Republicans won't let go of NSA lawyer controversy

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday vowed to press for additional details into the suspension of the NSA’s former top lawyer, despite a recent Pentagon watchdog investigation that found the spy agency’s leadership had acted appropriately in the matter.

The Defense Department inspector general last week released the results of its probe into the hiring, and subsequent benching, of Michael Ellis, a former Republican operative who was selected to be the NSA’s general counsel last fall. 

The probe found “no improper influence” in the decision to pick Ellis. It also concluded NSA chief Gen. Paul Nakasone was “within his authority” when he suspended Ellis days after he was installed in the post because of an agency investigation into two alleged “security incidents” that Ellis mishandled classified documents. Ellis resigned in April, the probe was wrapped before its completion. 

The episode had become a chief complaint among Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who earlier this year called on GOP members of the Intelligence panel to investigate it. For its part, the inspector general recommended reopening a probe into Ellis’s handling of classified information.

Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, used his time during an open hearing that was supposed to be devoted to diversity in the clandestine community to grill Nakasone about the IG report and the events involving Ellis, who used to work as a lawyer for the House panel and was an aide in the Trump White House at the time he was picked.

Nunes asked Nakasone to make public emails cited in the IG examination between the four-star and Paul Ney, then the Pentagon’s top attorney, where Nakasone expressed reservations about Ellis’ qualifications for the post. Ney wrote he considered some of Nakasone’s concerns as “inappropriately injecting partisan politics” into the matter.

Nakasone said he “certainly” would make the emails available and contended his concerns were due some of the nuances of the hiring process, not political considerations. He also repeatedly said he accepted the IG’s findings when pressed by Nunes.

“We know Democrats in Congress were pressuring you to oppose Ellis's hiring. And they got the DoD inspector general to open an investigation into it,” the California Republican said. “Did anyone from the Biden administration either incoming or that Inauguration Day pressure you to stop Ellis's hiring?”

Nunes specifically asked if Biden officials, such as current National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, spoke with Nakasone about Ellis. The four-star said no.

Nunes also asked who made the allegations about the two incidents involving Ellis, saying it was a “miraculous coincidence of timing” that they were brought up around the same time Nakasone had been ordered by DoD leadership to install Ellis.

Nakasone noted the allegations had been brought to the attention of his civilian deputy, George Barnes, and that he was not aware of their identity. Nunes asked for Barnes to provide that information to the panel.

“I would like to be able to talk with my counsel to make sure that that is something we can do,” Nakasone said.

Eight of the committee’s nine remaining GOP members chose to “associate” themselves with Nunes' remarks before largely turning to other topics not connected to the hearing, like the origin of Covid-19, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and border security. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) did not ask questions during the roughly three-hour session.

“I think it's very important that we get those answers,” Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said about Ellis.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said he wanted to “identify with the ranking member’s really legitimate and deep concerns regarding Mr. Ellison's and the situation that has been described.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), a former FBI special agent, also asked Nakasone for details about the accusers. 

“I cannot, congressman.”

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) closed the hearing by noting how much time had been devoted to Ellis, “which really has nothing to do with the subject matter of the hearing.”

“I do not associate myself with the marks of the ranking member. I think [Ellis] was a terrible choice of political and partisan choice for the serious position of general counsel at NSA,” Schiff said. “And I think the security issues classified information issues are serious. And I do not associate myself with any of the comments that have been made about Mr. Ellis by the members of the minority.”

Martin Matishak

Martin Matishak 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.

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