Trump loyalist to be installed as NSA's top lawyer

Martin Matishak
·2 min read

A former Republican operative and Trump loyalist will be installed as the NSA‘s top lawyer and will probably start work the day before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, a U.S. official said on Sunday.

The NSA announced earlier in the day that it was “moving forward” to install Michael Ellis as the agency’s general counsel. The announcement came one day after it was reported that acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller had ordered the NSA’s director, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, to install Michael Ellis in the position of the agency’s general counsel.

“Mr. Ellis accepted his final job offer yesterday afternoon,” the NSA said. The agency “is moving forward with his employment.”

Ellis, who worked as a lawyer for the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, was selected for the post in November by the Pentagon’s general counsel. He served as a National Security Council lawyer and most recently as its senior director for intelligence.

He was also one of two White House aides who in 2017 assisted Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of President Donald Trump’s fiercest Capitol Hill allies, in gaining access to highly classified intelligence reports.

His selection to be NSA’s general counsel drew an outcry from national security experts and congressional Democrats, who viewed it as an effort to “burrow,” or convert a political appointee into a career position, at the country’s largest spy agency. Biden will be sworn into office on Wednesday.

Shortly after the announcement, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) — who this week will become the chairs of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, respectively — asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances surrounding Ellis’ selection.

His installation was opposed by Nakasone, who had hoped to delay it as long as possible, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity

Ellis’ installment creates a new headache for the incoming Biden administration. While the new administration could start the process of removing Ellis on day one, it’s unlikely he can be immediately replaced.

As general counsel, Ellis will be one of the highest leaders, in terms of seniority, at the NSA.

But regulations surrounding the electronic spy agency move him several rungs down the chain of command.