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Opinion How Kash Patel rose from obscure Hill staffer to key operative in Trump’s battle with the intelligence community

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), left, and National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism Kashyap P. "Kash" Patel listen as then-President Donald Trump makes a statement at the White House in October 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the Trump administration’s four-year battle with the intelligence community, a recurring character was a brash lawyer named Kashyap P. “Kash” Patel. He appeared so frequently, in so many incarnations, that he was almost a “Zelig” figure in President Donald Trump’s confrontation against what he imagined as the “deep state.”

Patel repeatedly pressed intelligence agencies to release secrets that, in his view, showed that the president was being persecuted unfairly by critics. Ironically, he is now facing Justice Department investigation for possible improper disclosure of classified information, according to two knowledgeable sources who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the probe. The sources said the investigation resulted from a complaint made this year by an intelligence agency, but wouldn’t provide additional details.

Patel didn’t respond to text, email and voice mail messages, or a request to talk at his residence. A lawyer described as representing him also did not respond.

While other Trump staffers, most prominently adviser Stephen Miller, became near-household names, Patel, now 41, flew largely beneath the radar during the Trump administration. In the span of four years, he rose from an obscure Hill staffer to become one of the most powerful players in the national security apparatus. The saga of his battles with the intelligence bureaucracy shows how the last administration empowered its lieutenants to challenge what it saw as the deep state.

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At the start of the Trump administration, Patel was senior counsel for Rep. Devin Nunes when the California Republican chaired the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 and 2018 and emerged as a leading critic of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia. Patel then joined Trump’s National Security Council staff as senior director for counterterrorism. In 2020, he was a senior adviser to acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell and his successor, John Ratcliffe, helping lead their efforts to remove senior career intelligence officers.

Patel’s most prominent role was his final job, as chief of staff for acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller in the administration’s last two months. In that position, according to sources close to events, he challenged the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, and very nearly became acting director of the CIA himself.

As with so many other still-mysterious aspects of the Trump presidency, there’s a riddle at the center of Patel’s many activities. Beyond the basic goal of advancing Trump’s personal agenda, was there a larger mission? Was there a systematic plan, for example, to gain control of the nation’s intelligence and military command centers as part of Trump’s effort to retain the presidency, despite his loss in the November 2020 election? Or was this a more capricious campaign driven by Trump’s personal pique and score-settling without a clear strategy?

Opinions about Patel differed among the dozen current and former senior officials who discussed his activities with me anonymously so that they could describe sensitive matters freely. One top Pentagon official saw Patel as a direct threat to lawful government and says he advised him of potential legal risks. But several others described him as an ambitious but clumsy bumbler. “Was this a Machiavellian master plan, or the Three Stooges?” asked one. Said another: “These guys were like kids in high school. They made snap decisions and spewed out directives without analysis to back them up.”

Patel’s story is an unlikely version of the American immigrants’ dream. He was born in 1980 in Long Island’s Garden City and attended public schools there. His family’s roots are in Gujarat, India, by way of East Africa. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond and a law degree from Pace University. After a stint as a public defender in Miami, he moved to the Justice Department in 2014, where he worked on national security cases. His Pentagon biography describes him as a “life-long ice hockey player, coach and fan.”

When Patel joined the House Intelligence Committee staff in 2017, he spearheaded then-Chairman Nunes’s efforts to challenge allegations that the Trump team had improper contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. In May 2017, for example, intelligence officials say Patel was involved in delivering subpoenas to the CIA, FBI and NSA asking whether Obama administration officials had ever requested “unmasking” of the names of Trump campaign officials who were picked up in communications intercepts. Democrats criticized the unusual direct requests to the agencies.

Patel made another surprising foray in July 2017, when he showed up in London at the office of former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who the previous year had provided the FBI with reports (financed in part by the Clinton campaign) on Trump’s alleged Russia links. When Patel didn’t find Steele at his own office, he went to the address of his lawyer, according to published reports, where he found the ex-spy but didn’t interview him. The quixotic hunt became known as “London Calling” within the House Intelligence Committee.

