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No wrongdoing found in security agency hire

by JULIAN E. BARNES THE NEW YORK TIMES | October 23, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

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

But the report also found that the NSA's leadership acted appropriately in suspending Ellis days after he had been installed as the agency's top lawyer because of two "security incidents." He left the NSA three months later. The inspector general recommended reopening an investigation into Ellis' handling of classified documents.

The review largely confirmed the public reporting surrounding Ellis' hiring, noting that Gen. Paul Nakasone, the NSA director, had reservations about whether Ellis was the best candidate and balked at appointing him until directly ordered to do so by Christopher Miller, the acting secretary of defense at the time.

Ellis had been chosen by Paul Ney Jr., the Defense Department's general counsel at the time, over two other candidates.

Ney defended his decision to hire Ellis to the inspector general, and denied that he had been subjected to any pressure from the White House.

The report said no other witnesses indicated that they had been under White House pressure at the time, and the inspector general's review of Ney's emails also did not turn up any evidence of a pressure campaign.

But two senior White House lawyers recommended Ellis to Ney. John Eisenberg, the National Security Council's legal adviser, said he spoke to Ney two or three times about Ellis' qualifications.

Pat Cipollone, who served as White House counsel in the Trump White House, also had asked Ney if he had chosen someone for the NSA job and said "Michael's a great guy." Ney said there was no impropriety in the comment.

Nakasone had raised doubts about Ellis' ability to lead a team of 100 lawyers and did not like how he had handled the classification review of a book by John Bolton, a former national security adviser. In August 2020, he told Ney he preferred another candidate and asked him to defer his decision until after the election in November.

After the election, the process to hire Ellis began. But in January, a senior NSA official learned about an episode in which Ellis was accused of not returning a classified document to the NSA and sharing it with a State Department official.

Nakasone paused the hiring process Jan. 15, but the same day Miller ordered him to hire Ellis, which he did the next day.

On Jan. 17, Nakasone's deputy briefed him on the security incidents involving Ellis' purported mishandling of classified information. Three days later, on the day of President Joe Biden's inauguration, Nakasone placed Ellis on leave, notifying Ezra Cohen, then the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, of the decision.

Ellis resigned from his position April 16, and the NSA dropped its inquiry into his handling of the classified documents.

The inspector general said the security inquiry was sufficient cause for Nakasone to put Ellis on leave but was critical of the agency for failing to complete the security review. Because Ellis serves in the Navy Reserve, the inspector general recommended a new review by the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security.

A spokesperson for the NSA said the agency cooperated with the inspector general's investigation.

Ellis said he was pleased that the inspector general had found no wrongdoing by the Pentagon and "validated my selection as NSA general counsel."

Print Headline: No wrongdoing found in security agency hire

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