ellis to the sensitive post of General Counsel to National Security Agency just before President Donald J. Trump left office.

But the report also found that the NSA’s leadership acted appropriately by suspending Mr. Ellis just days after he was appointed as the agency’s top attorney over two “security incidents.” Three months later, he left the NSA. The Inspector General recommended reopening an investigation into Mr Ellis’ treatment of classified documents.

The review largely corroborated public coverage of Mr. Ellis’s hiring, noting that General Paul M. Nakasone, the director of the NSA, had reservations about whether Mr. Ellis was the best candidate and was hesitant to hire him. until he was directly instructed to do so by Christopher C. Miller, the acting Secretary of Defense at the time.

Mr. Ellis had been chosen over two other candidates by Paul C. Ney Jr., then General Counsel to the Department of Defense.

Mr. Ney vigorously defended his decision to hire Mr. Ellis with the Inspector General and denied that he was subject to any pressure from the White House.

According to the report, there were no other witnesses to indicate that they were under pressure from the White House at the time, and the inspector general who viewed Mr Ney’s emails also provided no evidence of a press campaign.

But two prominent White House attorneys have called Mr. Ellis recommended to Mr. Ney. John A. Eisenberg, the legal counsel to the National Security Council, said he spoke to Mr Ney two or three times about Mr Ellis’ qualifications.

Pat A. Cipollone, who served as a White House adviser in Trump’s White House, had also asked Mr. Ney if he had chosen anyone for the NSA job, saying, “Michael is a great guy.” Mr Ney said there was no impropriety in the comment.

“I don’t feel any pressure from them and I don’t feel it, and I don’t infer anything from them that Michael Ellis is a good lawyer, he’s a good guy, he’d be great,” Mr Ney was quoted as saying in the report. said.

General Nakasone had expressed doubts about Mr Ellis’s ability to lead a team of 100 lawyers and disliked how he had handled the classification review of a book by John R. Bolton, a former national security adviser. In August 2020, he told Mr Ney that he preferred another candidate and asked him to postpone his decision until after the November election.

After the election, the process to hire Mr. Ellis began. But in January, a senior NSA official learned about an episode in which Mr. Ellis was accused of failing to return a classified document to the NSA and sharing it with a State Department official.

General Nakasone interrupted the recruitment process on January 15, but the same day, Mr. Miller him to Mr. to hire Ellis, which he did the next day.

On January 17, General Nakasone’s deputy informed him of the security incidents in which Mr. Ellis allegedly mishandled classified information. Three days later, on the day of President Biden’s inauguration, General Nakasone placed Mr. Ellis on leave and informed Ezra Cohen, then the acting Deputy Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, of the decision.

Mr. Ellis resigned on April 16 and the NSA dropped its investigation into his handling of the classified documents.

The Inspector General said the security investigation was sufficient reason for General Nakasone to call Mr. Ellis was put on leave but was critical of the agency for failing to complete the safety review. Because Mr. Ellis serves in the Marine Reserve, the Inspector General recommended a new assessment by the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security.

An NSA spokesperson said the agency was cooperating with the inspector general’s investigation.

A request for comment from Mr. Ellis to the Heritage Foundation, where he is a fellow, was not immediately answered.

But mr. Cohen was critical of the security investigation, saying it should have been resolved before Mr. Ellis resigned.

“Unfortunately, this is yet another example of a flawed approval process where federal employees and military members are held in inexplicably long periods of uncertainty without adequate process rights,” Mr. Cohen said.

Adam Goldman in Washington contributed reporting

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