Patel sometimes hit pay dirt. He was the main author of a January 2018 House Intelligence Committee report recounting abuses by the FBI in its application for electronic surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Though Democrats at the time were reluctant to agree, facts that emerged later showed serious abuses in the Page investigation, and a former FBI lawyer pleaded guilty last year to falsifying information that was used to apply for warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In a March 2018 report for Nunes, Patel challenged the document that Trump supporters see as the deep state’s opening salvo against the former president, the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment alleging that Russia had tried to help his 2016 campaign. The classified evidence he gathered for Nunes showed a rushed investigation and “tradecraft failings,” Patel contended in an interview with Aaron Maté for RealClearInvestigations published on Feb. 25, one of the few interviews he has given. Many of his subsequent battles with the intelligence community were efforts to secure release of the March 2018 report.

Patel then moved to the NSC staff as senior director for counterterrorism, where he was active in the closing stages of the war against the Islamic State, including the pursuit of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in October 2019. But at the White House, the combative Patel was increasingly drawn into Trump’s battle against an intelligence community that the president had come to regard as an enemy.

The assault on the intelligence community escalated when Dan Coats was pressured into retiring as director of national intelligence in August 2019. Coats had disagreed with Trump about Russian election interference, North Korea and other subjects, and Trump aides had been speculating for months that he would be fired.

Rather than appoint Coats’s widely respected deputy, Sue Gordon, to succeed him, Trump chose as acting head Joseph Maguire, a former Navy SEAL and head of the National Counterterrorism Center. But Maguire was sacked in February 2020 after one of his deputies briefed the House Intelligence Committee on Russian election interference — drawing Trump’s wrath.

Former officials recall that Patel arrived at the DNI’s headquarters at Liberty Crossing, near Tysons Corner, Va., on Feb. 20, the day Maguire had been told to leave. He accompanied Grenell, the new acting DNI, but employees there say it was Patel, as a top adviser, who ran the place — and began a housecleaning. Deirdre Walsh, the chief operating officer, was ousted, along with Russell Travers, the acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

“Patel was the action officer. He made it happen,” recalled one former top intelligence official.

Ratcliffe replaced Grenell to become DNI in May 2020, with Patel remaining a key aide. With the November presidential election looming, Trump wanted the intelligence community under reliable political control. Through the summer and early fall, Ratcliffe and Patel pressed for declassification of Patel’s March 2018 report for Nunes, according to former and current officials, evidently believing it would exonerate Trump.

Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of Cyber Command and the NSA, argued that releasing some of the sensitive documents and depositions Patel had gathered would compromise intelligence sources and methods; so did FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

Anger toward Patel within the national security bureaucracy mounted after an Oct. 31, 2020, hostage rescue mission in Nigeria. The incident, never previously reported in detail, was described by four high-level sources.

It was a rescue mission that was nearly aborted partly because of inadequate coordination by Patel. SEAL Team Six had been assigned to rescue 27-year-old Philip Walton, a missionary’s son who had been kidnapped by gunmen in Niger, near the border with Nigeria. Patel, as a senior counterterrorism adviser, had assured colleagues that the mission had a green light, according to several sources. The SEALs were ready to parachute into the rescue site from high altitude (one source estimated 30,000 feet) when there was a last-minute hitch.

But as the SEALs were about to jump, military commanders and State Department officials realized that one necessary item hadn’t been completed: The Nigerian government hadn’t been informed prior to the operation inside their country, as required.

A frantic last-minute effort to obtain the necessary permission ensued. The SEAL team’s aircraft held over the target, flying in a racetrack pattern, for about 45 minutes while the State Department tried to locate a Nigerian national security official who could receive the official notice. Finally, just 15 minutes before the operational window closed, the Nigerians were given word, the SEALs parachuted down, and the hostage was rescued.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were angry that, in their view, Patel had prematurely said the operation was fully cleared, according to knowledgeable officials. One senior Pentagon official said he was “incensed” at Patel. A second senior Pentagon official described Patel’s actions as potentially “dangerous” for the SEALs.

The battle against the deep state continued, meanwhile. Patel kept pushing, along with DNI Ratcliffe, for declassification of memos challenging the origins of the Russia investigation. Nakasone strongly dissented, and Esper backed him up in an October letter to Ratcliffe “urging that the information not be released due to the harm it would do to national security, including specific harm to the military,” a senior defense official said. Haspel, too, strongly opposed release of the information. Their argument for protecting sensitive information was finally supported by Attorney General William P. Barr, and Trump backed away, a source close to the events said.

“I think there were people within the IC [Intelligence Community], at the heads of certain intelligence agencies, who did not want their tradecraft called out, even though it was during a former administration, because it doesn’t look good on the agency itself,” Patel said in the RealClearInvestigations interview.

