The National Security Agency's move to install former GOP political operative and White House official Michael Ellis as the agency's top lawyer has raised concerns that President Trump is making one last effort to politicize the intelligence community before leaving office. 

“I think it's very clear this is a part of the administration's effort to embed people in the civil service who are political and partisan actors who don't belong there,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told “Face The Nation.”

Ellis's selection for general counsel after a civil service competition got a chilly reception from NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, who delayed his installation until an order from acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller this weekend, as my colleague Ellen Nakashima first reported

But President-elect Biden has many options at his disposal to remove him. 

Ellis, who has a long history with the Trump administration and its allies, is set to take up the post on Tuesday, just hours before Inauguration Day. Ellis served as chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) when he chaired the House Intelligence Committee. He also served as a senior official on Trump's National Security Council, where he tried to prevent a portion of former national security adviser John Bolton's book from publishing. 

Although removing civil servants from office is generally much more difficult than firing political appointees, it will be at the discretion of the Pentagon's general counsel or acting general counsel over what to do with Ellis, a former senior intelligence official told me. 

Ellis could theoretically be reassigned to another senior role in the Defense Department agencies as early as this week, said the former official, who spoke under condition of anonymity due to the political sensitivity of the situation. 

From Suzanne Spaulding, a former cybersecurity official at DHS during the Obama administration and current senior adviser at Center for Strategic and International Studies:

Ellis could also be fired if a new general counsel under Biden believes Ellis's installation violated the law or policies designed to prevent last-minute installations of political personnel into career positions, Susan Hennessey, a former lawyer in the NSA’s Office of General Counsel, told Ellen. The NSA general counsel is just one of two top legal roles in the intelligence community to not require Senate approval. (The other is the FBI general counsel.) 

“This is a transparent effort to subvert civil service rules,” Hennessey, now a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told Ellen. “No one could possibly defend this apparent hiring process as being free from impermissible political interference.” 

In order to challenge that removal, Ellis would have to show the selection process was regular, Hennessey told Ellen. 

More:

Potentially important details: “There also have been concerns about Ellis’s qualifications for the job, according to several people. One person said those issues included the possibility that he was chosen over candidates who scored higher during the interview process,” Ellen wrote. The Biden team is also reviewing its options for dealing with political appointees who have “burrowed” into career positions right before the change in administrations, she notes. 

Yet concerns that Ellis's position could seek to exploit classified intelligence for political reasons may be overblown. 

The general counsel of the NSA oversees some of the most sophisticated cybersecurity and surveillance-related legal work in the government. But the job lacks any classification powers and cannot initiate or terminate surveillance, the former intelligence official told me.

The effort is a coda to a presidency marked by the politicization of the intelligence community.

A report earlier this month by the ombudsman in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence accused the Trump administration of disrupting intelligence reports about the 2020 election over political interests, the New York Times reported

“Analysis on foreign election interference was delayed, distorted or obstructed out of concern over policymaker reactions or for political reasons,” noted the report sent to Congress.

The report refers to a year when both Trump loyalists Richard Grenell and John Ratcliffe served as acting and permanent directors of the agency despite concerns about their qualifications.

Trump has also quickly disposed of those who disagreed with his agenda — most recently the Homeland Security Department's top cybersecurity official Chris Krebs and a slew of his deputies

The keys

A Capitol rioter may have stolen an electronic device from Nancy Pelosi with intentions to sell to Russian intelligence. 

The claim was included in an affidavit against the Pennsylvania woman given to the FBI, Kyle Cheney at Politico reports. A witness claims to have seen Riley June Williams taking a laptop or hard drive and stated she planned to transfer the documents ton Russian foreign intelligence. 

The FBI is still investigating the case. Pelosi's office has only reported one laptop missing. The laptop was used for presentations, a staffer said. The U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia is investigating more than 100 cases related to the storming of the Capitol involving a range of charges.

Purges of extremists off mainstream social media sites are forcing law enforcement to monitor more fringe sites. 

It's making it more difficult to monitor extremists online ahead of Inauguration Day, Ellen Nakashima, Mark Berman and Matthew D. LaPlante report.

“The good news is for a moment it interrupts the conversation to a mass audience that seems to be growing,” said John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the New York Police Department, the largest metropolitan police force in the nation. “The bad news is they’re going to have to find another platform. And you’re going to have to find that platform to follow them.”

The most violent criminal activity is already organized on encrypted and closed chats, making it harder for law enforcement to survey, officials acknowledged. In that case, having undercover sources can be the best source of intelligence, former senior FBI counterterrorism analyst Javed Ali told my colleagues.

Rob Joyce will take over as cybersecurity director of the NSA.

Joyce will replace Anne Neuberger, who the Biden administration appointed deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology for the National Security Counsel, Shannon Vavra at CyberScoop reports. Joyce currently serves as the NSA's special liaison in the U.S. Embassy in London. He also as served in other cybersecurity roles at the NSA and on the NSC. 

The Trump administration is revoking licenses to sell Huawei. 

The sudden decision will stop shipments from Intel and other major suppliers, Karen Freifeld and Alexandra Alper at Reuters report

The Commerce Department will also reject dozens of pending applications for licenses to supply to the Chinese-owned telecommunications company. There are currently 150 licenses for more than $100 billion worth of sales in limbo at the Commerce agency.  

The Commerce Department added Huawei to its black list in May 2019 amid concerns that the Chinese company could be forced to share user data with the Chinese government. It set up a licensing system to approve some sales. 

Daybook

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host an event "Civics as a National Security Imperative: The Role of Technology" on Tuesday from 4:30-6:00pm.
  • Washington Post Live will host an event "New Government: The First 100 Days" featuring lawmakers, incoming Biden administration members and party leaders on Tuesday.

Secure log off

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who serves on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, describes preparation for an extraordinary Inauguration. (The Washington Post)