NSA quietly appoints new top lawyer
Martin Matishak June 13, 2022

NSA quietly appoints new top lawyer

NSA quietly appoints new top lawyer

The National Security Agency last month named a new top lawyer, quietly ending a hiring controversy that lasted well over a year and triggered an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

April Falcon Doss began work as the NSA’s general counsel on May 23, according to an agency spokesperson. She took over from acting general counsel Ariane Cerlenko, who served in the position since January 2021, the spokesperson said. Cerlenko will return to her previous post of NSA principal deputy general counsel.

“It’s the privilege of a lifetime to have been named General Counsel of the National Security Agency,” Doss wrote on Sunday in a LinkedIn post. “I’m deeply grateful to be working once again with brilliant colleagues who are dedicated to serving the nation.”

Doss spent roughly 13 years at the nation’s top electronic spy agency — most recently as an associate general counsel for intelligence law — before leaving in 2016 to join the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr. There she chaired the cybersecurity and privacy practice, her NSA biography states.

She left the firm after a year to serve as senior minority counsel on the Senate Intelligence Committee during its bipartisan probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Doss returned to Saul Ewing in 2018 but left again in 2021 to become the executive director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Technology Law and Policy.

A role in the spotlight

The selection of an NSA general counsel had — traditionally — been an uneventful affair. That was until November 2020 when Michael Ellis, then a White House political appointee, was named to the post. 

The appointment, which was opposed by U.S. Cyber Command and NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, prompted outrage from congressional Democrats and national security experts as an effort to “burrow,” or convert a political appointee into a career position, at the country’s largest spy agency during the final, chaotic days of the Trump administration.

Nakasone was eventually ordered by the acting defense secretary to install Ellis. 

However, the day after Ellis was sworn in — the same day Trump left the White House — Nakasone placed him on administrative leave, pending an inquiry by the Defense Department’s inspector general into the circumstances surrounding his hiring. 

Ellis resigned in April 2021. The results of the watchdog’s examination were released in October. It found “no improper influence” in Ellis’ hiring and that Nakasone acted “within his authority” when he placed the former GOP operative on administrative leave following two alleged security incidents.

In the aftermath, the NSA re-opened its search for a top lawyer a handful of times.

The episode also caused Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, where Ellis had worked as a lawyer before going to Trump’s National Security Council, to lose trust in Nakasone. 

GOP members on the panel used their time during two open hearings last year to grill Nakasone about the hiring process and for information on those who accused Ellis of mishandling classified documents — which the four-star refused to provide.

Two sources told The Record that the NSA didn’t announce or otherwise acknowledge Doss’ hiring, in part, out of concern that doing so would stir the hornet’s nest among Capitol Hill Republicans.

In December, Ellis was named general counsel at Rumble, a video and streaming service that has a partnership with Truth Social, Trump’s new social media platform.

Glenn Gerstell, who served as NSA’s top lawyer for five years before his retirement in 2020, called Doss a “terrific choice.”

“I know from our work together that she knows the intelligence laws inside and out,” he said in a statement, noting her time in private practice and policy expertise from her time at Georgetown.

“The NSA legal department is one of the top ones in the federal government — given the cutting edge nature of what they deal with — and she’s the right person to lead it,” according to Gerstell.

Martin is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication's cybersecurity newsletter.