But the military and intelligence officials who had resisted Trump were now White House targets, with Patel helping to lead the campaign. On Nov. 9, Trump fired Esper and installed Christopher C. Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center and a former Trump White House aide, as acting defense secretary. Patel was named his chief of staff.

A half-dozen officials say Miller was largely a figurehead and that Patel was the key civilian official at the Pentagon during the last two months of Trump’s presidency. Joining Patel in pressing Trump’s agenda was Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former Trump NSC aide who had been named acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

The Trump team’s moves appeared to Patel’s colleagues to be motivated partly by a desire to restrict the intelligence agencies’ power, and partly to deliver on Trump’s promise to end overseas wars. In mid-November, Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who was serving as a senior adviser to Miller, obtained Trump’s signature on an order withdrawing, by year’s end, all 4,500 U.S. troops then in Afghanistan. Patel handed the order to Milley, a Pentagon official remembered. The sudden-withdrawal proposal hadn’t been discussed with the military, and after Pentagon protests, it was quickly reversed by the White House. (Asked about the incident when I first reported it in March, Macgregor said he couldn’t comment.)

Miller and Patel were more successful with a Dec. 4 order to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia. Despite speculation in the military that well-paid mercenaries might take over that mission, that decision more likely was a chance to grab what one knowledgeable official describes as “low-hanging fruit” in Trump’s push to bring troops home. Unlike deployments in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Somalia mission had few vocal defenders.

The Trump team’s long-standing friction with the CIA surfaced in an early December letter from Miller to Haspel warning that the Pentagon planned to halt support for the CIA’s Special Activities Center, which for its paramilitary missions often uses Special Operations forces that are redesignated, sometimes for multiyear tours, as intelligence rather than military personnel. A senior Pentagon official described Miller’s proposal as “vindictive.” The Pentagon reviewed it, but no action was taken before Miller and Patel departed on Jan. 20.

Nakasone and the NSA were the next targets. Miller, Patel and Cohen-Watnick proposed to Milley that Nakasone’s so-called dual-hatted authority over both NSA and Cyber Command be separated, and that he retain only the military command. Milley pushed back hard, and so did Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who wrote to Miller and Milley: “I remind you that any action to terminate the dual-hat relationship with NSA and Cyber Command is not only inadvisable but is contrary to law.”

The final chapter in this strange saga was Trump’s brief effort in December to remove Haspel at CIA and replace her with Patel. Haspel’s apparent crime was that for months she had been resisting efforts by Trump and Patel to declassify the information he had gathered for Nunes back in the 2018 report. Patel told RealClearInvestigations that Haspel had personally “thwarted” this push for disclosure of the report he had prepared for Nunes. “The CIA has possession of it, and POTUS chose not to put it out,” Patel said.

An account of the final campaign to oust Haspel was compiled from several sources with close knowledge of events.

Patel was traveling in Asia with Miller when he was abruptly recalled to Washington on Dec. 8. Rumors were flying that he was being considered as a possible replacement for Wray at FBI or Haspel at CIA. On Dec. 12, while Trump was attending the Army-Navy football game, he discussed with top aides a sensitive future assignment for Patel, one person recalled.

Trump’s plan unfolded days later when Haspel visited the White House to attend the president’s daily intelligence briefing. After the briefing, she was approached by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who told her that Trump intended to fire CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop and install Patel in his place.

Haspel balked. She said that she would resign rather than accept Patel as her deputy. She said she would like to deliver her resignation directly to the president. Meadows disappeared and returned a few minutes later to say that the president had changed his mind: Bishop wouldn’t be fired; Patel wouldn’t be sent to the agency; Haspel would remain as director.

Reviewing this long, tangled tale, three themes stand out. The first is that Patel was an important, if largely invisible, operative in Trump’s efforts to control the intelligence community, in an escalating series of moves from 2017 to 2020. The second is Trump’s campaign to redirect intelligence agencies, backed by Patel, was thwarted by a group of senior administration officials — a group that included, at various times, Milley, Esper, Haspel, Barr, Pompeo, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and, at the very end, Meadows.

The third takeaway is the most perplexing and, in an odd way, reassuring. The truth is that for all the roadblocks these aides put in Trump’s way, he had the authority as commander in chief to do what he wanted in national security: declassify and release documents, hire and fire people, direct agencies to take actions he wanted. Facing resistance from courageous officials who sought to protect the government, Trump in many cases simply backed down.

As bad as this story was, in other words, it could have been much worse.

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