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Watchdog finds Pentagon appropriately sidelined Trump appointee to key National Security Agency job after alleged security incidents

<i>PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Michael Ellis
Michael Ellis

By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

Michael Ellis, who was installed as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency during President Donald Trump’s final days in office, was appropriately sidelined the day after his arrival at the agency based on a pair of security incidents that took place in early 2021, the Defense Department inspector general found in a report released on Thursday.

The investigation also found that the Pentagon’s selection of Ellis for the role was appropriate and carried out without political influence.

The two security incidents took place after Ellis’ hiring in the fall of 2020, but before he started work on January 19, according to the report. NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone placed him on administrative leave on January 20, the day President Joe Biden was inaugurated.

“I learned … that we had questions about the way that Mr. Ellis had handled our most sensitive intelligence that deals with a foreign actor when he was in the White House,” Nakasone told investigators. “I have (a general counsel) that I’ve said is okay to be hired, now we have concerns about his clearance. We have concerns about merit. We have concerns about an ongoing inquiry by the (Pentagon inspector general). And so, my sense was … let’s get this all resolved… before he actually becomes the General Counsel for the National Security Agency.”

Because Ellis resigned from the NSA in April but remains a Naval reservist, the inspector general recommended that the Pentagon’s top intelligence policy office investigate his handling of classified information.

As described in the report, in the first incident, Ellis allegedly “created or directed the copying” of a notebook of classified NSA information without the agency’s “knowledge, consent, or control,” according to the report. The NSA first learned of the matter when an employee received a copy of the notebook from a State Department official who was not authorized to access the information it contained.

The report also described a second incident, in which an NSA employee tried to retrieve a NSA document from Ellis related to an NSA program “of some of the most sensitive information that NSA possesses.” The report says Ellis reportedly refused to return the document and instead retained it for White House archives, and that the unnamed NSA employee also saw Ellis place the document in a storage container that didn’t meet the security requirements for such a sensitive program. The document was ultimately returned to the NSA on Jan. 14, just days before Biden’s inauguration.

“I am pleased that the DoD Inspector General validated my selection as NSA General Counsel,” Ellis said in a brief statement that did not address the alleged security incidents. “National security professionals should be allowed to serve based on qualification without regard to personal politics or party.”

In an internal memorandum written at the time, Nakasone attributed putting Ellis on leave to the pending inspector general investigation into his hiring. The inspector general determined that “was not a valid reason to place Mr. Ellis on administrative leave because there was no allegation against Mr. Ellis regarding his selection as the NSA GC.” But, the report reads, “we also determined that the security inquiry was a sufficient reason for GEN Nakasone’s decision to place Mr. Ellis on administrative leave.”

Reporting from The Washington Post suggested at the time that he was chosen for the post as a result of political pressure from the White House, sparking a series of congressional inquiries into the matter.

The report shows that Nakasone was displeased by Ellis’ selection, but he did not have ultimate hiring authority and was ultimately overruled. “None of the witnesses involved in reviewing applicants, evaluating and interviewing candidates, or processing the hiring action indicated that they were under any pressure by the former White House administration or anyone else to select Mr. Ellis,” the report found.

Further, investigators found that Ellis’ application for the post was evaluated by eight DOD officials and in the second level of review, all of the officials responsible for reviewing it placed him in the top three of 29 total applicants.

“We conclude there was no improper influence or failure to comply with DoD guidance in the process and decision to select Mr. Ellis as the NSA GC,” the report found.

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